The Brookings Institution named Nicol Turner Lee ’90 as the new director of its Center for Technology Innovation, effective July 1, 2020.
A fellow at Brookings since 2016, Turner Lee researches telemedicine, broadband infrastructure, digital education, and racial bias in artificial intelligence. She explores the intersection of race, wealth, and technology within the context of civic engagement, criminal justice, and economic development.
In the institution’s announcement of the appointment, Brookings President John R. Allen said, “Nicol’s extensive work in advancing digital equity and inclusion for historically disadvantaged populations exemplifies her commitment in this space. I look forward to seeing her continue to drive real impact as director of the Center for Technology Innovation.”
Turner Lee noted her enthusiasm in undertaking new challenges. “Technology is continuing to drive major facets of society and the policies that govern innovation matter,” she said. “I am excited about this role to elevate the research of our scholars and serve as a resource to policymakers in search of guidance around legislative, regulatory, and civil society issues.”
A sociology and African American studies double major, Turner Lee graduated magna cum laude from Colgate in 1990. She received her MA and PhD from Northwestern University. An appointee on the Federal Communications Commission’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment, Turner Lee is a widely sought expert and speaker on issues related to communications policies in media.
On May 27, Turner Lee led a virtual conversation with fellow Colgate alumni about closing the digital divide in the United States, drawing from her current research and forthcoming book on surfacing digital inequalities, which limit full participation in the new economy.
Turner Lee defines digital connectedness as a conceptualization of the importance of broadband access in everyday life. “Our ability to book an airline ticket, to shop online, to talk with friends and family, to engage in civic dialogue — these all come from our digital connectedness,” she said. “Yet there are more than 20 million people in this country who do not have access to broadband.”
In 2019, Turner Lee embarked on a tour around the United States, visiting a number of rural and urban communities with limited digital access. In her conversation with alumni, she shared policy and programmatic ideas that some of those localities are implementing to address the digital divide — initiatives like leveraging the unused spectrum between TV channels to provide broadband service in Garrett County, Md., and wiring of school buses as Wi-Fi hotspots in Coachella, N.M.
“Going forward, we’re going to see more of this,” she said. “We’re going to see libraries actually lend hotspots like they lend books. We’re going to begin to build out collaborative frameworks. We need a reimagination of education.”
The progression of COVID-19 correlates to the progression of inequalities framed by digital access, Turner Lee emphasized. “There is a certain stewardship that we in the United States have to take so that we never find ourselves with the lack of resiliency, security, and sustainability that we have seen during this pandemic,” she said.
Turner Lee plans to focus on the immediate and long-term implications of the digital divide. “We need to take this time — particularly in our educational institutions — to garner what lessons can be gleaned from this,” she said.
Turner Lee’s book Digitally Invisible: How the Internet is Creating the New Underclass is forthcoming from Brookings Press in January 2021.