Why fast tech is not and should not be a city cureall
How many times do we have to be disappointed by citymaking's next "panacea" before we realize there will NEVER be a silver bullet answer to solving the beautiful, chaotic mess that is a city organism? This might seem odd for a "tech" company to say, but tech alone will NOT save cities - in fact, no one thing alone will save cities!
It's not as simple as A, B, C...
I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University (just blocks away from my childhood home in Miami where my mother still lives and even closer to my aunt and cousin). Slightly over 48 hours after arriving in Oslo, my CTO, Andy and I were attending a OuiShare event on Smart Mobility. Yes, the irony is not lost on me. Before the CNN alert nearly made my heart stop with the news (hard to do these days given their regularity), I had been thinking, do we really need to be throwing so much tech around to make cities more accessible, more walkable, more livable...
$14.2 Million Dollars
$14.2 million dollars. That's the price of the "tech" applied to "fix" the lack of walkability (to put it mildly) around the FIU campus in Miami. Namely, $11.4M in federal TIGER funds* was applied toward the "purchase" of a pedestrian bridge, built using "accelerated bridge construction" (ABC), partly in response to students' protests after one of their own was killed by a vehicle while trying to cross Southwest 8th Street (even though they had been granted funding back in 2013). Now, let's talk about 8th street for a minute..."Calle Ocho" as it's referred to in Miami. Not intentionally eponymously named, this 8-lane monster of a road should not be acceptable as a city street, no less one abutting an international university with over 55K students. With a State of Place Index of 23, it's a highway by any other name. It's an abomination. It's a killer.
Cars (and Tech) before people
But rather than create a plan for better transit access, rather than add more pedestrian friendly street features, rather than, god forbid, take away a few vehicle lanes lest we, gasp, inconvenience drivers (all of which was seemingly part of the original TIGER grant application - see page 18), officials threw "tech" at the problem and created a fancy, ribbon-cutting "worthy" project (focused on minimizing any disruption to vehicle traffic) and patted themselves on the back for a job well done.
Now normally, the cost would be that pedestrians would continue to be treated as second-class citizens, the last rung on the mobility totem pole, forced to climb up and down stairs, and cross a sea of concrete, in the sweltering Miami heat whilst drivers zipped along in their comfortable, air-conditioned cars. But devastatingly, we know that the actual cost was far, far worse. You do the math, $14.2 million dollars for a yield of 6 lives lost OR $14.2 million dollars that could have been spent toward a wide landscaped, pedestrian promenade median, wider sidewalks, street trees, and curb bulb outs, to produce a State of Place Index of 62.6 (nearly 30 points more than the original score), a yield of nearly 12X ROI and no lives lost (download a report of this analysis below)...Maybe we should at least start testing out the costs and benefits of tech or any proposed solution before we hand out TIGER grants or otherwise...
$80 Billion Dollars
$80 billion dollars. At least. This is the amount spent thus far on developing the tech for autonomous vehicles (based on a Brookings study released in October 2017). Most of this has been spent just from 2015-2017. You can assume this has significantly increased since the study's numbers were compiled. And you don't need to be the betting type to guess the price tag's going to grow exponentially in the next few years to come.
And people are excited. Even more excited than the folks that rallied to welcome the 950 ton piece of concrete meant to increase safety and convenience in Miami. Even as a non-car enthusiast, I get it - Black Mirror (without the creepiness), Futurama, The Jetsons IRL (millenials, I know I'm dating myself, but do yourself a favor and google this awesome 80s show about robot maids and briefcases that morph into flying cars). It's exciting to think of all the ways tech can make our lives better - believe me, as a "Xennial," in-between gen x-er/millenial, my mini-generation may be the one that's experienced the biggest technology continuum. It's been fascinating to go from being tethered to a phone with a rotary dial to feeling naked (and helpless) when I leave my smart phone at home.
Enough with build it and they will come
But tech as a solution to city problems...tech as THE solution to city problems...we know better. Or we should. Every single time ciytmakers have let themselves be lulled into a utopian promise of environmental determinism - that as long as you followed some design dogma you'd produce your desired result - they've been handed a raw deal. The Uber autonomous vehicle accident, interestingly only 4 days after the pedestrian bridge collapse, is a sad, but important reminder of that.
K.I.S.S. Put people first and all will follow
Now, this isn't just because we need to ensure stricter safety standards before entrusting a two-ton "weapon" roaming city streets to a computer (it's near-certain we'll get there eventually). It's because, as with the pedestrian bridge, we can't just throw tech at the problem because we don't want to deal with the more fundamental but more challenging issues that ultimately could have been solved by better urban design or because it's sexier, more "innovative," or "smarter" (yes, I know people would have NIMBYd the crap out of suggesting to put Calle Ocho on a road diet, but that's exactly the kind of project that State of Place can help defend, and fund). Making something more "efficient" with tech doesn't make it more "effective." Tech must be a means to an end, not the end itself when it comes to citymaking. And often, parsimonious solutions - or the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) technique is the most effective and efficient.
As with the pedestrian bridge solution, we must be cautious of adopting autonomous vehicles as the fix. As Andy, our CTO, recently pointed out, autonomous vehicles can actually help citymaking efforts in some respects, but cities must not look to them as the only answer, and certainly, they must not adapt cities to adapt to them. And amazingly for us, that's what the city of Oslo is doing, opting to focus on other, more human-scaled solutions to make the core more pedestrian friendly and leveraging tech to enable autonomous transit.
Ultimately, cities must first make places people can conveniently walk or bike to, places people want to linger in, places people feel excited to work in, places people love to come home to, or awesome places people love. To the extent that tech - autonomous vehicles or otherwise - can facilitate this reality, AMAZING! That's definitely what we're betting on with State of Place. But to the extent we get to the point that we're praying at the altar of tech, run far, far away.
Dig into the data details behind our analysis (and find out what changes we added) to make FIU a more awesome, safer place that people love even more!
Sources for forecast report: