Three impact areas for a better South Florida: Civic engagement, smart cities, and digital transformation

By Livio Zanardo

This is the second of three articles in a series about Public Interest Technology by Code For South Florida Co-Director Livio A. Zanardo. The first is highlighting the departure of the organization’s Director Gregory Johnson for a data governance venture (read it here), the second posits a theory of change for a stronger South Florida through Community Driven Public Interest Technology, and the third explores the opportunity of a civically engaged technology workforce for South Florida.

With the Technology boom taking place in South Florida, the region has never been more enthusiastic over the local industry. High growth startups, powerhouse founders, and bullish venture capitalists are flooding the market rushing for digital gold, bringing with them talent networks, institutional capital, and the promise of massive digital transformation. 

In this pivotal moment, it is no surprise that prominent figures like Shu Nyatta of Softbank are comparing the future Miami not with its big American counterparts like New York or San Francisco, but with international mega cities like Dubai or Singapore. Though they all share a skyline view with bustling skyscrapers surrounded by water with outlandish yachts surfing the waters on the canvas of a booming economy, it’s going to take a lot more than market-driven initiatives to build the mega city of the future on our concrete swamp.

What South Florida needs to raise the floor for all South Florida citizens - not just the players in the technology space - is an ecosystem of Public Interest Technology dedicated to solutions that improve delivery of public services, enhance access to public domain data and services, and create and support new avenues of civic engagement among private citizens and social institutions like government and nonprofits.

Code For South Florida has been leading Public Interest Technology in the region. The organization’s various initiatives launched in 2021 came with multiple breakthroughs for community-driven approaches to address civic issues through technology. The organization’s work brought $1.5 million dollars to Florida taxpayers through GetYourRefund.org, launched the first searchable database for police complaints in Miami as Badgewatch.org, and piloting the City’s first Air Quality Sensor fleet under LocalAir.org. In order to scale the efforts of Public Interest Technology in the region, the organization has developed a three-pronged framework for Community-Driven Public Interest Technology.

The first prong of the framework is Civic Engagement. Designers, Engineers, and Ambassadors must engage with local communities to bring their industry experience and professional skills to discover, develop, and report on issues for public concern. We call these Technologists working in the name of public interest “Civic Hackers” or “Civic Technologists.”  By training the abundant technology talent  in South Florida in Civic Hacking and fostering opportunities for community engagement,  the ecosystem will discover solutions at the intersection of government, private sector, and non-profit organizations that conventional market-driven approaches championed by conventional startup methodologies cannot. 

The second prong is Smart Cities. Local governments and Civic Hackers must work together to develop a public open data layer that will enable continuous discovery, research, and development of solutions for the public interest. Entrepreneurs and researchers can also engage with this data layer for their individual uses, enabling a new avenue for autonomous discovery to local or regional challenges across different industries and impact areas. While integrated technology solutions in the public sphere are a slower process, Civic Hackers working autonomously can build bridges to new impact opportunities or validate existing use cases of public data.

The third prong is Digital Transformation. While Civic Hackers must design and develop solutions that connect with or advance Smart Cities through open data layers, we need institutions dedicated to supporting the continuous and sustainable transformation of our cities and our governments for public benefit. These institutions and their means of supporting Digital Transformation can include but are not limited to expanding funding for technology projects focused on social impact, establishing working groups and collaboratives of Civic Hackers and related agencies for localized impact, and expanding advocacy through digital storytelling and journalism on Public Interest Technology in the region.

Through Civic Engagement of Technologists for Smart City solutions, we can ensure a sustainable and inclusive Digital Transformation of South Florida. Market-driven economies have created unprecedented value through their focus on reducing costs and maximizing profits on human capital, but the future cannot be written or sustained in term sheets alone. The future will be defined on how we raise the floor for the most common denominator of every civilization - the quality of life of the common citizen. Community Driven Public Interest Technology offers an alternative to value creation where high growth free market solutions often fail. 

For technologists, civic leaders, and social entrepreneurs who wish to expand Public Interest Technology in the region, Code For South Florida is  exploring workforce development opportunities to create a civically engaged workforce of Designers, Engineers, and Ambassadors who will champion this three-pronged framework for Community Driven Public Interest Technology and create a new standard for technology across all of South Florida’s services and sectors, far beyond the reach of market-driven paradigms.

Livio Zanardo