Charles Rutheiser: How is technology impacting social and economic divisions in cities?

By Charles Rutheiser

Charles Rutheiser is a Senior Associate in Center for Community and Economic Opportunity at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland. He manages the Center’s grant portfolios relating to Anchor Institutions and Knowledge Development, and is part of the team that is developing the Casety Foundation’s next generation investment strategy in community change.

In his insightful mediation on the emergent nature of technology, What Technology Wants, the author Kevin Kelly makes the provocative assertion that our conventional ways of understanding and talking about technology are much too limited. Instead, he coins a new term the technium, to refer to “the greater, global, massively connected system of technology vibrating around us,” as opposed to specific “gear and gadgets.”  The technium, he argues, “behaves more like a very complex organism that often follows its own urges” and “is now as great a force in the world as nature.”

Urbanists have long thought of cities as kinds of organisms bestowed with a kind of sentience or even personality. They have also described global urbanization as an inexorable, almost natural force. Since the dawn of the urban age, cities have been dependent on clusters of technologies to build and sustain them. Cities stand as perhaps the most readily visible monuments of our ability to create or drastically modify, if not predict and control, our immediate environment. As the rates and extents of urban growth have increased, cities have become increasingly dependent on more, better and faster technological fixes. The multiple relationships and interdependencies between technology and urbanization make it alluring to think that the answers to all the problems of the latter are to be found in the former. While this vision is tempting, it reflects at best only a more partial and limited truth.

Reading and listening to various experts and visionaries, talk about how new technologies are driving profound changes in the ways in which we build, organize, govern, and live in cities, one can come away with the impression that there is almost no problem that the application of science and technology cannot solve.  The vision of the city they offer is of a sleek, toned and genetically modified cybernetic organism. What they often fail to notice is that this bright and shiny thing is to be built upon a living and profoundly uneven social foundation that, in the case of many of our coastal cities, is likely to be partially underwater by the end of the century.

Forty years ago, the designer Horst Rittel and the planner Melvin Webber observed that:

The professionalized cognitive and operational styles that were refined in the first half of the [20th] century based in Newtonian mechanistic physics are not readily adapted to contemporary conceptions of interacting open systems and to contemporary concerns with equity.

Rittel and Webber called such problems “wicked” as opposed to “tame” problems that could be solved through the application of the paradigms of science and engineering.  By calling them wicked, they were not making any judgment about the moral or ethical dilemmas the problems posed but the impossibility of defining and solving them because of their interconnectedness to other problems, as well as their recurrent nature, extreme context dependence, and the lack of shared interests, values, and goals among stakeholders. The latter is a crucial point, for the true wildness of wicked problems lies not with the difficulty of figuring ways of achieving a goal, but in sorting out which goals should be prioritized.

The notion of wicked problems experienced a brief vogue in the 1970s and generated a host of related concepts—social messes, super wicked problems, adaptive challenges—before receding into the maelstrom of ideas and concepts. Outside of software design and the evolving discourse on resilience, relatively few people talk explicitly about the wickedness of problems anymore. The implicit assumption appears to be that advances in science and technology have made the notion of wicked problems obsolete, a quaint exhibit in a museum of dead ideas. While it is undeniable that we have made much progress in identifying, forecasting and influencing, if not controlling, various kinds of open systems of near ridiculous levels of complexity, our willingness, much less our ability, to deal with questions of social equity, fairness, justice, and what used to be called the public good, has not kept up.  In fact, it has regressed. As the late historian Tony Judt lamented in one of his last works, Ill Fares the Land, these questions are often longer being asked.

No longer asking a question is a way of answering it, but it is not a satisfactory solution when the problems that sparked the question in the first place not only continue to exist but expand in extent and deepen in intensity.  In fact, in the United States, disparities in opportunity and virtually every life outcomes measure have increased dramatically over the last forty years. This inequality is most apparent in our cities and metropolitan regions, which have become increasing fractured and socially isolated places along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, generation and a multitude of other identities and interests.

It has become commonplace to refer to cities as “systems of systems.”  It is an appealing, but way too tidy notion, one that emphases the tame over the wicked nature of social problems.   Our cities are forests, riots, crazy carnivals of systems with different imperatives, rhythms, and logics, which are embedded within still larger systems that link cities with their immediate environments, hinterlands, and the world beyond.

Some of these systems, especially those that drive the essential infrastructures of urban metabolism, like water, power, sanitation and provisioning, that make such large and dense agglomerations of people possible, are relatively straightforward to identify, if extremely challenging to improve or integrate. These are systems that can be designed, planned, and optimized to be more productive, efficient, or resilient—although only up to a point and usually not all three.  And it is good they can be tinkered with in some reliable fashion, to be made smarter, for if these systems fail, the results will be widespread, catastrophic and immediate.

Other kinds of urban systems, public safety, education, criminal justice, and other institutional systems, can also be subjected to rational planning and implementation, but have proven to be much more resistant to merely technical fixes.  When these systems crash, as they have in far too many US cities, the results can be just as catastrophic as the failure of physical infrastructure, but the effects are often so spread out over time and so unevenly concentrated in space that they can be practically invisible to those who are not directly affected.

But the city is home to a far more diverse array of social institutions and systems that are not formally designed–those formed by the networks of networks that link and divide people by family, friendship, occupation, and shared geography and experience, as well as more invidious systems of patronage, corruption, and criminal enterprise, to name only a few.  These systems are even less visible to those who are not part of them, but this does not make them any less there.

New technologies to capture, aggregate, and analyze the digital traces of formal and informal social systems—Big Data—have amazing potential to allow us to visualize and understand the complex interactions, patterns, and leverage points of the many systems within cities. I, for one, look forward to the day when I am no longer constrained by the limitations of Census and American Community Survey data and the disconnects between data organizaed by census tract, zip code, and other incommensurate geographies.

The amount of data that is available today is simply mind-blowing, even before we move to a full-fledged “internet of things.”  We, or at least data miners and refiners, will know more about some people than they know themselves—where they are, everything they purchase, say, and do online. But the issue is that, while a lot more will be known about some people, less will be known about those who do not participate in our increasingly cyber-mediated world.  In fact, we may not even know that they are there and we are likely to not even recognize that we don’t know this.

We are used to thinking about the digital divide as an issue of access, but there is the potential that it can become a matter of existence. If we are not conscious and intentional about it, Big Data has the potential to create whole new categories of administrative invisibility for those who are already excluded from opportunity. As Emily Badger asks in a recent article in Atlantic Cities, “How do we avert a world where beneficial new digital tools perversely wind-up reinforcing real-world inequality, obscuring some communities while portraying others in-depth?” I’m not sure what the answer is, but it seems that a good place to begin is by recognizing that this is not just a potential, but a very present and wicked problem.

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