Technology Wars Yield Efficiencies for Cities

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Pick up nearly any magazine devoted to business, finance, technology or consumers and you will learn the details of the war being waged by corporate kingpins Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook. Ostensibly this competition is supposed to be good for the average consumer whether individual or corporate. This assumes of course that the average consumer is actually using the various technologies and/or services and that they are truly ready to take advantage of the advances born of this competition.

Alas, there is a risk that those who are slow to adopt and adapt technology will be left clinging to obsolete devices, networks and behaviors preventing them from reaping the fruits of competition. Among this group of laggards I count this author and many, many city governments.

This particular corporate slug-fest is not like those that led to airline or bank consolidations or even to software and telecommunications mergers. No, these four companies intrude into our daily lives in monumental ways. Seventy percent of our Internet searches go through Google. On any given day, Apple is the first or second most valuable company on the planet. Facebook has over 800 million users in a world of 7 billion people. Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer with over $34 billion in annual revenue in 2010.

You can dissect the battle and argue over the various advantages or disadvantages of each company. That discussion takes you to devices, server networks, clouds, consumer preferences, algorithms, market penetration, cash reserves, IPO’s, and the accumulated smartness of guys named Bezos, Zuckerberg, Page and Cook.

While that may be interesting to many, what is more compelling is how the public sector will evolve and adapt to this fast-changing environment of technological nirvana. Fortunately, even for technological underachievers, (again, this author) there are some simple manipulations of existing technology that can be applied more aggressively in cities.

Social networks like Facebook are the single most valuable tool to engage citizens in public decision making. Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a great example of how a city used crowd sourcing techniques to support community projects. Secure payment software such as Pay Pal, Wallet or Card Case can help make city websites transactional for everything from building permits to property taxes. Smartphone apps are designed to improve efficiency and speed up access to information. They are as useful to the city employee in the field as they are to the corporate executive or the overscheduled teenager.

As noted in the November issue of Fast Company, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon are the four American companies “that define 21st century information technology and entertainment.” The spin-offs from the head-to-head competition between these firms will undoubtedly help severely strained local governments find ways to economize and innovate, so long as these governments still have the capacity to recognize the technological opportunities waiting to be grasped.