New York City is known for its aggressive attitude. Sometimes that works in its favor. In the case of digital literacy, the city of tavern brawlers, manic floor traders and ruthless billionaires seems to have just the right attitude. NYC is arguably the most aggressive in the country when it comes to promoting digital skills and fostering digital careers. Its goal: Nothing less than to be the most digitally literate city in America.
Two years ago this month, the city created NYC Digital, a new entity for citywide digital strategy that is chartered to “make government more efficient and citizen-centric.” In January 2011, NYC created the position of Chief Digital Officer and tapped then-27-year-old Rachel Sterne, founder of GroundReport, to fill the post. In May of 2011, the city released the first draft of its ambitious and innovative Road Map for the Digital City. Since then NYC has continued to roll out a variety of programs and digital services, including initiatives to train the next generation of tech-savvy youth.
This week, the New York City Economic Development Corp. and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship announced the launch of NYC Generation Tech, a program that teaches high school students digital skills and pairs them with mentors in the the tech industry. Students interested in “transforming the world through tech-based innovations” are invited to apply to the free program as long as they aren’t currently enrolled as students in elite schools that already have the resources for tech learning. The emphasis of NYC Generation Tech is on mobile application development, entrepreneurship and start-up methodologies. Students will network with technology entrepreneurs, start-up companies, universities, tech firms and venture capitalists.
Earlier this year, the city also created the Academy for Software Engineering, a high school program aimed at training the next generation of software professionals. The school was created to address the serious shortage of programmers that are needed to meet the now and future hiring demands of the technology industry. The school will offer software training and help prepare its 400 – 500 students for college.
And, while not a city initiative per se, it is worth noting that last month the former Deputy Public Advocate of New York City, Reshma Saujani, launched Girls Who Code, a NYC-based organization dedicated to educating, inspiring and equipping 13- to 17-year-old girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in technology and engineering. The organization is backed by Twitter, eBay, Google and General Electric.
Winston Churchill once said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Nowhere is that more apparent than in our efforts to adapt to and benefit from digital technologies.
NYC deserves our attention for its digital literacy efforts, but its strategic plan, twitter accounts, mobile apps, education initiatives, technology development incentives and other achievements are secondary. First and foremost the city should be admired and emulated for its Literacy 2.0 attitude.
NYC didn’t just create a department and assign a few bureaucrats to fill it as many other cities have done. It did not just adopt a technology policy or present a hipster veneer crafted by the city media and communications department. The city made the decision to reprogram its own DNA, to morph a metropolis that was built on Industrial Age technology into one that embodies the savvy and the spirit of the Digital Age. To be sure, the decision was at heart economic and political, but the results, not the motivation, are what matter.
NYC’s effort is important to citizens beyond Manhattan and the other four boroughs. Every city in the country, and every citizen, needs to make a systemic digital transition. What’s needed at this stage, and what NYC is providing, are testbeds and role models.
No doubt other cities are watching NYC to see what they are doing and if they can pull it off. It is likely some cities are feeling envious and competitive. They might be sourly dismissive of some of the NYC programs, seeing them as window dressing or as weak implementations. But if they do, if they fail to learn from what NYC is attempting to accomplish, they are missing Winston Churchill’s point.