By Josh Coker
Rethinking the City: The Underlying Principles of Urban Tech
On October 28, 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic that has for many supplanted personal interaction with virtual communication, four individuals shared their visions on how technology can bring communities together—if guided by ethical first principles.
Dr. Anthony Townsend, an urban planner who is currently working through Cornell Tech, co-hosted the seminar while presenting some of his own research on “urban tech,” a nascent field that attempts to solve traditional civil engineering and urban planning concerns through the use of software and digital information management. Expressing concerns soon to be echoed by the other speakers, he noted that urban technology has revitalized a number of fundamental debates about the role of the city, including the tensions between public and private, opportunity and oversight, and equity versus efficiency. As an example, the increasing use of mass data—particularly facial recognition and location tracking—in cities has, at least according to some analysts, improved the efficiency of critical infrastructure and transportation, but at a cost to privacy and the balance of influence between private and public authorities.
Molly Turner, a specialist in urban tech integration who has experience as a public policy consultant for tech startups, echoed many of these concerns. According to Turner, tech’s “big question” is “who controls the narrative?”. Often, a new technology is like a piece being fit into a puzzle, filling a hole in a bigger, yet-incomplete picture, rather than changing the developing character of the picture. Turner noted that many tech leaders intentionally attempt to avoid political controversies by focusing on a surface-level problem and “fixing” it. Turner used Elon Musk’s proposed solution to traffic congestion, underground tunnels, as a case study. Yet because these “fixes” fail to consider the underlying cause of the problem, they often simply reinforce the problem. Rather than reducing congestion by reducing the use of personal vehicles in cities, tunnels would increase their use and further entrench the environmental and logistical issues caused by car culture.
Instead, Turner recommended using what she called “first principles thinking.” By taking a moment to ask yourself what (and whose) objective or narrative is furthered by a proposed tech solution, proposed tech solutions can be far more effective at solving society’s problems. Further, a discussion of first principles allows for greater public input and helps avoid reinforcing preexisting inequalities and injustices.
The third presenter, Ren Yee, helped show what a visionary approach to urban planning can look like when actually implemented. Yee is an urban developer who works at UNSense, a Dutch tech startup that specializes in using sustainability and equitable principles to develop better, smarter cities. These principles were the foundation of the “100 Homes Project,” a planned test neighborhood. The objective driving this project is to improve socio-economic status by planning a neighborhood that reduces the four main costs for Dutch households: housing, food, mobility and health. This goal is to be achieved by merging sustainable planning principles with a digital platform called the “Urban Data Platform,” which collects the personal data necessary to predict and coordinate the needs of the neighborhood, while also allowing individual residents to control which of their data is released to the Platform.
Control over personal data was a central concern for Yee. He contrasted the Urban Data Platform with the currently dominant model oriented around digital monopolies that collect and retain personal information without feedback from users. By allowing users to see what data has been collected and to decide which data is to be suppressed and which is to be kept private, a middle ground is found that utilizes the benefits of data without prohibiting data collection on privacy grounds or entrusting it entirely to a largely unaccountable digital monopoly. Yee believed that this would increase public trust in digital companies and would create value for more stakeholders than just the digital monopoly itself.
Gary Johnson, the final speaker, is the Director of Strategy and Inclusive Entrepreneurship in a division of the NYC Mayor’s Office. In that role, Johnson is heavily involved in facilitating cooperation between private tech interests and the City of New York. Johnson gave a hands-on view of urban tech, discussing both the promise and challenge presented by technology and its intersection with urban planning. As a point of contact between the public and private sphere in NYC, Johnson regularly deals with the ethical considerations that the previous speakers discussed.
One of the key ethical concerns Johnson discussed is the question of community buy-in. Because most urban tech originates with a private actor who retains proprietary control over much of the tech, there is typically no natural forum for community input on the impact of this technology. The problem, as Johnson described, is particularly acute for vulnerable communities that have difficulty influencing the actions of private actors. This creates a need for the public sphere and individuals like Johnson, who, acting on the behalf of a local government driven by more traditional democratic processes, gives communities a way to have their say in urban tech. By discussing the impact of various proposed tech developments in the city on people of color and on lower-income communities, Johnson stressed the need for a private-public interface that helps ensure that all stakeholders, and not just the most powerful, are brought into the technological future.
Although they came from different backgrounds and worked in different areas of urban planning, the four speakers shared a cautious optimism about the use of tech to improve the lives of urban populations, provided that the tech is guided by equity and is responsive to the needs of all of the people within the cities. Technology, like any other tool, is only as beneficial as the broader objective it furthers.