Technology for Urban Citizens

Image credit: Flickr Contributor Lori Greig

While today’s cities attract rising shares of innovation, they are surprisingly slow to adopt new technology. As universities and startups pioneer the latest in technological research, the design and function of many cities remain mired in the 20th century. This is especially the case when it comes to infrastructure, land use, civic engagement, and environmental practices — each of which is essential to growth and prosperity in urban areas.

Recently, Urban Lab Director Steven Pedigo moderated a talk at Google that brainstormed solutions to these digital divides. The conversation convened experts from an array of fields, including real estate, technology, and the arts. Over the course of their discussion, the panelists explained how technology can advance their respective industries and improve quality of life in cities. At the heart of this dialogue was the notion that technology should be designed for, and engage with, the people it serves. The following are five key methods for advancing this mission.

Prioritize public goods.

“America is hugely ZIP code biased,” says Jonathan Rose, the CEO of Jonathan Rose Companies, a leading developer of green, affordable, and mixed-income housing. While neighborhoods and ZIP codes with a large share of educated, affluent residents tend to attract significant investments in housing and transportation, lower income areas are often saddled with outmoded infrastructure and amenities. In Brooklyn and Queens, for instance, many industrial business zones are considered “digital deserts” due to their limited access to broadband or high-speed networks.

One of the most significant disparities between low- and high-income areas is a lack of adequate transportation. In dense cities like New York, London, and San Francisco, the competition for land has driven up housing prices near transit and subway lines, making it difficult to afford an easy commute. While cities may be decades away from revolutionizing their transit infrastructure, technologies such as autonomous vehicles and high-speed rail prefigure a more equitable future for urban residents. The challenge, according to Rose, is convincing local leaders that these public services are worthy of investment.

Use living rooms — and living things — as models for public space.

The most effective technologies are created with their users in mind. By forming designs and plans that accommodate the vast majority of their residents, cities can begin to run more efficiently. According to Craig Nevill-Manning, the founder of Google’s first remote engineering center, this means thinking of public space as an extension of one’s living room. Like living rooms, cities should be communal spaces that allow people to convene and interact. In addition, they should feature modern heating and cooling systems that conserve energy and allow their inhabitants to live comfortably. These kinds of people-centric designs are key to pushing technology forward, says Nevill-Manning.

Indeed, Rose even argues that cities must function as living organisms with organic substances as their DNA. In the next century or two, Rose says, cities can alleviate their economic divides by deploying various forms of ecological construction, including the use of timber and other biological materials. These substances allow cities to optimize their building systems, thereby conserving money, time, and resources. Like living organisms, cities must also learn to scale and evolve to meet the needs of their growing populations. Innovations such as modular construction will prove critical to these efforts as cities look to maximize space and expand access.

While many fear the upfront costs of sustainable construction or high-tech infrastructure, technologies such as urban modeling and futurecasting allow cities to anticipate things like design and pricing. Moreover, artificial intelligence can use a city’s real-time data to predict future outcomes. There’s also room for the public to get involved. According to Elizabeth Goldstein, the president of The Municipal Art Society of New York, the environmental process is one of the few mechanisms to which citizens have access. But, without the steady collection of data — and follow-through on behalf of city governments — residents can easily be excluded from a city’s vision. By offering indicators of their community’s environmental health, cities can ensure that citizens remain invested in urban sustainability.

Real estate and urban tech leaders convene at Google to discuss how technology can improve urban living.

Lead by example.

Unlike technology companies or research labs, cities do not have the luxury of beta testing. A failure or mistake on their part could have serious repercussions for millions of inhabitants. For this reason, cities are often highly responsive to the successes of their peers. “If one city sees another doing something successfully, they’re much more likely to follow along,” says Nevill-Manning. This domino effect has played out recently with the advent of self-driving cars in urban areas. After rolling out a fleet of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh in 2016, the ridesharing service Uber began signing agreements with other cities, including San Francisco, Toronto, and Tempe, Arizona. The slow unveiling of these initiatives also allowed cities to screen for potential hazards. After one of Uber’s self-driving cars struck and killed a woman in Tempe, the company suspended its operations in the city. In the wake of the crash, Uber also replaced its self-driving car operators in Pittsburgh with technical specialists who are trained in road conditions.

In addition to testing new technology, data collection helps to catalyze its use in cities. In Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, the city evaluates its business climate by administering quarterly public satisfaction surveys. After starting the initiative in 2011, the city set a goal of achieving a 77 percent satisfaction rate by August 2018. The results of the survey have helped direct the city’s multimillion dollar development projects, which focus on eliminating urban blight. As its satisfaction rates continue to climb, Kansas City has become a model for how cities can improve their roads, bridges, and other vital forms of infrastructure.

Make data public, but respect privacy.

Too often residents are left in the dark about the state of their communities and the status of local efforts to heal urban divides. While cities must ensure that information is both public and widely accessible, their efforts are often hindered by citizens themselves. In the wake of Facebook’s privacy scandal, wherein the political data firm Cambridge Analytica gained access to more than 50 million users’ personal information, many have remained cautious about their data going public. These fears have spilled over into local neighborhoods, where residents are frequently unwilling to share personal information with their government.

Cities do not have the luxury of beta testing.

In the case of Sidewalk Toronto, a soon-to-be-built innovation district along the city’s eastern waterfront, many fear that that the project could be undermined by privacy concerns. As part of its effort to monitor air quality, traffic, waste disposal, and energy usage, the development will harvest data from a “digital layer” beneath the neighborhood. This layer would allow the project’s developer, Sidewalk Labs, to measure everything from pedestrian activity on the city’s park benches to how long kitchen appliances have been left running. In recent months, Toronto residents have expressed concern over the data being commercialized without their knowledge. And yet, Nevill-Manning argues that cities can achieve most of their big technological leaps without gathering personally identifiable information. Indeed, data that measures pedestrian traffic or the flow of water through a city’s pipes poses little risk to one’s privacy. In addition to being relatively innocuous, this information can easily be made anonymous and distributed to the public.

Increase transparency between government and citizens.

Today’s public engagement process is hindered by outmoded technology. On the most basic level, urban residents lack the digital resources to connect with their local policymakers. Rather than having to leave work or find a babysitter in order to speak with their city officials, citizens require a more efficient way to express concerns and stay abreast of changes in their city. Even in today’s digital climate, this point of connection should not exist on Twitter alone. “Tweeting is not a substitute for real political dialogue,” says Goldstein. Instead, she encourages the use of websites to promote conversations between citizens and their government.

In the absence of open lines of communication, residents can become disengaged with their local communities. When this happens, the entire city suffers. “In America and globally, people are thinking much less about their roles as citizens. We are beginning to get the kinds of governments that happen when we don’t care enough,” says Rose. To put a stop to this issue, city governments must become more transparent with their constituents. “We live in a world where there’s a lot of distrust between government and citizens,” adds Goldstein. “Part of that is because there’s a sense that decisions are being made behind closed doors.” In her many years of municipal work, Goldstein has found that residents often feel slighted by their city officials. When it comes to illegal conversions of public housing, for instance, neighborhoods assume they are the only ones confronting the issue. In reality, Goldstein says, illegal conversions are happening everywhere, but local governments have kept the issue hidden.

In particular, a lack of technology has allowed minorities to be excluded from the political process due to language or geographic barriers. Those with low literacy levels or limited English-speaking abilities, for instance, are frequently deterred from voting. Minorities also tend to live farther away from city centers and have limited access to transportation, making it difficult for them to reach a polling station. The use of online voting systems could easily solve this challenge, while making voting more efficient for the rest of the population.

While cities may never achieve a utopian vision of driverless transportation, ubiquitous broadband access, publicly shared data, and completely sustainable building practices, they are closer to this vision than ever before. In many areas, small changes such as expanding high-speed networks or creating government websites that engage with citizens can make a huge difference in the lives of residents. When it comes to their long-term agendas, however, cities must prioritize new technology. Failure to do so could have dire consequences for their residents, and the state of their city itself.

STEVEN PEDIGO is the Director of the NYUSPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab and a Clinical Assistant Professor for Economic Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies. He is also the Director of the Research and Advising for the Creative Class Group, an Associate Partner at Resonance Consultancy (Vancouver/ NYC), and a Senior Advisor for Leland Consulting(Portland). Follow him on twitter @iamstevenpedigo.

ARIA BENDIX is a writer for the NYUSPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, CityLab, Bustle, and The Harvard Crimson, among other publications. Follow her on twitter @ariabendix.