Urban Technology and the Social Contract
I recently hosted a fascinating roundtable discussion with a select group of property and technology leaders on the UrbanOvation platform.
Gerald Parkes /Founding Partner PCPE (London)
Roelof Opperman / Partner FIFTH WALL(London)
Francesco Iorio / CEO AUGMENTA (Toronto)
Thomas Sevcik / Co-Founder ARTHESIA (Zurich)
Eime Tobari / Founder COCREATIF (London)
Jeremy Burke / Co-Founder ARETIAN (Boston)
Mercedes Vidal Lobato / CEO DIVIDAL (Malmo)
Bill Kistler / Founder URBAN OVATION (London)
We set out to address ‘Urban Technology and the Social Contract’. We began by recognizing why cities fulfil a fundamental social contract, the implicit exchange that governs our acceptance and support of institutions. When we choose to live in cities, we give up some rights and liberties in exchange for the potential access to other opportunities. We share the experience of these cities with other people; more likely than not, our fellow citizens also share many of our social values and identities.
With the advantage of some perspective, McKinsey and others have begun to explore how our understanding of the social contract has been shifting in recent years. For the purposes of our discussion, we chose to focus more narrowly on how social media and ‘smart-city’ tech has affected urban land. The management of cities increasingly relies on urban technology. How do emerging technologies define new forms of shared experience? Will new forms of shared experience shift our underlying social values?
In the last two decades, accelerating structural changes have been disrupting our economic markets and the expectations we have of our institutions. In the emerging world of urban tech, politicians can’t promise things because they increasingly don’t have the answers. We increasingly rely on urban tech capabilities to improve planning decisions and operations. But in our search for social conscience, we rely on shared experience. We are not sure if we can rely on platform algorithms for that shared experience. Social media companies prey on naïve consumers, and the lack of understanding by politicians.
Some of us highlighted how the worlds of Zoom and other social media have been exacerbating social differences. Many people no longer have the neutral physical ‘workplace’ as a levelling force in our society. We have emerging ‘background’ envy, new semiotics of class status. Everyone seems to be moving to Monaco; it’s as if we are living in the values of the film ‘Elysium’.
We considered how we are already living in a synthetic world that is increasingly like multi-agent simulation game like ‘Second Life’. People are ‘moving out’. Social platforms and other technologies depopulate and disaggregate our core urban worlds; what agency does the city offer in that regime? Where is the shared experience? Perhaps technology allows citizens to gain visibility when they participate in city operations through their behaviour; participating in the tech city with clear rules allows player/citizens to see each other in new and promising ways.
Perhaps the ‘Dirty City’ or ‘Un-Smart City’ offers advantages over an idealized world where urban tech aims to create a transparent, frictionless world. Past innovations like the automobile restructured the physical world; new tech innovations like digital social and governance systems do the same. But as in the past, these changes don’t do away with our human need for anonymity. We still value intimate experience and local knowledge over total transparency. Algorithms that allow us to become hyper-selective (for example optimizing an urban development to appeal to a specific demographic) often have perverse outcomes. We often get better results when we don’t know exactly who we want to meet.
Physical concentration creates traditional property value. Shared physical experience and building on the character of local identities justifies rents. Emerging technology separates the physical and digital identities of groups. Technology can be used to democratize representation, but perhaps stakeholding will increasingly rely on rights that derive from relationships rather than ownership.
We reminded ourselves how postal codes are proxies for traditional property value; in an emerging urban tech world, we are creating similar proxies that define attraction and relative value. The challenge for contemporary democracies is the propagation speed of information. Social media often doesn’t provide the context that allows us to avoid bias and digital shaming; it is hard to discern truth in our social systems when information disseminates and mutates faster than we can socialize and stabilize its meaning.
We increasingly accept the city as a resilient organism; well-functioning large-scale human agglomerations offer safety to the broader pack - for example: resistance to environmental disasters and crime. Urban technology, when combined with the density of cities, creates opportunities for large-scale circularity. Our digital and physical worlds are blending together. We may always maintain our social dilemmas, but technology allows us to crowdsource government priorities and physical resources and improve our quality-of-life.
We gradually settled on some common themes. Some of us in the conversation evoked time before the internet: 30 years ago, IBM believed there might be a global market of 40,000 laptops. We don’t know what the tech-enabled business model will be five years from now. Technology promises unimagined speed of connectivity, but we aren’t sure if that will strengthen or weaken shared experience and our social fabric; will we develop into a world of extroverts or introverts?
The confluence of social media and ‘smart-city’ tech has created at least one positive trend; it is also creating new neo-urban concentrations in previously disconnected areas. Remote working allows us to rebalance regions, seed populations into territories that otherwise struggle economically. Tech-enabled populations outside of traditional urban cores can now offer both hyper-local physical life and digitalized global reach – a cybernetic hybrid.
We accept that urban tech would continue to enhance the capabilities of city-scale operations, but we also recognize how algorithms can over-define identities, creating unintended negative consequences. For all the promise of a frictionless world and the platform economy, we find that we still instinctively need urban and social tech to guarantee some of the randomness and anonymity of the traditional city. Perhaps part of our evolving social contract will require that our institutions shouldn’t perform as perfectly or predictably as we think they should?