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  • Writer's pictureDonna Holmqvist, AICP/PP

City Planning Roadmap - Post Covid 19 Digital Infrastructure for Economic Recovery

Our cities require an economic recovery plan for social equity, empowered by a digitally literate workforce. In less than two months, the Covid 19 pandemic has inflicted a disproportionate loss of human life among people of color, and created the most far reaching economic disruption in American history. This turmoil coincides with an acute need to build a diverse workforce to grow our digital economy. We can’t afford to ignore the call to action and here’s why:

Starting Point. Children are our nation’s future workforce. However, 11.9 million children are living in poverty in America today. There are astounding percentages of impoverished children in America’s cities. For example, 44% of all children in Newark, NJ live in poverty, and, even worse, in Detroit, MI the figure is a staggering 57.3%. Many live in working families. More reprehensible, is that in 1964, 23% of American children were in poverty, while after more than five decades, the figure now stands at 16%. The failure in progress is glaring when contrasted to historic stock market increases, and other wealth measures in our country. Clearly, we have not invested properly in our collective future, but we can change that.

Digital Economy. The Internet of Things started in 1999, and was built using wireless communication and chip technology. It accelerated with broadband and wireless connectivity to create our digital economy. As a result, our economic national security relies upon a network of connected devices exchanging data. Economic wealth is derived from data orchestration, extraction and analysis.

As of 2019, the digital economy comprised 6.9% of GDP, representing $1.35 trillion. It consists of processing infrastructure, ecommerce transactions, digital media, entertainment apps, smart mobility, smart wearables, ehealth, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Average wages in the digital economy are double that of other sectors. However, digital literacy is a prerequisite for entry into the digital economy. The digital divide is a systemic barrier to social equity, and, ultimately, will impact our long term economic recovery post Covid 19.

Digital Divide. The Covid 19 pandemic has exposed our failure to prepare our cities, and impoverished children, to participate in economic recovery. The closure of schools, and abrupt shift to online learning, left at risk children in our cities without the computer technology and broadband access necessary for online learning. Nationally, only about half of households with income less than $25,000, own a desktop or laptop computer. In contrast, over 90% of households with an income over $100,000 own these essential devices. A similar income sensitive relationship exists for smartphones, tablets and internet/broadband subscription. Our cities must surmount the digital divide to prosper long term.

Bridging the digital divide requires comprehensive planning to provide households with impoverished children the following essential components for digital literacy: 1) affordable and reliable broadband internet service, 2) internet enabled desktops/laptops, 3) access to digital literacy education/training, 4) technical support and, 4) educational content to foster self-sufficiency, entrepreneurship, digital skills mastery and collaboration.

Digital Workforce. Infrastructure to close the digital divide will develop the skilled workforce American cities need to ensure long term economic recovery. The digital economy replaces low skilled jobs with digitally literate ones, and requires societal investment in the necessary infrastructure to create a skilled labor force. Unfortunately, our current system has failed to make the necessary investment, leaving many of our cities without digitally literate workers. We need to make up for lost time.

Trending Patterns. In March 2020, there were 16 million self employed Americans and small business was a sizable portion of the digital economy. Digital literacy frees workers to operate remotely and advances entrepreneurship. In just a few weeks, the Covid 19 pandemic disruption ramped up remote work from 4% of the workforce, to over 30%. These trends will continue post pandemic and will impact cities.

Resilient cities rely on the combined efforts of government and the private sector. A shortage of skilled workers for the digital economy could create lost economic output of $1 trillion by 2029. We must build a digital infrastructure plan in cities to create long term prosperity and induce social equity to strengthen American democracy.

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