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This week the Office of the Mayor of the City of New York appointed the city’s first Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Sterne.

An civic journalism entrepreneur and consultant, Sterne will be tasked with helping city government use digital technology to better communicate with residents, with bringing social media and other new tools into municipal agencies, and serving as a representative of the technology community to the government.

Nearly immediately, Sterne was caught in a thoroughly post-Millennial conundrum when the Wall Street Journal quoted comments that friends were posting on her Facebook page, causing her to immediately adjust her privacy settings. Ahh the double-edge sword of transparency.

Nonetheless, we’re excited by the City’s progressive move (a woman under 30! a true entrepreneur!) in appointing Sterne and we look forward to seeing what policies and plans she has in store for New York. With the near-term focus on the redesign of the city’s website as well as social media outreach there will surely be a bright spotlight on these very visible manifestations of New York’s digital persona.

New York sees the creation of this post as something that other cities might emulate in the future. It’s no-doubt that other cities are monitoring Bloomberg’s digital experiment closely, but hopefully with a deeper focus than the content strategy of a website or a Faceboook page.
The other aspects of the CDO’s role will involve using digital technology and new communications tools to knit together a disparate group of municipal interests as well as to be a voice for the tech community with a goal of making the City more hospitable to entrepreneurs start-up enterprises.

So, in business parlance, in addition to the ‘B2C’ hat (engaging the citizenry), Sterne will also wear a ‘B2B’ hat both internally (across the numerous functions of city government), and externally (to the technology and start-up community). It’s a pretty tall order.

There’s another aspect of what the CDO role could and should be that feels missing from New York’s agenda. A focus on the opportunities inherent in the converged physical/digital landscape we inhabit, and how technology might make information accessible to the broadest swathe of the urban population and not just armies of smartphone wielding neo-nomadic workers whose natural stomping grounds are the coffeeshops of DUMBO and Lower Manhattan.

In the October ’09 issue of Wired UK , Andrew Blum talked about the “blended urban reality” we inhabit as city residents in the digital age. Wrote Blum: “The bandwidth of urban experience has increased. The ancient ways are still there: the way a place looks, the neighbours we wave at and the hands we shake. But now, there is an electronic conversation overlaid on top of all that: tweets and status updates, neighbourhood online message boards, detailed mobile electronic maps, and nascent applications that broadcast your location to your friends. It is neither cyberspace nor an urban landscape blanketed with blinking television screens, but the regular old city, albeit socially fused with real-time electronic interactions.”

Beyond a spiffed-up website and a host of new Twitter feeds, we hope to see the city push the envelope on digital information displays in public locations, improved signage across the transit system, interactive messageboards like the one in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport that processes text messages from waiting friends and family and displays them for arriving passengers.

An entire toolkit of technologies and best practices from the commercial realms – digital out-of-home advertising, retail display, interactive entertainment, gaming – are there to be utilised to transform today’s cities into more intelligent, more livable domains, and to empower all city residents to engage with their environments through multiple technology touchpoints.

Our prediction is that in 2-3 years the lone CDO will be a relic, and that most major cities will have multi-disciplinary digital or innovation teams comprised of technologists, communications experts, urban planners, city ‘brand’ strategists. What do you think?


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