Techno Fixing the Urban Zone

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In 2008, when Chicago inked a deal to privatize its parking meters, a chorus of groans ensued. To say that the deal was widely panned is putting it mildly. Its detractors say the city accepted too little in exchange for turning over the operations of its parking meters for a near-eternal 75 years to a private company that promptly raised the prices and sued the city. To many, the deal appeared desperate and irresponsible; a prime instance of a city in the red buckling to the ambitions of a private operator and getting little in return except for a pittance of one-time cash.

The case of Chicago is not unique. While several other cities have flirted with privatizing large-scale city services, politicians who support even many of the best-constructed of these measures have been rejected at the ballot box.

The argument against privatization has primarily been a financial one. In most cases, it appeared that transferring the development and management of large city networks into private hands would at best yield equally adequate services, but for a much higher price to residents, while creating a barrier to cities’ long-term flexibility. Not long ago the verdict on urban privatization read more like an epitaph. Common sense dictated that city services could best be cared for in public hands. Major movements in city management like New Urbanism’s burgeoning lean urbanism would optimize choices about government decision-making. Public-sector and populist ideas like widespread bike lanes, traffic calming design features, urban farming, and streetcars appeared the best options available for driving future city development, and as the seminal techniques for optimizing livability and resources while eliminating congestion.

The shame about the damage that the perceived failure of the Chicago deal has inflicted on the reputation of urban privatization is that few have noticed the increasingly obvious relationships between privatization, data, and city services in the period since. Many planners continue to present “livability” and “placemaking” as topics best solved through traditional planning approaches, well removed from the explosion of privately developed data technologies. While keeping their eyes on the ever-coveted fractional percentage gains in bicycle ridership in the cores of the largest cities, they’ve largely missed the more significant transformations around us. The public-sector response to the failed privatization ploys of a few years ago has in many cases been to write off privatization forever.

But today, the private sector is offering better products. The Smart Cities Week conference in Washington, DC recently highlighted some of these advances, which range from programs to optimize transit systems (in order to speed up services and reduce the need for investment in hard infrastructure), to Uber-style trash pick-up that allows private waste management companies to electronically compete over who will empty a just-filled dumpster quickest and cheapest. Far from the expensive and resource-intensive pipe dreams that many have ascribed to these kinds of technological innovations (thus writing them off as impractical for the coming post-fossil fuel economy), most of these new products seem designed to reduce inefficiencies, lower costs, and minimize resource usage through precision monitoring and optimization.

Rather than making a key fiscal offering to cities in the form of large, up-front payments in exchange for the rights to take over ordinary city services (a useful tool for paying off debt, but a tough political sell given the high consumer payments needed to make the undertaking worthwhile to the private vendor), the private sector appears to have shifted its commitment towards making the case that technological advances can generate value on both sides of the equation. While the parking vendors in the initial privatization cases were hard-pressed to prove that they were able to offer services even on par with those of the cities’ existing systems, a commitment to research and development in urban scale technology is now allowing private vendors to offer services that are overwhelmingly more user-friendly, more efficient, and more advanced than municipal services.

Because so much of the private-sector focus has been on optimizing network operations, the notion that private management is inevitably more expensive than city management is fast-becoming obsolete. The question has shifted away from whether a city that receives an up-front payment ends up with a greater rate of return than it otherwise would have, and more toward asking how much value the privatization of a service will create for the city’s residents. While up-front payments may still be juicy bait, the real meat lies in across-the-board cost savings and noticeably better service options quickly coming on line.

The answer to many of these questions seems clear. Who is going to accept coin-operated parking meters and confusing, impersonal signage instead of interactive, clear, and usable ones? Who will be satisfied with a 10-minute walk to an inefficient transit system if a self-driving car would come to his or her door for a similar price? Why would a city install conventional street lights if a private operator could more cheaply operate energy-efficient sensor-activated lighting that can simultaneously forestall crime through remote monitoring? And who wants to live in a city where conservation objectives are primarily pursued through inconvenient regulations, parking restrictions, and limits on plastic bag usage, when hyper-local smart grid technology can achieve the same savings by automatically optimizing load storage, green roofs, solar, and wind power block by block, all while lowering prices, eliminating losses, and hedging risk through variable city and local networks? Nearly all of these products are already on the market.

Once city governments and voters realize that the private sector is beginning to offer services that are more efficient, more affordable, more sustainable, and more convenient than even the best conventional optimization practices being pushed today, it’s hard to believe that they will tolerate doing without them. If the newness of such systems also helps attract millennials wooed by ever-fancier gadgetry, then the case becomes even stronger.

The blind spot the planning profession has often shown to this kind of thinking is understandable and justified. Getting a good description of a 'smart city' from the technology industry is an exercise in tooth-pulling. And who really believes that corporate technology firms can make places as livable as those planners that are dedicated to designing for livability? The private sector hasn’t helped itself with years of offerings that seemed designed to bilk bureaucrats out of public money. Luckily, the technological advances are now being paired with better, more creative, and fairer financing mechanisms.

Hesitation by planners may be a good thing, because it has forced the private sector to begin to integrate the livability principles of urban design. Past perceived failures may give cities added pause, allowing a more thoughtful merge between planning objectives and privately-developed data capabilities.

But planners best not wait too long. Popular urban advances are increasingly being forged by technologists with little input (or even sometimes with disdain) from planners. Writing off technology and divorcing big data is not a winning formula. As Silicon Valley continues to boom with large-scale, cost-effective advances, the planning profession may increasingly lose power. Enter cities designed by corporate private-sector technologists, and city budgets rescued by the ever-resilient engines of private capital.

Roger Weber is a city planner specializing in global urban and industrial strategy, urban design, zoning, and real estate. He holds a Master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Research interests include fiscal policy, demographics, architecture, housing, and land use.

Flickr photo by Mark Turnauckas: a smart parking meter in Akron, Ohio.