Who’s Converging on City Charter Reform?

Over the summer, I got thinking about the diferent threads of the ‘re-thinking cities and city government’ movements that I’ve helped along, run into, or heard of in the last few years. This post lays out some of the forces I see getting into the fray, and the key areas where they are bumping into the limits of current urban governance models.

An incomplete inventory would include at a minimum:

Smart cities — those that are using big data, IoT, sensors and actuators, and all that stuff to fix and redo the infrastructure — really the material basis of cities. A sub-branch of this is the data-driven city management movement embodied by Bloomberg Philanthropies and others.

Civic tech — Wikipedia says: “Civic technology is technology (mainly information technology) that enables engagement or participation of the public for stronger development, enhancing citizen communications, improving government infrastructure, and generally improving the public good.” So, the municipal/community/neighborhood branch of that gang.

Open data — both an offshoot of civic tech and a bigger and broader wrapper for it, this is all about transparency, but becomes most powerful and interesting at the local level when it gets wrapped up in social and environmental innovation.

Sharing economy —the urban thread on this has two sides, often at odds, or shouting past each other into the darkness, the neo-leftists who see it as a path out of capitalism and the uber-capitalists like, well, Uber, who are mainly adopting a few key bits of sharing to drive business model innovation and usually getting tangled up in long-standing local regulation in the process.

Municipal wireless / free and open networks — I helped start this one way back when… people who think that telecommunications ought to be a co-operative thing, and is easily made so. It’s modern form is revolving around neighborhood Internet of Things backhaul which is a beautiful, beautiful idea.

Urban science — higher ed is moving into urban studies in the biggest way in a generation or more. Lots of new labs, all with their own ideas and agendas about what needs fixing and how to do it.

Bumping Up Against The Limits of Urban Government

That’s an awful lot. It’s hard to see how it all fits together into some kind of coherent shift. But each of these movements has started to bump up against the prevailing structure of urban government in some pretty fundamental ways.

The smart cities crew is finding that governments can’t seem to finance smart infrastructure upgrades, nor procure them in a sensible way when they do.

Open data advocates are finding that the movement is reaching a turning point — easy gains may have been exhausted in leading nations and the hard work of prying truly sensitive (and valuable) data out of agency hands. My hunch is this is particularly evident at the local level when the statuatory commitments to open data are far fewer and far between, and media and advocate pressure is noticabley less intense.

The sharing economy is more of a melee. The battles of the corporate heavyweights, like Uber and AirBnB are well known, and the critics in the know make a good case they have nothing to do with sharing anyways. I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about this, and believe that we’re really in for decades of this. Most sharing schemes only manipulate one or two economic characteristics (rivalry and excludability), and do so with a very rudimentary applicaiton of technology. There are literally thousands of technology-enabled strategies for sharing space, assets, and knowledge in cities. Each and every one challenges multiple dimensions of the status quo about how conflicts over urban resources and behavior are regulated.

Free networks are not as active as they once were (though in a handful of both urban and rural districts around the world they loom large)— and their main struggle has always been with national telecoms regulators — I’m expecting them to challenge any hints of a convergence on one-network-to-rule-them-all schemes for IoT backhaul.

Urban science is going to cause some cataclysmic fights over mass surveillance of citizens and data privacy, though we are 5–10 years from really appreciating the scope of how the data-driven approaches to running cities are truly at odds with citizens’ rights and interests (yes, Minority Report. on steriods). Chicago got a taste of this with a recent kefluffle over the Array of Things privacy policy as did New York over the LinkNYC smart payphone deployment, but trust me, this is not going away and it will get much much worse. There is a broad lack of data ethics and human subjects concerns or skills throughout this movement, and so far I don’t see university researchers bringing much to the table. Phrases like ‘synoptic urban sensing’ may sound great to your fellow scientists, but they scare the pants off voters — rightly so. Getting to the good, ethical science that actually improves city life is going to require some very smart and dedicated people to navigate the minefields ahead.

The civic tech gang for some reason — probably because it is their target and they are nibbling off what they think they can actually achieve in the short run — hasn’t really articulated the fault lines in its interactions with city governments. When I listen to those exchanges it seems a little too cozy, as if the civic tech players are just waiting to be brought into government to drive the change from within.

Next week, I’ll start framing out the new city charter that starts to tie some of these threads together, and move this all towards a more aligned municipal reform agenda.