As the retail culling continues and the reconfiguration of office buildings gives way to more substantial retrofits, the commercial landscape of New York City’s neighborhoods is undergoing multiple, successive waves of change. How can new digital technologies make cities and urban systems productive again? What new sources of data on business, consumer, and workforce activity could be tapped to better inform both economic relief efforts and more resilient long-range planning? Urban Tech Hub Director Michael Samuelian led a conversation with local real estate, proptech, and economic development organizations on the future of enhanced urban systems and the future of New York City’s neighborhoods.

Key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Working and commuting patterns are going to change, but we don’t yet know how.
  • There’s an opportunity for bold urban tech innovation, but we haven’t yet fully seized it—the institutional desire isn’t entirely there yet.
  • Public schools will be the key to addressing inequality during the city’s recovery, yet face some of the biggest technological hurdles of any vital urban system.

 

How do futurists and their clients make sense of the intersection of emerging technologies and socioeconomic trends? What’s the difference between a prediction and a forecast? In this roundtable Anthony Townsend and Benjamin De La Peña take us on a guided tour of A Planet of Civic Laboratories: The Future of Cities, Information, and Inclusion (PDF • Miro), a ten-year forecast commissioned in 2010 to inform philanthropic efforts to use big data as a tool to help the urban poor. We discussed how the map was made, what we got right, what we missed, and how this experience informs the Urban Tech Hub’s ongoing horizon scanning work. We were joined by futurist Scott Smith of Changeist, author of the new book How to Future: Leading and Sense-Making in an Age of Hyperchange to hear about some of the changes in tech forecasting over the last decade, and also discussed Benjie’s ongoing work mapping the tech stack for informal mobility in the Global South.

Key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Open data has produced many innovations but not fully lived up to the enormous hype, and evolved in unexpected ways.
  • Power can’t be ignored in urban tech forecasting. Much of what we saw over the last ten years was existing institutions extending and remapping their power.
  • Retrospectives of forecasting efforts highlight both the content hits and misses, but more importantly the processes of sharing and interpreting the forecast.

 

A special joint session with the Cornell Tech Digital Life Initiative Seminar

Much of urban tech exploits today’s most ethically-charged technologies and business practices—such as indiscriminate location tracking, facial recognition, and gig work to fundamentally reprogram how urban systems function. As these failures become clearer, and broader awareness of systemic injustice in society grows, how can the emerging field of urban tech clarify choices between right and wrong? Cornell Tech’s Helen Nissenbaum and Anthony Townsend co-host a panel discussion featuring Molly Turner from UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, UNStudio’s Ren Yee, and Gary Johnson, Director of Strategy and Operations for the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer.

Key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Focus on first principle thinking – be clear about the problem you are trying to solve, and whose problems we are solving
  • We should anticipate a machine-readable world
  • Individuals should take charge of the ways in which their data is used
  • Urban innovation would focus on cross-domain synergy to develop and deliver better services to local residents
  • We have to incorporate vulnerable communities in user-centered design
  • We need smarter communities in order to have smart cities

 

Read a discussion paper by Cornell Tech Urbanist In Residence, Dr. Anthony Townsend, “What is urban tech? Definitions, aims, and ethical tensions” (PDF, 924k)

As cities face the biggest fiscal crisis in a generation or more, technology and innovation programs are among the first on the chopping block. Yet as European cities’ experience over the last decade has shown, it is possible to push an urban tech agenda forward under austerity. Cornell Tech Urbanist-In-Residence Anthony Townsend led a conversation with Sascha Haselmayer, the founder and CEO of CityMart and a New America Foundation fellow, discussing how cities can empower social entrepreneurs to co-produce government innovation.

Key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Structural shortcomings in local government are a persistent obstacle to urban tech adoption.
  • In the UK, procurement reforms allowed some local governments to embrace austerity budgets by tapping social entrepreneurs and co-production of services.
  • A shift in incentives from procurement transactions to service delivery is needed.
  • Urban tech must avoid overselling its cost-cutting potential in the near future.