What's Next
for Urban Tech?

A Cornell Tech Urban Tech Hub Roundtable

December 15

2:30 to 4:00 pm

Defending Density: The Future of Urban Systems in New York

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 will lead a conversation with local real estate, transportation, and economic development organizations on the future of enhanced urban systems and the future of New York City’s neighborhoods. Register here.

Michael Samuelian
Cornell Tech

Rohit Aggarwala
Sidewalk Labs

Rachel Haot
Transit Innovation Partnership

Seth Pinsky
92nd Street Y

Go back in time.

Use the players below to replay any of our events, or head over to our YouTube channel for the highlights at our 2-Minute Takes playlist.

September 30

Embracing Austerity: How Will Cities Innovate?

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.

October 28

The Platform Insurgency: Does Urban Tech Have an Ethics Problem?

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)

November 17

Did We Get It Right? The Making of A Ten-Year Urban Tech Forecast

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 (PDFMiro), a ten-year forecast commissioned in 2010 to inform philanthropic efforts to use big data as a tool to help the urban poor. We’ll discuss 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’ll be 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.

Special bonus topic: We’ll also discuss Benjie’s ongoing work mapping the tech stack for informal mobility in the Global South.

Cities are rebooting.

We all expected that reopening cities would be harder than shutting them down. But few appreciated just how challenging it would be. In New York City, transit, housing, schools, retail, tourism, and office life are all still severely disrupted. 

But even if, and when, day-to-day activities return to their pre-pandemic routine, the virus has permanently reshaped our urban future. It exposed striking inequalities in large cities—migrants, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, women and the elderly were all hit hard. A full recovery means systematically dismantling the biases and blockages that created so much isolation and vulnerability. City governments, many believe, need a full reboot, running a new batch of code.

Urban Tech is Rebooting Too.

Digital technology has rapidly transformed how we live, work, and play in cities. With software in our pockets syncing everything from taxis to takeout and tango lessons, we’ve squeezed more desks, beds, and restaurant seats into the same old street grids than ever before. And created astonishing dynamism and untold wealth in the process. 

Now, many of these dreams are on hold. Technology is being used mostly to flee cities rather than flock to them. And the toxic fallout of the “surveillance capitalism” gold rush is still being calculated. Even so, technology will certainly play a role in building better cities for the future. New data is needed to choreograph the post-pandemic urban ballet. But the next generation of urban tech must be built on a solid ethical foundation, so it doesn’t create new problems or exacerbate the ones it is trying to solve. 

A Yearlong Series of Roundtables...

…will set a proactive path for effective, ethical urban tech. The launch of the Urban Tech Hub, housed within the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, provides an ideal venue to simultaneously assess the future of cities, and the future of urban tech by convening  a diverse range of discussions about the definitions, aims, and ethics surrounding urban tech.

In the fall, we’ll probe the foundations of urban tech, asking fundamental questions:

  • What is urban tech? What are its core challenges, assumptions, aims, and methods?
  • Who isn’t contributing to the development of urban tech, and does this hold us back—creating barriers to access, unequal benefits, and ethical dilemmas? 
  • How can we create a new tech field that is both innovative and inclusive?
  • How can we think more systematically about the future of urban tech? What trends should drive our basic and applied research agenda, and institutional and collaborative capacity to advance the field?

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