Economists' Outlook

Housing stats and analysis from NAR's research experts.

Harnessing Technology for Everyone

By Bronwen Leibe

Hi there! I am this summer’s research intern here at NAR! I attend the University of Maryland (go Terps!) where I am studying economics and history. I have been working on a few interesting reports and learning a great deal about real estate! Currently, I am updating the report “Real Estate in a Digital Age” that will be published this summer.

By every measure, real estate is among the countless industries adapting to new technologies. Understandably, members feel that their toughest challenge is keeping up with the new innovations. In the midst of modernization, some REALTORS® are being negatively impacted—and if it is happening in this industry, it is definitely affecting the most vulnerable in our communities. Although, it is not all bad! I attended a summit on “Innovation for Inclusion” where they discussed how technology can be for everyone.

Even so, how is innovation translating to economic equality? At the Urban Institutes’ panel on “Innovation for Inclusion: Harnessing Technology to Create More Equitable Cities,” panelists echoed how modernization has created a substantial amount of marginalized people. While the private and public sector traditionally have different processes, these companies and governments are putting titles aside and working for one cause--- inclusion.

The private sector is infamously known for being profit-minded; but these four companies may just change your mind. They have mobilized innovations to connect marginalized communities to opportunities. Are they modernizing the American Dream?

Jimmy Chen, Founder and CEO of Propel, left behind the booming tech industry in Silicon Valley to use his knowledge and knack for innovation to help low income Americans. Their app, FreshEBT connects people to their food stamp balance, coupons and budgeting tops; acting almost like a mobile banking application.

Code for America is using technology to refurbish the criminal justice system---a structure of society that largely exploits minority communities. The app has evolved into an automated system that processes records that can be expunged. The app is creating second chances for people who have been systematically disenfranchised.

  • Rezility by Enterprise Community Partners

Enterprise Community Partners is a progressive non-profit organization in the real estate industry. The app, Rezility, is connecting people and their communities through opportunities. Affordable housing, job opportunities and stronger communities are the three pillars of Rezility’s mission. The app is genuinely supporting the desired progression in society---the American Dream.

Connecting communities to capital (through municipal bonds) for civic projects, whether it be a school, a library or bike lanes. Neighborly works for accessibility and transparency through its online platform. Their innovative work makes financing vital infrastructure projects easier. Certainly, this platform is among the real estate industry’s most socially progressive tools through its economic development fundamentals.

Are governments using technology to be more inclusive too?

Of course! Although, there is always more to be done. While cities across the world have introduced new innovations, such as City Bikes (or something similar), they rarely get used by low income communities. This may be due to unawareness, poor accessibility, or social stigmas around government help. But whatever the case may be, governments should be making conscious decisions about implementation and inclusion of marginalized communities.

University of Chicago’s Rayid Ghani discussed how academia is helping with public safety. Instead of policepersons using data to search for criminals, which historically targets minority communities, Rayid Ghani suggests using data to search for at risk police persons (those who have the potential to abuse their power) as a preventative measurement. This creates better relationships with communities and therefore better, more equitable cities.

Ellen Hwang, from Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology, also suggests that the public and private sectors should work together to harness technology for social justice. She discussed how a considerable portion of Philadelphia’s population reads at a fourth-grade level. The city of Philadelphia worked with Comcast to establish digital literacy in the region, targeting low income individuals and giving them an equal opportunity to acquire valuable skills.

While these are just a couple ways governments are harnessing technology to create equality, there is always more to do. I urge the private and public sector to work collectively, not just simultaneously. They should be involved with each other at every step of the way, to pinpoint the issue, harness the technology as a solution, and implement the collective policy to create accessibility and inclusion.