Can technology help strengthen cities?

Posted | Posted in Featured, Opinion

Root Shock, noun, the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one’s emotional ecosystem.

Broadband, noun, a high-capacity transmission technique using a wide range of frequencies, which enables a large number of messages to be communicated simultaneously.

Here at Duke Digital Health, we talk a lot about different ways technology can connect people — to a health coach, their doctor, to community resources, and even help connect them more closely to their own health goals (by asking them to self-monitor and giving them automated feedback on their progress over time). 

But what if technology can connect us better to our very own city? What if it could empower people who have been divided by years of root shock

This summer, I was fortunate enough to see Dr. Mindy Fullilove give a reading and discuss her book, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted Out Cities. Dr. Fullilove is professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University. This book builds on her previous work and the essential argument is as follows:

  • City planning in the US can impact health in important ways. For example, social & economic policies that re-sort cities by race and class can contribute to higher rates of diseases like asthma, HIV, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
  • Changes in the physical landscape of a city contribute to disease via root shock which manifests itself not only through  physical symptoms, but also mental health symptoms, due to the traumatic loss of one’s community. 


There’s hope!

  • New approaches to planning and design could tackle both the built environment and collective well-being at the same time.
  • Dr. Fullilove identifies 9 tools that can mend cities by reconnecting communities.
  • In order to rebuild and reconnect cities, all stakeholders need to be involved – community members, leaders, artists, council members, business owners, and urban planners. 
    • You can watch Dr. Fullilove describe Urban Alchemy here

The destruction of cities, according to Dr. Fullilove, is physical – highways that cut through neighborhoods, urban renewal policies that physically resort cities by race and class, and a changing urban landscape that prioritizes large corporate arenas and business centers at the expense of affordable housing.

The 9 tools that Dr. Fullilove identifies to rebuild cities, are also mostly physical, or “space-based” – walk the city, meet the people, work together towards identifying and achieving a common goal, create safe passage, regenerate and “unslum” all neighborhoods, and importantly, celebrate accomplishments. 

We’d like to propose a 10th tool: technology. What if we also connected people to online networks – via affordable and extensive broadband and mobile coverage, low cost devices, and personalized, tailored health promotion programs?

We were so pleased when The US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that Durham would be one of the 27 American cities who are part of ConnectHome, a pilot program that will bring high speed broadband access, digital literacy programs, and devices to low-income residents. The program is expected to reach over 275,000 households in Durham, and represents a partnership between corporations, federal agencies, and local governments to increase the capacity of US citizens to engage in the digital revolution. 

We believe being connected is necessary for health, and digital connectedness is an integral part of this. ConnectHome will promote infrastructure development and provide training and technical assistance. This will not only increase access but also build capacity, skills, and make sure that the digital health revolution is accessible to all, especially those who need it most.