Atlantic Cities

Can You Build a Tech Ecosystem in a City with a Huge Digital Divide?

It's temping when talking about tech ecoysystems to focus on the early adopters in a city, the tech-savvy young professionals who live their lives online, who know what's coming in gadgets and apps and digital ideas before any of the rest of us do. They're the ones who will launch companies and create markets (and make money). And cities are famously fighting for their attention.

We spend considerably less time talking about the impact of an increasingly technological world on those people who have no access it. And yet, it's hard to imagine any city truly thriving as a tech center when so many of its citizens lack basic access to computers and WiFi.

"We must refuse to accept a growing technological gap between children who will compete in the global economy, and those who – not by their choosing – will watch the world pass them by," Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said this morning at The Atlantic's Startup City: Miami event in Miami Beach. "This is the first generation growing up in a world where computers are common place. There must be access to the benefits of technology regardless of your social standing."

The challenge of closing the digital divide poses an interesting question for cities everywhere simultaneously vying to become tech hubs: Can you really build one in a city with a yawning digital divide? Conversely, how do you leverage high-tech companies and entrepreneurs – once you have them in town, that is – to spread the advantages of technology more widely?

Atlantic colleague Alexis Madrigal tried to explore this second question in Pittsburgh last year. "The biggest challenge facing Pittsburgh isn't how to make a vibrant start-up scene (though that's not easy either)," he wrote, "but how do you make one whose benefits extend beyond the edges of the start-up bubble?"

In fact, we don't know much about the answer to that question. But it would be a good one to spend more time investigating going forward in cities like Miami. As Madrigal put it:

Perhaps it is too much to ask of a single industry that it create stability for an entire region. And that's fair. But in city after city, we've found that entrepreneurship has become a central tenet of local economic policy. And yet the literature on how startups can grow a local economy is skimpy. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen, but simply that there aren't a lot of good studies showing precisely how this is all supposed to work.

Keywords: Miami, Startups, Technology

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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