When you Google “Cities of Tomorrow” the search results are plentiful. Lots of thought leaders in business and academia are producing their own versions of what a city might look like 25, 50 or 100 years from now. Drones, driver less cars, artificial intelligence, health care breakthroughs. As you might expect, some projections are altruistic and others are self serving. A few, like Ford Motor Company’s, go a step further towards the implementation of their visions. They are all a bit different, but similarities around technological advancements in transportation and commercial activity dominate most of the scenarios.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fantasy of it all- the architecture, the automation, the promise of a better life. I imagine this is how people must have felt when America’s suburban experiment was first introduced in the middle of the last century. The promises then sound a lot like the promises now- better places to live, a better work/life balance, greater individual freedoms and everybody was going to be thin and good looking. The results of that experiment, as we know, are mixed.
As is usually the case, the innovations of these future cities will come from the private sector. Government plays a role, but the major impacts will come from corporate R&D, small businesses and wild eyed entrepreneurs. Think about transportation for a minute. First, technological breakthroughs bring new options for moving people around. Next, we rely on commercial interests to drive the change to the masses while government rides along creating ways to manage the change. It is an imperfect system to be sure, but its how things get done. A simplified historical transportation flowchart might look like this:
Walk > Horse > Carriage > Train > Automobile > Bus > Taxi > Car sharing > Uber > Autonomous Vehicle > The Jetsons
The flowchart looks basic enough, but deep challenges surface when the forms compete. Sometimes it is as simple as who gets the right-of-way?
So who gets the metaphorical right-of-way in the future city? The businesses who are driving change? The federal government through macro level policy? The states? The people in the cities? If I were asked to make an educated guess based on life in 2017, I would say that it isn’t clear.
Businesses at the highest levels are pushing to deregulate everything, from broadband deployment and internet access to housing laws and environmental protection. The Feds are, for the most part, willing partners. Some of the business reasoning for doing so is legitimate. After all, how do you roll out a national product when a patchwork of local laws govern the markets? Some of their other reasons aren’t so altruistic. Hyper partisanship in D.C. and the desire to create instant winners and losers make things even murkier.
States, who still claim that there are such things as single state economies (hint: there aren’t!), are bigger actors on the economic scene than in the past. They play the deregulation game as well, and both the Feds and the states love to give away tax revenue and governing authority, especially when it is not their own money and power. (i.e. the Feds diminish state powers and the states take from the cities)
As a result, local government finds itself in an odd predicament. On the one hand, they are challenged as the recipients of the aforementioned fall out from state and federal decision makers. Their authority is in question, they work under outdated financial rules and remain subject to the latest whims of national politics. Yet, local governments have the most capacity of the three levels to deal with change, in part because there is nobody else to which they can pass the buck. They also enjoy a higher moral standing than the other layers among citizens because they are more accessible and the results of the their actions are available to see on a daily basis. People like their policies shaped at the ‘lowest’ levels because they see their own autonomy being protected. Regardless of their political viewpoints, citizens see great value in a decision making hierarchy that looks something like this:
Individual > Family > Neighborhood > City > Region > State Government > Federal Government > International treaty > Klingons
Let’s take something like housing policy to prove what’s laid out above. Decisions about internal decor and the quality of household appliances are left to individuals and families. But if a family wants to add an addition on to their house then people who live on their block would be impacted too, so their opinions should matter. My guess is, after some thought, they would begrudgingly see a need to get the city’s approval to make sure that the new structure complies with safety laws and fits within the existing housing stock. But, if they’re pushed to go beyond that to regional, state and federal levels for sign- off, their collective blood pressure would spike and the enthusiasm for the work will plummet.
The example shows that people are usually willing to make reasonable compromises to conform with their neighbors, but seldom pleased with having to obey decisions made by people who they will never meet. It makes sense.
But here is where the rub comes in. As businesses get bigger and economies of scale dominate corporate decision making, the desires of business for a one-size-fits-all regulatory environment are in total conflict with how individuals prefer policy decisions are made. People read the example above from left to right. Business wants it read from right to left, presumably minus the Klingon input. Those corporations who are banking on financial returns from new product launches that feature game changing technology are among the biggest champions of this thinking. Which is all fine and dandy, until its not.
Here are some questions that I think about when envisioning the future city.
- How must city government change to better represent important local matters within a global economy? Where does public start and private stop?
- How does city hall provide an effective platform for a roll out of, say, autonomous cars?
- Who decides what technology goes where? Is it simply a market issue and, if so, will this make rich cities richer and poor cities poorer?
- Who builds the new infrastructure? And who maintains it? And who pays for it?
There are scores of other unanswered questions, just like there were at the onset of the suburban experiment. The big difference between then and now is the added pressure to get it right brought by the global impact of these decisions.