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Cities Could Be the Key to Better Digital Governance

Cities and the internet have much in common. Our personal and professional lives take place across their sprawling landscapes. They are environments in which we live, love, work, buy, sell, play, learn and raise our children. And, at their best, cities and the internet are vibrant places shaped collectively by the aspirations and actions of the many people who live within them.

Yet, there is an important difference beyond the fact that one is physical and the other is digital: most cities are carefully governed to ensure they stay vibrant and healthy. The internet is not.

I believe that cities have something important to teach us about healthy internet governance -- and maybe even a role to play in doing the governing.

Over the last 100 years, most cities have become skilled at taxing, regulating, planning and building things. They balance the creativity that flows from private actions (building a house, opening a store, organizing a concert) with the stability and collective good that flows from public actions (we have clean water to drink, people can get around easily, buildings don’t fall down). A city that strikes this balance well is a city that is alive. People want to live there.

In contrast, the internet has gone mostly unregulated over the 25 years since it began its meteoric rise. Of course, this has allowed private actions -- from the writing of bloggers to the app building of tech companies -- to build out a global communications system used by half of humanity. This is a good thing. However, the lack of regulation has meant public interests like privacy, shared infrastructure and open markets have been left by the wayside. These things are now creating widespread problems in societies around the world.

Which brings us to the question that many people are asking these days: how do we want to govern the internet? And how do we preserve its vibrant commercial and civic life while also making sure it serves our collective interests as we do so? Most look to nations and international bodies for answers. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, they have made little progress.

Watching the Sidewalk Toronto file unfold, I have started to flip this question on its head. What it we governed the digital realm more like we govern cities? And, what if major cities stepped up to set the rules of the road for big tech companies who provide services to their citizens?

As I’ve dug into this question, I’ve come up with at least three reasons that cities should play a stronger -- and more skilled -- role in governing the internet.

They have to. We live in two intertwined environments today, the physical and the digital. Our urban lives now have a digital layer, a layer that is getting thicker and thicker. City governments need to set the rules of the road not only for the Ubers, Airbnbs, Zipcars and Sidewalk Labs of the world, but also for all of the old school condo and mall developers that are increasingly weaving sensors and data into what they build.

  • They know how to shape what actually gets built. Cities deal with developers all the time, working through plans to balance private and public interest. And, when something needs to be built by and for the public -- like a subway -- they build it directly.

  • They play the same role in shaping the technology that is being woven into our urban fabric, making it more likely that the digital layers of our cities benefit everyone.

  • They can build new norms for the internet as a whole. If the world’s biggest cities demand that companies work with citizen run data trusts or that ride sharing data is shared with government for public benefit, these practices are likely to become norms. Tech companies want to implement standardized systems. Cities could have a strong influence on standards as they approve ‘what gets built’. These standards would likely spread widely into all of the products and services they leverage.

Of course, cities will need conviction and skill if they want to take on these roles. Most aren’t equipped to do this today. We see a few examples of this conviction in initiatives like the Cities for Digital Rights Declaration, which calls for things like privacy, transparency and inclusion. And you see some of the necessary skill from innovative city CIOs and CTOs, like Barcelona’s Francesca Bria. Yet, these examples are small and rare.

Which brings us back to Toronto.

Whether our remaining waterfront is developed by Sidewalk Labs or someone else, it is clear that sensors and data collection will be part of the package. They already are in a handful of other developments. We urgently need to up our ‘digital urban planning’ game -- and we have a chance to shape how to do so.

There are two concrete things we should do immediately to move down this path. The first is to adopt a set of made-in-Toronto data governance principles like the ones proposed by Joe Cressy and others. The second is to hire a visionary young CIO or CTO who is empowered to shape and implement digital governance for Toronto. Toronto should do these things now.

Of course, figuring out how to do internet governance well -- at the city level and anywhere else -- will take time. And, importantly, will take democracy, experimentation and the involvement of real people who live inside our cities, and our internet. I’m hopeful that cities, including Toronto, can play a central role in making this go well.