Innovation should serve livelihoods, not lifestyles
Not long ago, the Globe reported on a startup called Hall, which has given Boston a new communal dining room and work space. It sends a cozy, egalitarian message: that food is as much about a sense of togetherness as it is about nutrition. This is a powerful vision, one that may “take the sting out of urban alienation,” as the news story put it. But that same sentence belies Hall’s underlying bias: It is effectively “a gathering place for like-minded folks.”
Who exactly are these folks? Subscribers of a lifestyle app designed for the wealthy. Hall was inspired by the camaraderie that its founder enjoyed in his prep school and college dining halls. Though touted as a communal space, Hall’s exclusiveness is structural. In addition to a steep entry-level membership cost of $69 per week, the startup is located in Boston’s affluent Back Bay, and, before joining, prospective members must come in and meet Hall staff face to face. These factors ensure that the dining room has a clear socioeconomic threshold.
Hall is not an isolated example, nor are its founders ill-intentioned. But it exemplifies a problem cities face in the smartphone era: There is a strong financial incentive to develop technologies as marketable lifestyle amenities, not as a form of support for an entire community’s livelihood.
The explosion of urban lifestyle apps span from the retail startup Bodega — a 5-foot-wide box packed with non-perishable items that can be unlocked with a smartphone — to mobility solutions such as the car-hailing app Uber. All of these technologies, which together have attracted billions of investment dollars, improve wealthy and individual lifestyles rather than improving the collective livelihoods of those on lower incomes.
In the shadow of urban social fragmentation and inequality, we believe that innovation efforts should be marshaled to foster social inclusion and cities that are livable for all.
There are many other examples of innovators privileging lifestyles over livelihoods. Food trucks, for instance, attract everyone from creative class gourmands to late-night revelers, from cost-sensitive tourists to construction workers. But not all trucks are born equal, get equal access to the best spaces, or receive the same treatment by officials when out on the streets. Remember the racialized overtones of #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner, last summer’s controversy over whether Mexican immigrants were starting too many businesses?
In fact, there is abundant evidence in many US cities that local governments discriminate based on whether a food truck’s owners are perceived as innovative, creative-class, hip and lifestyle-focused gourmet pioneers — or as immigrants scraping together a livelihood as food peddlers. Tellingly, in New York, the former have developed the NYC Food Truck Association to promote their brand and increase profitability, whereas the latter have developed The Street Vendor Project and VAMOS Unidos to promote justice for their members.
Similar dynamics are at play in the bike lane. Many cities aim to increase rates of cycling, often through bike share programs. Yet the implementation is overwhelmingly lifestyle-oriented, focusing on personal fitness and environmental improvement, rather than offering a tool for greater equity.
Most bike share deployments locate their docking stations so that users can travel between affluent neighborhoods, tourist destinations, and central business districts. The effects of this approach are beginning to show. In Boston, a majority-minority city, 85.7 percent of cyclists were white as of 2014, as were 87 percent of Hubway bike share users.
Meanwhile, most cycling statistics do not document “invisible cyclists,” often people of color, who use bikes for livelihood purposes, such as delivery. Every Friday morning in the Cambridge neighborhood where both of us live, an elderly Asian-American man pushes his bike as a means to transport large bags containing hundreds of cans and bottles he collects for recycling.
Faced with glaring disparities in their bicycle user base, cities are scrambling to deploy dockless bike fleets, install more bike share stations in low-income neighborhoods, or lower the cost of membership. These attempts are commendable, but the question remains: What would a bike share scheme look like if it was designed from the start by people whose livelihoods depended on it?
Our culture of innovation needs a new focus. Specifically, municipalities can use their wide-ranging regulatory, permitting, and zoning powers in a more entrepreneurial way. For instance, when Portland, Ore., eliminated its taxi permit cap in 2015, Somali immigrants established the driver-owned PDX Yellow Cab taxi company that employs over 35 people. In Pittsburgh, Mayor Bill Peduto is developing alternatives to ensure affordable housing. For example, new zoning and a housing trust fund help communities retrofit and own buildings — turning citizens into real estate developers. Innovative strategies by city governments could combine with funding from private foundations and institutions, further promoting innovation focused on families and communities.
As technology reshapes our cities, our collective decision-making should be guided by a more inclusive long-term vision. Municipalities that foster accessible innovation for livelihoods will reap the benefits of greater livability. It is those places, rather than techno-hubs that prize quick, marketable lifestyle amenities, that will emerge as the smartest cities of the future.
Julian Agyeman is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University. Matthew Claudel is a designer, writer, and PhD candidate at MIT.