Why urban tech should empower cities, not solve them.

Stephen Larrick
Sep 19, 2018 · 5 min read
The kind of sword we have in mind is the kind made of felt, not the violent kind (Source: Snapshot from Stae.tv episode of where cities come from).

“Cities need a sword with which to defend themselves against Silicon Valley.” This, to my surprise, was one of the first things that John Edgar told me when I asked him why he started Stae, a new data management platform for municipal governments. Having experienced both the potential and the potential risks of urban tech while working for and with cities — first in government as a city planner in Central Falls, RI and most recently as an open data advocate directing the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities Team — I couldn’t agree with John more.

Though not the metaphor I would have expected, John was naming one of the defining problems facing the future of our urban communities. Corporations, startups, and venture capital alike are increasingly betting on urban tech that seeks to “disrupt” and “solve” the city. And, while data and new connected technology can and will play a critical role in helping cities face a slew of urban challenges in newer, more effective ways, it is telling that most “smart city” efforts and rhetoric are led by the corporate tech world — and what’s worse, few of these players are currently treating the city as a true partner, collaborator, or co-designer.

OpenPlans, which closed in 2015, embodied an inclusive and open approach to building city software. Their pop-up office in a parking space reflected their grounded, community-first approach (Source: OpenPlans, 2012).

Why Tech Needs Democracy
To anyone who cares deeply about defending an urban future centered around core democratic values of local agency and representation (myself included), our emergent urban innovation landscape is concerning. Whereas just a few years ago the space seemed spiritually defined by community-led open source projects and organizations that democratized information and decision making (e.g. OpenPlans), urban tech is now increasingly synonymous with large corporations — like Uber, AirBnB, Amazon and Google — making their own rules and waiting for communities to get with the program or else risk falling behind.

It doesn’t need to be this way. I believe wholeheartedly in the promise of technology to bring about better representation, services, and quality of life in our cities. As a city planner for the City of Central Falls, RI, technology was a critical tool for doing more with less and improving resident trust and engagement. I worked with companies like OpenCounter, Citizenvestor, and OpportunitySpace (now Tolemi) to share information about city property, processes, and projects and provide tools to lower the barriers for residents to have a say and get involved. As an open government advocate at the Sunlight Foundation, I helped city halls research and enact new open data policies to bring about more transparency and accountability in municipal government. I also supported the use of technology and data as a tool to empower those who have historically and systematically been left out of the decision making process, as part of our team’s vision for more just and open cities.

A common thread for this kind of work is that it conceives of data as a public asset that democratic government can utilize in ways accountable to and in the interests of the communities it represents. In other words, tech can improve our urban places when it empowers urban communities and the governments that represent them.

Co-Designing with Cities
This is a lesson we should have learned already. Our current fascination with modernizing the city is not new. Techno-solutionists have tried to remake the city before without consideration for local expertise, buy-in, and ownership, and it hasn’t worked out well. When 20th century modernist thinkers like Le Corbusier conceived a new city in apolitical and technological terms as a machine to be optimized for efficiency and modernized for the automobile, the effects on urban communities were disastrous. If we continue to cede public power to techo-solutionist, private interests, instead of empowering public interests, we are at risk of repeating these historical mistakes.

For all these reasons, a private sector urban-tech startup is the last place I thought I’d end up. Most urban challenges are fundamentally socio-political, not technological. And most “smart city” startups simply aren’t working on the kinds of problems and approaches that I thought would have the most impact.

The reason I joined Stae is that the team has no illusions of “solving” the city with technology. Instead, we’re working with technology to empower those who know their communities best—cities themselves—to use tech in ways that enhance their own solutions.

Data as a Public Good
Data can’t “solve” the city any more so than an architect’s rendering or a planner’s map can. It’s how we use and interpret these representations of urban places that ultimately leads to meaningful change. The key question then is “who is able to wield the data, decide what it looks like, and have access to it in the first place?” In a world where the most compelling urban representation is no longer a map, rendering, or photograph kept in city hall, but data about urban life that increasingly remains in private hands, cities are losing agency as deciders. By giving cities the tools to work with private partners on public terms, we’re working to ensure that smart city initiatives are led in ways that are democratically accountable and that data collected about the city can be used as a public asset regardless of whether the city itself is doing the collecting.

It is imperative that cities adopt the digital infrastructure to recapture urban data as a public asset and use it to empower the political decision-making that can help communities better address urban challenges and improve city life. I’m looking forward to tackling this challenge as part of the team at Stae by giving cities the sword they need to do just that.

Stephen Larrick is the City Partnerships Lead at Stae. Get in touch if you’d like to explore how to better manage your vendors and leverage data as public asset.

City as a Service

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