How Hackers In Cities Can Solve Social Problems

Pittsburgh has declared itself an “inclusive innovation city,” meaning it is committed to making sure that white people aren’t the only beneficiaries of the tech-based economy it’s trying to cultivate. Here’s how that’s working out.

Illustration by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Two summers ago, my son Justice, then 12 years old, took the stage at American University in Washington, D.C. to accept his diploma. No, he’s not a teen prodigy a la Mitch Taylor in Real Genius. He was at the university for a week-long summer program where kids could learn coding, robotics, and other tech skills. I enrolled him in a 3D game-design camp for Minecraft, a kind of digital Legos game that allows players to create buildings and cities. It’s one of his favorite games, and I approved, given that it feeds his aspirations to become an architect when he grows up.

He enjoyed the camp and was pretty bummed when it was over. At his graduation ceremony, a smile fought through his face as he held up his certificate. “Justice, some of the work you made this week was absolutely incredible and included concepts I had never seen from a student before,” his instructor said.

Exciting as it all was, that week of camp was not without challenges. We had no car, so I had to do some creative Zipcar-ing and Uber-ing to get him to campus, as public transit options there are complicated and limited. The $1,200 it cost for just five days of camp was a budget crusher. And there was another challenge to overcome: On the first day of camp, as we approached the swarm of kids gathered on the campus lawn, we immediately recognized that he would be one of just a handful of non-white kids there.

This was a bit shocking for him, and it took some cajoling to have him leave my side and join the bunch.

I was less stunned. The diversity problems in the tech universe are hardly a secret. The latest U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s report tell the story:

Compared to overall private industry, the high tech sector employed a larger share of whites (63.5 percent to 68.5 percent), Asian Americans (5.8 percent to 14 percent) and men (52 percent to 64 percent), and a smaller share of African Americans (14.4 percent to 7.4 percent), Hispanics (13.9 percent to 8 percent), and women (48 percent to 36 percent).

This camp was just a microcosm of the overall problem in the tech world—and a glance at where the problem starts. The challenges I encountered getting Justice to camp are mirrored by the industry as a whole: It’s viewed as inaccessible for those who aren’t white, who aren’t flexibly mobile, and who don’t have a lot of disposable income. In Southeast D.C., the quadrant opposite of American University, 44 percent of households make below $25,000 annually; these mostly African-American families will likely struggle to get their kids involved in the very industry that is determining the future of their city.

The technology sector currently supplies 12 percent of the U.S. workforce, and many cities are clinging tightly to the hope that tech jobs will transform their local economies. The National League of Cities says in its report:

[infobox title=’“The Future of Work in Cities,” that the forces of technological change:’]

will converge in cities, which will serve as the laboratories for bold and constant experimentation, and forums for the tensions and divisions that these changes will likely bring. As labor is commoditized and platformized, workers increasingly rely less on an employer’s capital (like an office or a factory) and more on their own homes, laptops, cars, and smartphones. Cities are central to all of this, and will shape—and be shaped by—these shifts and interactions.


This is critical for black families. There’s not one major metropolitan area in any region where the unemployment rate for young black men isn’t in the high double digits and elevated far above the white unemployment rate. In the Rust Belt, cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Pittsburgh could stand to benefit from some of the economic magic said to swirl across the tech galaxy.

“For cities, it makes sense to want to try to revitalize the economy and tap into this vital kind of energy that is in some ways poised to lead cities into the 21st century,” says S. Craig Watkins, a digital media professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. “But most cities, I would argue, haven’t thought systematically at all about how to develop these kinds of tech hubs with diversity and inclusion in mind.”

I now live in Pittsburgh, and I came here in large part because of the city’s relative affordability (compared to D.C.) and the promise of a tech-led revolution here. The city seems to possess several key advantages in the race to get in on the kind of economic energy that Watkins describes. My son is among the “the young and the digital,” and I don’t want him to lose out when technical skills become the primary currency for living.

I was encouraged when I learned that my son’s school here has a STEAM program (science, tech, engineering, arts, and math) in its curriculum to sustain his architectural interests. My dream for him is that he’ll grow up and take these skills to some elite college and come out prepared to design a city of the future, simmed after the Minecraft blueprints he’s been designing since a pre-teen.

Which is why I scraped together what I could that summer to get Justice into this camp. It was an investment—but also a gamble. I can pour a bunch of money into keeping him engaged in the tech design field all the way into his adult years, but there is no guarantee a job will be waiting for him on the other end. The tech empire is still figuring out what to do with the black boys that stand outside its gates.

Bridge to the future: One of Uber’s self-driving cars negotiates the streets of the Steel City. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
“You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet.”

Many of the diversity problems the tech industry suffers from are the result of what The New Yorker’s Anna Weiner calls “the incestuousness of Silicon Valley’s hiring process,” where “many startups turn to their own employees for assistance with hiring.” That’s a can’t-fail recipe for perpetuating a workforce that excludes people of color and women.

Kat Li, who serves as Head of Product at the tech financial savings company Digit, noted in a widely shared essay a few years ago that even when her industry acknowledges its diversity problems, it still manages to exclude Native American workers like herself by lumping them into an “other” category. She agrees with Weiner about the incestuous hiring culture among tech employers, but also adds that many of them are also “just kind of angry at the idea” of diversity.

“They have this idea in their head that if you are skilled enough, you will rise to the top,” says Li. “It doesn’t have to do with circumstances. [They believe] it is really just your own hard work and will. Like many people I know, I think this is not true.”

Part of the problem also is, as Michael Learmonth wrote for the International Business Times in 2015, that the pipelines that are supposed to push students of color into Silicon Valley-type jobs are “broken.” Meaning, the lords of Silicon Valley haven’t historically been hiring from those pipeline programs nor looking in the places and cities where qualified potential employees of color congregate and graduate from. Instead, they’ve fed on the institutional networks of Northern California, where Stanford and Berkeley students are bred for the business estates of Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Cupertino.

We won’t be moving to Silicon Valley anytime soon, but my son is fortunate to live in Allegheny valley, which is perhaps the next best place. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University lands as many graduates in the tech industry as its northern Cali counterparts, if not more. CMU definitely sends more of its students to autonomous vehicle technology companies than any other university. That’s one big reason why the ride-hailing company Uber set up headquarters in Pittsburgh in 2015.

But with Uber comes all of its baggage—not just the lawsuits and complaints of racial discrimination and sexual harassment filed against the company—but the industry’s culture in general. The Kapor Center for Social Impact’s recently released findings from its study of why people of color leave the tech sector shows that upwards of three-quarters of those surveyed experienced or witnessed unfair treatment of workers.

(Kapor Center for Social Impact/Madison McVeigh)


“Diversity in tech matters—for innovation, for product development, for profits, for meeting future workforce demands, and for closing economic and wealth gaps,” reads the report. “But unfairness, in the form of everyday behavior (stereotyping, harassment, bullying, etc.) is a real and destructive part of the tech work environment, particularly affecting underrepresented groups and driving talent out the door.”


Such problems don’t disappear when companies set up shop outside of Silicon Valley. Uber’s Pittsburgh office has been open for roughly three years now. The company would not divulge the local staff demographics for the city (and also declined an interview), but it recently released its national workforce demographics to the public, after years of refusing. The stats were underwhelming: Just 8.8 percent of Uber’s workforce (not including drivers) are African Americans.

It gets worse as you look deeper: Most of Uber’s black staff have non-tech-related positions while only one percent of them hold tech positions—no African Americans are in leadership positions. Uber’s recently appointed chief human resources officer, Liane Hornsey, told The New York Times: “What has driven Uber to immense success—its aggression, the hard-charging attitude—has toppled over. And it needs to be shaved back.”

(Uber/Madison McVeigh)

That aggressive approach is also what helped Uber take over the city of Pittsburgh, abetted by the city’s willingness to offer up its streets for the company to use as its own autonomous car playground, and at little expense to the company. Uber now has about 100 modified Volvo sport utility vehicles roaming Pittsburgh in passenger trials, each with a human monitor behind the wheel.

[infobox title=’Wrote Cecilia Kang for The New York Times in September 2016:’]

It is precisely this hands-off approach that has made Pittsburgh ideal grounds for one of Silicon Valley’s boldest experiments—and it has ignited criticism that the city is giving away its keys to Uber, which is testing a nascent technology and has a reputation for running roughshod over regulators and municipalities.


“It’s not our role to throw up regulations or limit companies like Uber,” said Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s mayor, in the article. “You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet. If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet.”

If the role of the city is not to regulate companies like Uber, than what is its role? This is the question facing all cities as they quest to lure tech manna to their shores. Pittsburgh’s unique position in the tech space makes it an excellent case study for what cities should and should not do. The problem with offering a red carpet treatment for all tech comers is that not everyone in the city will share the economic benefits. “If you don’t make [diversity] a priority issue from the very beginning, then the likelihood that you’ll do it later isn’t great,” says Watkins, who’s currently researching city-sponsored digital diversity programs for an upcoming project.

“If technology is leading the way and people of color aren’t a part of the conversation, then you’re totally disconnected from the trajectory of the city.”

The culture of tech-onomic exclusion is already at work in Pittsburgh. According to the Brookings Institute’s Metro Monitor, Pittsburgh is ranked third among the top 100 largest metropolitan areas for prosperity, defined as progressive change in worker productivity, increasing average annual wages, and positive change in residents’ living standards. Pittsburgh ranks in the top ten of all cities in the index for each of those categories. Not bad, if you have cashmere dreams of your teenager hitting tech paydirt when he gets older.

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But a different picture emerges from Brookings’ Metro Monitor index on inclusion, which measures how prosperity is distributed among all residents, and minorities in particular. Here, Pittsburgh is ranked far lower, at 26th. The employment rate for white Pittsburgh residents grew nearly five percent between 2010 and 2015; for African Americans, it grew less than one percent.

It gets even uglier when looking at income: For whites, median wages grew 8.1 percent between 2010 and 2015; for African Americans, median wages dropped 19.6 percent. Meanwhile wages for Hispanics and Asians rose 9 percent and 26 percent respectively. All of which explains why poverty rates in the city decreased for whites and Hispanics in Pittsburgh during that time period (for Hispanics it dropped 19 percent) while it increased a whopping 25.9 percent for African Americans. Not a good look into the future for my son if such trends hold.

Building the “inclusive innovation” city

The good news, if you’re an African American living in Pittsburgh trying to break into the tech industry, is that while Uber’s diversity numbers are uninspiring, it’s not the only major tech company in town. In its mission to become a “smart city” of the future, Pittsburgh has also recruited tech titans such as Google and Amazon to its fold. The bad news is that those companies’ diversity stats are lacking as well. Google’s latest workforce numbers nationally (I was not able to obtain local workforce numbers for any of the companies) show that just two percent of its overall workforce are African Americans—an unchanged rate from 2014, with only half of those found in actual tech-related jobs. Amazon is considered a leader among major tech companies on diversity, but only five percent of its staff are African Americans. The non-white/non-Asian staff for both are less than 15 percent of their workforces.

Like Uber, each of these companies are in Pittsburgh because of the talent pool found at Carnegie Mellon University, and also the University of Pittsburgh. However, less than six percent of CMU’s students are African Americans, and many of those students are from other countries. For Pitt, roughly five percent of its students are black. Pittsburgh’s general population, on the other hand, is 27 percent African-American.

The challenge for Pittsburgh then is plugging its black residents into the sprouting local tech ecosystem. Or, as Pittsburgh’s Homewood Children’s Village executive director Fred Brown told me, “taking vulnerable populations and putting them in the driver’s seat, for the change process in their communities, instead of putting them in the trunk.”

The Homewood Children’s Village, located in the city’s largest predominantly black neighborhoods, has been one of the few organizations in the city that targets black youth for STEM classes and job trainings. They may not be earning degrees, but they obtain certifications that should qualify them for entry-level positions at tech companies, or that at least prepare them for a tech-track major at a university. Those kids are doing their parts, but many of them likely won’t reach anything close to a Kalanick-future for a number of reasons ranging from racism to a lack of resources needed to maneuver through the inflated costs of collegiate and post-collegiate living. They will need some help making a connection with the tech world.

“If technology is leading the way for our global destination and people of color aren’t a part of the conversation,” says Brown, “then you’re totally disconnected from the trajectory of the city.”

This is where Pittsburgh sees itself playing a role, as a router. Pittsburgh’s first Chief of Innovation and Performance, Debra Lam, appointed in 2014 by the mayor, helped facilitate this role both literally and figuratively. On one end, Lam expanded city-sponsored broadband internet to low-income neighborhoods. On the other, she helped produce the “Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation,” the city’s 2015 plan for making sure that historically left-behind communities won’t suffer abandonment by the tech industry. Here’s its mission, as it appears in the 36-page document:


The Roadmap seeks to bridge the digital divide and provide opportunities for Pittsburghers to participate in the new economy. Focusing on inclusion means providing opportunities in the high-tech, high-skill innovation economy. Diversity of gender, race, and background strengthens the chance for success in a competitive environment by improving decision-making and understanding of diverse markets. The City’s challenge is ensuring that these economic gains are reaped by all communities.


This is no small challenge; few, if any, cities have figured out how to do this. As recently reported, of the 100 cities studied by the Brookings Institute in its Metro Monitor, only four of them met criteria for achieving the gold-standard trifecta of economic growth, prosperity, and racial inclusion between 2000 and 2015.

(Brookings Institution/Madison McVeigh)

The Inclusive Innovation Roadmap outlines roughly 100 tasks Pittsburgh has committed itself to to secure its title as an “Inclusive Innovation City.” Various stakeholders from around the city brainstormed for months in 2015 on what it means to execute an innovation-based urban agenda through the lens of inclusivity to come up with the tasks.

What’s barely mentioned in the roadmap is equity, which is a more demonstrative and consequential measurement of how inclusive a city is. There’s little in the report that acknowledges the fact that less than two percent of businesses with employees across Allegheny County are black-owned. A separate report on racial equity acknowledges this omission. “The Path to an All-In Pittsburgh,” which was produced in part by the city, suggests that the roadmap, “should be updated to incorporate a racial equity analysis that explicitly considers racial barriers to participation in innovation sectors and proposes targeted solutions.”

“We’re not hitting everyone as much as we could, but we are consciously making sure that we are checking ourselves and seeing how to incorporate more people, and making sure that everyone has opportunities,” Lam told Citylab in December, before she resigned from her role as the head of the city’s innovation and performance office. She currently serves as the managing director of the Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation program at the Georgia Tech Institute for People and Technology.

Perhaps the most visible of Pittsburgh’s work in routing its residents to the emerging local tech market is the Inclusive Innovation Week event it has coordinated the past two years. For that, the city partnered with dozens of tech companies, startups, and nonprofits to produce nine straight days of programming aimed at reaching Pittsburgh’s most disadvantaged communities. Most of the events have been free of charge, with some even providing on-site childcare and food, as well as transportation. Many of the programs were held in black neighborhoods that usually go overlooked by such citywide affairs. There were 63 events in total for the first Inclusive Innovation Week held last year. This year, that number jumped to 79.

Much of the programming for Inclusive Innovation week was coordinated by Darren Ellerbee, the community affairs equity strategist for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, and she is black. She was in charge of rounding up what few African-American tech professionals existed in the city she could find for the week of activities.

“After reading [tech companies’ diversity reports] I began thinking about how we can better engage African-American youth specifically, and I can tell you it was difficult,” says Ellerbee.

Of the few she found, most of them were having a hard time getting the word out that they existed. But Ellerbee was able to work many of them into this year’s Inclusive Innovation Week. This is just one example of how the city can help facilitate diversity: by amplifying the presence of the tech programs that already help and benefit black families. There’s still the question, though, of how a city should measure that kind of amplification, to see how much it’s actually helping.

Inclusive Innovation Week’s conveners tracked who came to the events, and collected attendees’ thoughts about the programming, and is using an assortment of other metrics to assess what can be improved next year. A harder metric to record, though, is whether the people who’ve attended these gatherings will actually get jobs.

The city generally doesn’t track how many African Americans and Latinos have been getting hired or trained by the tech companies it recruits, according to Jennifer Wilhelm, manager of innovation and entrepreneurship for the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. Neither are the companies required to divulge these numbers (which explains why I couldn’t readily locate them).

“There are a lot of things that we’re trying to do to measure impact, but we recognize that we as a government have purview only over certain things,” says Willhelm. “So the areas of the Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, for example we chose the areas that we knew that we could make some strides in. We recognize that we alone cannot solve every problem in this area. We have to focus on first what we’re able to control.”

“Racism can often unwittingly become embedded in the very solutions that technocrats prescribe for solving diversity.”

Pittsburgh actually has several inclusion-themed plans, one of which is the “Welcoming City” plan, which does offer the somewhat metric-based target of increasing “our number of immigrants as we attain our goal of attracting 20,000 new residents.” Experts in the tech diversity field say that such targets are imperative for any city looking to claim the innovative inclusion crown. Otherwise, racism can often unwittingly become embedded in the very solutions that technocrats prescribe for solving diversity.

“I would suggest that one of the things that cities and companies should do is be very deliberate about a timetable,” says S. Craig Watkins. “You know like, over the next two years here are some goals for what we want to look like in terms of women in leadership, or Latinos and African Americans in leadership positions. Map those goals out that sound reasonable, that you know could actually be realized, and then put in place the mechanisms to try to make them happen.”

“I think it’s really critically important to have metrics for transparency about whether a city is approaching its diversity goals,” says Mizuko Ito, director of the University of California, Irvine’s Connected Learning Lab and research director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. “There are so many case studies of well-meaning public policies that were launched with very good intentions, but that resulted in no, or even negative outcomes around inclusivity. It’s something that’s really hard to get right, because it’s not simply about getting butts in seats. It really is about fostering a change in culture, practices, and expectations.”

Pittsburgh did try this, though. In 2015, the city enlisted in President Barack Obama’s Tech Hire Initiative, which he announced at the National League of Cities’ Annual Conference that year. It was set up to train and hire people of color for the tech workforce, and cities that enrolled expected to benefit from resources offered by companies that partnered with the White House for this venture. Pittsburgh responded by pledging to train a minimum of 500 people and to increase the number of racial minorities employed in the local tech sector by the end of 2016.

However, no federal funding ever arrived for the city to build out the local Tech Hire apparatus, and so the 2016 goals were not met. Partner4Work, the workforce development organization responsible for managing the local Tech Hire program, was able to scrum funding from the state to get some tech training bootcamps up and running, the first of which was just completed in May. The inaugural bootcamp cohort had roughly 40 people in it, about two-thirds of whom were African Americans, according to Partner4Work’s Stefani Pashman. She is currently working to get the graduates of that program placed in jobs with the companies that have signed onto participate in the local initiative, but is finding that even that has been a challenge.

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“We’re trying to create a culture and ecosystem that doesn’t exist in Pittsburgh,” says Pashman. “But it exists in Silicon Valley and other areas where companies are a little more progressive about their hiring approaches and more open to non-traditional populations. Their need is so great that they are willing to hire people without a four-year degree. We’re trying to replicate that ecosystem here in Pittsburgh.”

The Obama administration is gone, but the city is still committed to the Tech Hire goals, says LaTrenda L. Sherrill, Mayor Bill Peduto’s deputy chief for education. It’s just going to take a bit longer for them to develop the systems for ensuring success.

“We want to do what’s best for Pittsburgh and its residents and if this is an opportunity to be a part of a national conversation about new pathways in workforce development, I think Pittsburgh wants to be a part of that considering we do have this growing cluster of tech companies in the region,” says Sherrill. “It would be nice to connect those that have generally been left behind to those tech companies. In order to do that, though, funding is necessary.”

If Pittsburgh isn’t exactly batting inclusion out the park quite yet, it’s because these programs and initiatives are all fairly new. Still, not all of the steps the city is taking are merely abstract or symbolic. In April, Mayor Peduto signed an executive order establishing a “Rooney Rule” for all city hiring, meaning at least one candidate of color must be among the finalists for any city job position in leadership.

“We need to do more to promote inclusion,” says Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. “We’ve started with programs such as Partners 4 Work and TechHire, but there is clearly more to do.”

“If you want diversity, you have to meet people where they are.”

One event at this year’s Inclusive Innovation Week that wasn’t shy at all about addressing race. A session called “Where’s Black Tech in Pittsburgh?” took place in Homewood, a neighborhood where 98 percent of the residents are African Americans, and the 12 percent black unemployment rate is more than twice the city and national unemployment rates. It was hosted in “The Shop”—a former auto shop with a façade so brutally nondescript that one could easily drive right past it—either out of fear that they have the wrong building, or frightened that it might actually be the right one.

The organizer of the event was Kelauni Cook, an African-American software engineer who moved to Pittsburgh only a year ago. She came here from North Dakota, but it was in Pittsburgh where she experienced culture shock upon arrival. She expected not to see any black people in the small North Dakota town where she lived and worked; she didn’t expect this in Pittsburgh, an urban hub of the north. Working here, she found herself almost completely surrounded by white men and asking where the people who look like her are. When she learned about Inclusive Innovation Week, she decided to pitch an event with exactly this question in mind, which the city accepted.

“All of these people came to an event that explicitly talked about black tech. That made me realize how much Pittsburgh is at least willing to make change.”
Software engineer Kelauni Cook is asking hard questions about the lack of diversity in Pittsburgh’s technology workforce. (Photo: Kelauni Cook)

Not knowing the city or the tech landscape that well, Cook envisioned maybe 25 or 35 people would show up, at best. Instead, 80 people attended. She had never organized an event like this before. Yet, people showed up from major tech companies to startups alike. Carnegie Mellon University brought students and instructors out for it. A number of locally elected officials joined the assembly, including one mayoral candidate. Most were African-Americans, but a good portion were not. Quite a few were white. Cook realized she may have awakened a sleeping giant.

“The fact that all of these people came out to an event that explicitly talked about black tech—we didn’t water it down as ‘diverse tech’ or anything like that,” says Cook, “made me realize how much Pittsburgh is at least willing to make change.”

One of the people who attended was Homewood Children’s Village’s Fred Brown who, having worked in the neighborhood for decades, says he was blown away by what Cook was able to pull together.

“It provided hope for me,” says Brown. “To hear black young men and women who look like me talk about artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, business development plans in tech and science—man, it was empowering.”

And yet Brown picked up on something that few others in the room could, given most of the attendees did not live in Homewood: Periodically throughout the event, messages were sent to various people that they were illegally parked in front of the homes of Homewood residents.

“To have the event take place in the neighborhood and then have people calling complaining about cars parked in front of their houses, to me that’s an indication that there needed to be more communication,” says Brown. “This very powerful awakening of the minority [tech] capacity in Pittsburgh was missed by the people it’s most intended to help. How come those people [weren’t] in here? Why should they be worried about a car parked in front of their house when they should be in here hearing this, because it’s that important.”

This kind of tension did not go untouched within Cook’s event. And what she learned from the beta gathering will be used to strengthen her next venture Black Tech Pittsburgh. Speaking with Cook later after the event, she told me that the responsibility for diversifying this industry is shared.

“The tech community can say, ‘Yes, we want diversity,’ but then they’ll have these events and just put it on Facebook and expect the black community to come out—that’s not how it works,” said Cook. “If you want diversity, you have to meet people where they are. You have to go into these communities and knock on doors, go into communities, make relationships with black people, and mentor some black kids. On the other hand, on the black community side, it’s on you to actively seek out these opportunities. You can’t wait for things to come to you.”

There’s probably little disagreement with such sentiments among the various parties invested in un-whiting the tech force, but there’s still a question of duty. Are these companies, and the city by extension, obligated to open themselves up more forcefully to people of color. Cook is blunt on this question:

“I have to be realistic about the fact that tech people don’t have to do anything. They don’t have to hire [people of color]. They don’t have to put money in education systems, or in the communities that they gentrify, and, no, these cities don’t really hold them accountable for doing this stuff, including Pittsburgh, or else it would have been done already.”

(Kelauni Cook)


Cracking the diversity code

I took my son Justice and his friend Desmond to one of this year’s Inclusive Innovation Week events called “Future Communities Game Jam,” billed as a program where young people could meet “startup leaders, app developers, city data scientists, and professional game designers.” I told the boys that there would be video games and that’s all they needed to hear.

Entering the event, I had a déjà vu moment, remembering our first day at the tech camp at American University two years ago. Out of maybe 50 young people scrambling around the game room, again, just a few were at least visibly not white. I was told that other black families showed up but left after a short stay. It wasn’t hard for me to understand how that could happen. But I also thought that games have a great equalizer effect.

The event’s organizers, mostly white, were more than helpful with me and the boys (maybe overly so) in showing us around, explaining each of the play stations, and the games available. Justice and Desmond at first seemed skeptical about joining in—perhaps not necessarily because of the racial composition, but because most of the kids looked much younger. Also, many of the gaming stations were occupied. But there was one station, in the middle of the room, that was completely untouched, so we grabbed it.

It was for a card game called “Zooo,” created by Adam Nelson, a game designer whose goal is to turn the entire city of Pittsburgh into a playground-slash-arcade. “Zooo” is a strategy game where players trade cards that have various geometric shapes on them that are used to build animals. There are other cards that players can use to accumulate or invest resources in the objective of building enough animals to form a zoo. I’m oversimplifying these rules—it was complicated enough that I had trouble explaining it to the boys.

Fortunately, Nelson, the game’s creator, popped up, perhaps sensing my struggle, and explained the game much better. The boys absorbed the instructions quickly and then soundly defeated me by completing zoos while I floundered through building one animal. The game teaches players how to design efficiently and incorporates elements of architecture, engineering, and finance—all skills that need mastering to become a major player in the digital tech universe. The boys were hype about the game and wondered why there weren’t more games like it, especially in their schools. Mizoku Ito’s research shows that it’s because of the absence of these kinds of lessons and games in the common curriculum that there is a “huge untapped talent pool,” made up youth of color.

“Some of the biggest tech trends have actually been driven by teenagers and other groups that are not the most powerful groups in society, because they’ve been creative and innovative about appropriating technology,” says Ito. “Text messaging was first really teenage girls in Japan who needed a way to communicate in the absence of other channels to communicate with, and we see this in a lot of fields of tech and the arts where some of the most creative solutions come from groups that are marginalized.”

I thought about all of this, as I played “Zooo” with the boys, envisioning all the summer camps, pipelines, STEM/STEAM classes, and college courses they’d have to navigate in the years ahead—and all the money I’d have to shell out to keep them on target. I was still hopeful that he’d grow up to land a major angel investment for his groundbreaking app that hacks racism and cracks the diversity code. I realized that no matter the expense, and the odds, tech was the gamble to make on our future. I’m going to need Pittsburgh’s innovation inclusion plans to pay off.

It was time to leave, but the boys wanted a copy of the “Zooo” game for home. I went to purchase a copy from its creator Nelson, but I couldn’t—the game isn’t available to buy individually. He sells them in bulk to select schools and academies. This explanation didn’t sit well with the boys, who looked genuinely pissed. My son, in trying to make sense of it, shook his head. “So, it’s not for us?” he asked.

This was not Nelson’s intended message, I’m sure. But, for these kids, that’s how it felt. What hurt my stomach more was the likelihood that this would not be the last time my son would have to ask that question.


This feature originally appeared in Citylab.


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