The City of Detroit has been a leader in digital equity and inclusion long before universal broadband goals became a national priority. During the COVID-19 pandemic, City officials emerged as the central coveners and visionaries for Connect 313, a consortium of public, private, and philanthropic partners working together to advance a city-wide digital inclusion strategy.
Since 2020, Connect 313 has been activating partnerships, hosting events that increase community engagement, and connecting Detroit residents to digital resources. An extension of those efforts, in October 2022, the organization hosted its inaugural Academic Research Symposium, a five-day event to promote digital equity and inclusion efforts in the Motor City.
Next Century Cities Executive Director, Francella Ochillo, was invited to provide keynote remarks on October 4, 2022, day two of the conference. Surrounded by city leaders, non-profit partners, academic scholars, and philanthropic partners on Wayne State University’s campus, Ochillo started by detailing several root causes of broadband access gaps nationwide. Citing her May 2022 report on the Economic Consequences and Generational Impact of the Digital Divide, Ochillo highlighted direct links between digital inequities and income inequality. She also explained the collective costs that low connectivity rates impose on local budgets, state revenue, and federal productivity.
One in four Detroit residents lives at or below the poverty line, and one in three is impacted by the digital divide. Considering that marginal or intermittent connectivity can undermine progress on other goals related to health, transportation, education, etc., Ochillo encouraged conference participants and policymakers to set their sights higher than minimum connectivity benchmarks. There is an unequivocal need for upcoming funding opportunities to fuel lasting high-speed solutions.
Finally, Ochillo left the audience with a looming question, “What if we treated people on the wrong side of the digital divide as humans with the potential for extraordinary problem-solving instead of treating them like they are part of the problem?” While there is no definitive answer to this question, policymakers should revisit it over and over again. Recognizing that the digital divide also impacts connected populations may provide new incentives to craft data-driven solutions that address long-term community needs.