Tomorrow Belongs to Everybody: Rethinking Urban Innovation in an Age of Entanglement
By Alex Gillis
Matthew Claudel and Jonathan Lapalme are McConnell Cities for People Fellows. Matthew Claudel is working on his PhD at MIT, where he co-founded MIT’s designX program and Jonathan Lapalme is a member of Dark Matter Labs, the principal at Les Interstices and helped to create Entremise. Independent journalist Alex Gillis interviewed them about their recent work with Cities for People including RegX, a project dealing with regulatory experimentation and a new project entitled Legitimacities.
For more than 500 years, powerful individuals have devised ingenious ways to profit from public assets by privatizing value. Even before the modernist era began in the early twentieth century, when investors financed skyscrapers to profit from the air above our heads, the aristocratic classes in previous centuries fenced off and exploited forests and lakes, triggering conflicts and a few revolutions along the way.
Today, in cities across Canada and around the world, privatization and commodification of public places and resources continues, with digital tools replacing concrete fences and skyscrapers. Virtual services and software have taken over parts of our roads, homes, workplaces, food systems, airwaves and, in some cases, large chunks of our cities, without significant input, control and governance from citizens, communities and municipalities. Meanwhile, cities face dire futures — climate crises and skyrocketing inequality — yet Amazon, Google, Uber and technology companies sidestep issues related to climate change and social inequality as their digital-physical systems extract value from public spaces and urban dynamics, often in opaque ways involving personal data and financial engineering.
As Matthew Claudel puts it in his essay, Tomorrow Belongs to Everybody: “The underlying ethos of the modernist era still binds us today.” Claudel is a Fellow with McConnell’s Cities for People. The “ethos” he refers to is a belief that efficiencies, consolidated systems and ballooning economic growth are inherently good, a belief that downplays environmental and social consequences, especially in cities. “Digital tools have made this ethos less visible and more pervasive,” says Claudel, who’s working on a PhD at MIT, where he co-founded MIT’s designX program, an entrepreneurship accelerator in the School of Architecture and Planning.
“My work starts with the observation that typical, Silicon Valley-style innovation inevitably creates conditions of social and spatial inequality,” he says. Add to that environmental disasters and eroding trust in public systems. These, as well as low wages and more insecurity, are only a few consequences of new work spaces (through WeWork), living spaces (Airbnb), cars (Uber), food deliveries (Foodora), construction technology (Katerra), and so-called ‘smart cities’ (such as Sidewalk Toronto, from Google’s parent company, Alphabet).
Many of these networks brand themselves as part of the ‘sharing economy.’ In reality, they’re multi-billion ventures that extract value by subjecting stakeholder groups to conditions of risk and precarity. Also, ironically, they’re top-down systems controlled by small numbers of people, similar to other hierarchical ventures over the centuries.
“Part of the problem is the disparity of technical expertise between the companies and everyone else,” Claudel explains. “In many ways, no one really understands how these work, in their totality and in the long term. They aren’t governable with traditional political, legal and economic tools.”
“I find this troubling,” he adds, “but my response is to revisit the radical conditions of a technology design and to more intentionally create systemic pathways that shape its emergence. It will take a lot of trust, and so-called ‘innovation’ will probably be slower.”
Civic experimentation, not disruptions
“Moving forward from my critique of Silicon Valley-style innovation systems, the ambition of my work is to find alternative concepts of what it means to innovate for cities,” Claudel says. “That means new design methods, scale models, funding models, ownership and governance models, and success metrics. We need to question the basic premises of ‘company,’ ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘startup’ when we talk about the entities that create cities.’”
“We need to make new pathways available for innovators to be successful at creating civic value,” he adds. “Most bureaucratic systems are not amenable to experimentation, just as most venture capitalists are not amenable to public value — and both are necessary parts of a civic innovation process.”
He’s positive though, and he’s motivated to understand the systems of the world as they are, and hopes to transform them. “We can do better,” he says. “We don’t have all the answers, but we can definitely do better. I believe another urban future is possible.”
Jonathan Lapalme is of a similar mind. He’s a Fellow at Cities for People, as well as a member of the London-based Dark Matter Labs, the principal at Les Interstices and the co-founder of Entremise, a non-profit organization specializing in temporary and transitional uses for vacant buildings.
As part of the Fellowship, Lapalme is working on a few initiatives, including Nouveaux Voisins: “It’s a project that aims to challenge the culture of green lawns in Quebec, to make room for more biodiversity and to mitigate some of the effects of climate change, such as carbon sequestration in soils and reduction of heat islands,” he explains.
“Many projects I work on deal with urban informality in some way — street food, transitional uses of vacant buildings, urban nature and regulatory experimentation,” he says. “The dynamics between formality and informality, top-down and bottom-up, come down partly to the question of control in planning, or a need for control in planning. It also illustrates how binary our thinking is, how reductionist it is. I feel as though this connects to our very idea of knowledge and how we think about it.”
“Why is ignorance such an insult, rather than something to recognize, something that provides contours for ourselves and our species?” he asks. “Time and again, we’re faced with how much more ignorant we are than knowledgeable. If we ever truly thought we could fully understand and control nature and the world around us, climate change is showing us how ignorant we are. As I read recently, we went from the Age of Enlightenment to the Age of Entanglement. Now, we need to sense, think and proceed accordingly.”
He believes that in times of crises, we’re reminded to rethink the very idea of planning. “When a crisis occurs, usual ways of doing things often don’t apply anymore. It invites us to make more room for collective, informal wisdom, rather than prediction and control,” he says.
Sandboxes and bold action
Part of this “wisdom” in planning is transformative and imaginative: recently, Lapalme and Claudel helped to propose “regulatory experimentation labs” (or RegX labs) in Canadian cities, starting in Montreal. Co-designed with Dark Matter Labs, the City, OpenNorth, McConnell and la Maison de l’innovation sociale, the lab would create regulatory innovation and build legitimacy in public and private sectors and in civil society. This is an important proposal, as it recognizes that regulation is one of the most important roles of government, even as city governments find it nearly impossible to engage fully with Big Tech, such as Uber, Airbnb and massive urban-development proposals, such as Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, and Sidewalk Labs in Toronto.
“The societal crises of ecological collapse and inequality require bold collective action,” the RegX proposal states. “This is a time when human-planetary-technological relationships are being redefined — and this is a time characterized by fake news, hyper-monopolistic corporations, xenophobic nationalism, algorithmic opacity, and surveillance capitalism, all of which make the problems unintelligible, and solutions unimaginable.”
In response, one strategy would be to build partnerships that work with five cities across Canada to establish RegX labs and a new generation of regulatory “sandboxes,” as they’re also called. Originally, “sandboxes” were conceptualized as controlled environments to test innovations; for example, “living lab” areas of cities or financial technologies explored economic patterns. The RegX labs would be hybrid sandboxes in digital, physical, political, legal or economic spaces — and governed by civic assemblies, where new ideas for social or technological innovations could be tested. To support these, the proposal calls for a federated fund of $100 million to support digital infrastructure for the commons, such as civic data pools. It would all start in cities and communities, and go far beyond that.
“We need to develop a new sensitivity to the way life sustains itself and flourishes on a finite planet,” says Lapalme, quoting Daniel Christian Wahl, a biologist and designer. “Such deeper sensitivity, and the humility of acknowledging the limits of our knowing, is essential if we hope to apply our technological capabilities with wisdom and foresight.”
Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist and author who’s written for many of Canada’s mainstream publications. He’s also worked with community- and international-development organizations.