Fixing our cities will take a village
If this past year has taught us one thing, it’s that we need our villages.
Many of us are getting through this difficult time because of them – the neighbors who create a childcare pod, the grassroots organizing that has ensured that people in need are fed, the family members and friends who have taken in people without jobs or homes. People have come together to accomplish great things.
It’s a lesson that we can take and apply on a larger scale in our cities. For a long time, tech giants have competed to bring forth innovative solutions that make our cities more environmentally friendly, livable places. Cities are big; we can’t be blamed for thinking that massive, top-down solutions were necessary to solve massive urban transportation and environmental problems. But as shown by Sidewalk Labs’ failed attempt to build a connected city in Toronto, or Cisco’s decision to fold its smart city arm, bigger isn’t always better.
For billions of dollars spent on these projects and ambitious plans made, we are still left with many of the same challenges. The lesson learned? Sometimes the village can accomplish things more effectively than a corporation or bureaucracy can. In the case of massive urban transportation and environmental issues, the village we need goes beyond policymakers and legacy corporations. It’s made up of startups and entrepreneurs; industry associations and trade groups; students and professors across all realms of academia. It’s made up of think tanks and nonprofit organizations; healthcare facilities; and local media organizations that spread news across our communities. When we approach the problems of our cities in a siloed manner, we fail to leverage the community of solutions out there. To enact holistic change, we must involve the entire village—and expand collaboration beyond just one-off surveys or limited windows of public comment.
This new wave of collaboration is happening today in cities like Santa Monica, where public officials are gathering insights from climate experts, delivery companies, small business leaders, community leaders and our curbside tech management firm to find new ways to reduce emissions. In this project, all parties are working together to create the nation’s first zero-emissions delivery zone. Each seat at the table has something different to offer: the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator shares emissions reduction strategies, Santa Monica’s mayor weighs in on climate concerns in her community.
Automotus leverages computer vision technology to understand curb usage and traffic patterns, while fleet operators can share data on how the initiative has impacted efficiency. It’s an approach to collaboration that’s scalable; one that could become a blueprint for other partnerships across the nation, to give more people a voice in creating our future cities. We are all part of an ecosystem. Cities have enough on their plate – they can’t be responsible for solely addressing the needs of all stakeholders in solving an urban problem like traffic or pollution.
We need to bridge the gaps between cities, companies and residents to inform urban living. By serving as a liaison, organizations like the Open Mobility Foundation and Urban Freight Lab are starting points in changing our approach to local problem solving.
We also need data—and the willingness of private companies to provide their own data to end-to-end solutions is helpful for cities, but also for these companies’ own business operations. Los Angeles recently became a model for this collaboration when a California judge ruled to permit mobility data-sharing in the city. By granting government agencies access to information about what’s happening on public streets, the onus of safety and efficiency is shared across public and private stakeholders—not manipulated by just one party.
Ultimately, we need private and public stakeholders and the residents of our villages to come together. This pandemic has shown us just how much we need each other, and how difficult it can be to be isolated. Let’s apply that lesson to our cities, and come together to make our cities better together.