What does it mean for a city (or state or region) to be a Digital Era leader? This post provides ideas to stimulate thinking and discussion by promoting a broader focus than the technologies themselves, specific applications like consumer marketing, high-tech start-ups, and the digital sector. Advocating a more strategic and holistic approach, it introduces other ways in which Digital Era leadership can and will manifest itself in the decades to come, and invites others to share their thoughts (as well as examples) on how to turn possibilities into realities.
A few weeks ago I sent an opinion piece to Crain’s Chicago Business (CCB). I’d like to share the ideas in that piece with a larger group to stimulate thinking and discussion about what it means for a city (or state or region) to be a leader in the Digital Era. I’m particularly interested in identifying examples of these ideas in practice, and am especially keen on learning about communities that are already taking a more strategic and holistic approach to defining Digital Era leadership.
New York: Roadmap for a Digital City
Before I move on to what I sent to CCB, let me say a few words about a recent report, Roadmap for the Digital City: Achieving New York City’s Digital Future, which was published by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Obviously, given the piece I had submitted to Crain’s, I was quite curious about the report and New York’s initiative when I read about it in this TechCrunch article. Had I been scooped? Not exactly… Did New York beat Chicago to the punch? No, not really…
Aiming to become “the world’s top-ranked Digital City” is certainly an ambitious undertaking. New York deserves credit for its commitment and for appointing Rachel Sterne as its Chief Digital Officer. But as broad as their scope is (addressing access, open government, engagement, and industry), it’s still fairly narrow. Specifically, there’s a heavy emphasis on technological infrastructure, as well as on enhancing the ways in which the city engages with its inhabitants and promotes open government. And with respect to industry, it appears the focus is primarily on the digital sector. Though all those things are important for Digital Era leadership, the reach and potential impact of new technologies on people, organizations, society and the economy are much greater than that.
As the Founder of the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community, I’ve spent the last two years trying to help people understand the applications and implications of social media beyond marketing, sales, public relations and customer service, particularly in the business-to-consumer context. Targeting organizational leaders who are social media rookies, for example, the Social Media Primer I’ve been developing provides a conceptual foundation, helps put Digital Era realities in perspective, and offers strategic guidance. Through blog posts and white papers, I’ve written extensively about human capital management issues and legal concerns (see this post, for example, and this one). And most recently, I’ve started addressing the need for social media expertise and the ways in which education and training can help develop that expertise (here and here).
My own thinking has evolved beyond social media, to focus on digital technologies more broadly, for several reasons.
The term “social media” creates a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. Even though the denotation is clear (see Part 1 of the Social Media Primer, updated here), connotations vary widely. Many people (including so-called experts) treat distinct terms (e.g., social media and social networking) as if they’re synonymous, confound applications of the technology (e.g., marketing) with the technology itself, and erroneously assume that the most well-known platforms (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook) comprise the entire social media universe.
The rise of mobile technology has been dramatic. Handheld mobile devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets, readers) and related applications have been more successful and evolved much more quickly than many people anticipated. Even though there’s tremendous overlap between this rise and the increase in 2.0 technologies, mobile devices and their applications themselves don’t meet the literal definition of social media.
Cloud computing continues to expand. This is another independent but related phenomenon that is likely to become a large and permanent part of the digital landscape. Yes, there have been threats and challenges recently, but they are an inevitable part of the development process that will lead to better risk management technologies and processes. The cloud will not evaporate.
The juggernaut is even bigger than you think. In Part 2 of the Social Media Primer (updated here), I describe many organizational applications of social media that extend beyond the possibilities most people are aware of. But as I continue to read and learn, I become increasingly aware of related applications of technological advances beyond social media, as well as myriad implications for individuals, organizations, and society. And when we consider that everything is in a constant state of flux with no end in sight, the transformative potential of these advances becomes even greater.
As an umbrella term, therefore, digital technologies is much more accurate in describing the fundamental force behind the (r)evolution in which we find ourselves.
The Submission to Crain’s
Given Crain’s length restrictions on opinion pieces (425 words), I couldn’t provide a lot of detail in my submission. I thought about expanding it for the purposes of this post, but then decided it might be better to leave it “as is.” Here’s the unedited version…
Chicago’s commitment to supporting homegrown technology start-ups is admirable, and it’s been encouraging to read recent news about the increased activity of venture capitalists, incubator programs, entrepreneurs, and others in support of local web-tech firms.
It’s important to remember, however, that there are many other ways in which Chicago can demonstrate Digital Era leadership. Rather than trying to replicate Silicon Valley’s model, perhaps we would be better served by forging a path that builds on our unique history, capitalizes on our economic and cultural strengths, and emphasizes our academic community and traditional Chicago enterprises.
One way in which we can do that is to employ best practices in leveraging digital technologies to communicate with customers and other stakeholders. This effort has already begun, but there is more we can do to demonstrate leadership in various industries, especially those strongly associated with Chicago like consumer products, healthcare, museums, and financial services.
We can also demonstrate leadership with respect to new legal challenges related to intellectual property, commercial activity, employment practices, e-discovery, and social issues like privacy. Similarly, we can offer expert guidance in addressing the new human capital management challenges organizations are now facing.
We can provide examples for how traditional enterprises like media companies and manufacturers can develop new business models and find new ways to be competitive in response to economic threats and changing global realities resulting from new technologies. Chamber groups and various economic development entities can offer resources and guidance to help both new and established businesses better integrate digital technologies into their strategies and plans. Foundations can provide similar services for non-profit organizations.
Our academic community can become a hub for training Digital Era leaders and providing expertise by conducting research that addresses new realties and challenges. And with the new mayor’s commitment to open government, Chicago could become a model of Government 2.0.
We should create a coalition to ensure an integrated approach to establishing our city as a Digital Era leader. Perhaps the city’s economic development office could establish a Digital Era Leadership initiative. Or we could create a Council for Digital Era Leadership, similar to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs or the Chicago Council on Science and Technology.
Pursuing a Digital Era leadership agenda would provide a great economic boost to the area, in addition to enabling us to create a best-practices model for other communities. To my knowledge, no other community has thought about Digital Era leadership in broader terms. Why not us?
A version of this opinion piece could probably be written for almost any metropolitan or regional area. Though areas differ in terms of their size and access to resources, and the specific ways in which digital leadership might manifest itself vary based on a region’s history, economy, academic institutions, citizenry, etc., those factors can be viewed as parameters within which to work and opportunities to capitalize on rather than immutable obstacles that can’t be overcome. The traditional barriers to success (e.g., access to capital and other resources) are in many respects a lot lower in the Digital Era than they’ve ever been. We are more restricted by the limitations imposed by lack of vision, inspiration, leadership, strategic focus, and discipline than we are by a lack of finances, technology, or human capital.
At least, that’s how I view things. How about you? Do you share my vision? Can you provide examples of that vision in action? What ideas do you have for moving forward? What leadership role do you plan to assume to help your city/state/region capitalize on the opportunities new digital technologies present?
As always, I welcome your feedback and input.
- Courtney Hunt, PhD