The City as Platform

In the age of ubiquitous Internet connections, smartphones and data, the future vitality of cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital networks in intelligent, strategic ways. While we are accustomed to thinking of cities as geophysical places governed by mayors, conventional political structures and bureaucracies, this template of city governance is under great pressure to evolve. Urban dwellers now live their lives in all sorts of hyper-connected virtual spaces, pulsating with real-time information, intelligent devices, remote-access databases and participatory crowdsourcing. Expertise is distributed, not centralized. Governance is not just a matter of winning elections and assigning tasks to bureaucracies; it is about the skillful collection and curation of information as a way to create new affordances for commerce and social life.

That's the opening paragraph from my new report for the Aspen Institute, “The City as Platform: How Digital Networks Are Changing Urban Life and Governance.”  (pdf file download here). The report synthesizes discussion at an Aspen Institute Communications and Society conference last July. About thirty technologists, urban planners, policy experts, economic analysts, entrepreneurs, and social justice advocates shared insights into how networking technologies are transforming urban life, commerce and government.

I wrote the report as a rapporteur, not a commons advocate, but it’s abundantly clear that the sharing and collaboration facilitated by digital networks are spawning all sorts of new commons and hybrids (e.g., government/commons and government/corporate collaborations). The focus of the conference was mostly on US cities, but these things are happening worldwide, especially in cooperation-minded global cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Seoul.  In the US, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in the vanguard, in part because of San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley tech firms and in LA, because everyone there lives on their smartphones.

Peter Hirshberg, a former Apple executive who is now Chairman of the City Innovate Foundation in San Francisco, explains that a networked city is not just a grid of communications and sensors. It’s a vision of city governments “engaging with citizens in acts of co-creation. It is about acts of democracy, care and ownership of the city, and even acts of collaboration among different cities. How do you network and get smart together? How do we learn and build as a network?” Another participant, Stefaan Verhulst of the GovLab at NYU, put it this way:“The networked city sees citizens as co-designers, co-producers and co-learners” with government.

To regard the city as a platform is to shift away from the centralized command-and-control models of city governance – “the experts know best,” “city bureaucracies have the right systems” -- to a model that invites decentralized participation and innovation by citizens via networks. It means open data systems, “push” text notifications to citizens, and crowdsourcing of information to improve city management.This can (should) involve shifts of power, wealth and voice in city life.

Traditional modes of representative politics and bureaucratic administration have been around for decades, even centuries, and are generally designed to exercise strict control. They have produced a well-developed worldview and professional culture that prizes fixed rules and regularities.But ubiquitous networks and digital devices change all this.  They enable new forms of “platform governance” -- network-based modes of interacting with citizens and producing services.

The shift to the city-as-platform is not just a technological issue, however (better websites, more broadband, etc.), but fundamentally an institutional and cultural challenge. How can old-style organizational structures be jettisoned or revamped in order to exploit the enormous potential of open networks? Government administration becomes less about turf than about managing flows of information in cross-agency ways.

There are lots of examples. The City of Los Angeles has a partnership with Waze, a smartphone app that gives real-time tracking of traffic delays and problems. Data flows upward from motorists to Waze about traffic accidents, police traps, potholes, etc.,, and the City shares with Waze its data about construction projects, big events and other things that may affect traffic. It resembles a commons in the collective sharing of information, but it's ultimately in the hands of a private, proprietary company, Waze.

The City of Los Angeles is also working with the Getty Museum to invite people to provide geo-references to historic photos. The project, HistoricPlacesLA, is an “open source, web-based, geospatial information system for cultural heritage inventory and management.”  The City has also developed a smartphone app, PulsePoint, that lets emergency responders mobilize off-duty paramedics and ordinary citizens trained in CPR to come to the aid of people experiencing cardiac arrests in public places.

One of the more fascinating civic innovation is “urban prototyping” -- the rapid iteration of possible scenarios for a city space to which anyone can contribute, open-source style. The City of San Francisco has used this process to help city planners re-imagine Market Street, a highly commercial district that is not particularly engaging or sociable. The city put out a call to artists and ordinary city residents to suggest new types of street installations, performance spaces, relaxation zones, etc. for a two-mile stretch of Market Street. Then in April 2015, the city closed down the street, installed fifty installations, and closely monitored how people engaged with the installations. The idea has brought open source principles to urban planning.

I really loved hearing how the lessons of the online gaming world might be applied to improving urban life.  Flint Dille, the creative lead for the online ame Ingress, described how this geo-mobile alternative reality game changes how people interact with public spaces.  In the game, people roam urban spaces with the smartphones, and the phone screens superimpose a game narrative on public landmarks, buildings, art installations and other sites (“portals”) around the world.  The game, which is played in real-time by millions of people in dozens of cities, invests the physical structures of cities with rich emotional meanings that make sense in the context of the game. 

In this way, Ingress functions as a “fictional overlay” on the city’s public spaces and creates new meanings for actual city spaces via the shared virtual reality.  Dille said that a key lesson to be learned from Ingress is the ability to “change people’s attitudes and perceptions of what they’re doing in public spaces” – just as fictional portrayals of London by A. Conan Doyle, of Los Angeles by Raymond Chandler and of San Francisco by Dashiell Hammett, changed how people regard public spaces there.

While the city-as-platform is seen by many as a way to spur economic growth, productivity and jobs, tech systems may also have the opposite effect for substantial segments of the urban population -- i.e., greater inequality and social stratification. We've seen how Uber reduces the security and income of many drivers, and how the tech-based economy worsens many disparities in skills and education.  The painful social clashes between rich and poor in San Francisco, the high-flying coders moving into the city and the homeless sleeping on the streets, has never been more conspicuous. This poses serious challenges to city governments and policy that have not been well-addressed:  how to assure social equity and income security?

Personally, I think some of the answers may lie in the subtle but important differences between the city as a platform and the city as a commons.  There are also significant overlaps between the two (just as “open platforms” and “digital commons” share a lot), but ultimately the two have divergent priorities. The former focuses on business-promoting technical aspects of digital sharing, and is ultimately less concerned with who owns, manages and sets policies for the platforms and data. The “city as a commons” regards these concerns as critical and favors greater bottom-up control. In any case, there will surely be an explosion of creative innovation in the years ahead as people use tech platforms to re-imagine city life.