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What can cities learn from Amazon HQ?

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Anti-Amazon Protestors Rally At NYC City Hall Against Queens Second Headquarters
Image Credits: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Hollie Russon Gilman

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Hollie Russon Gilman is a Fellow at New America’s Political Reform Program, Lecturer at Columbia University, a Non-Resident Fellow at Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and is the co-author of Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis.

More posts from Hollie Russon Gilman

With the backlash from Amazon HQ fresh in our minds, it’s time to strategically think about how lessons from corporate innovations and digital technology services can improve and inform urban life in a way that puts people front and center. Doing so properly, however, will require an investment in structured engagement processes from the onset to ensure community buy-in, legitimacy and genuine co-creation with the private sector.

The move toward urban life

Increasingly, people are living in cities — with 55% living in cities today and the UN estimating more than two-thirds of the globe’s population moving to cities by 2050. Moreover, cities are also becoming hubs of technological innovation. Metropolitan statistical area data shows us that cities are becoming home to more and more STEM and high-tech workers.

And in 2018, New York City raised almost $11.5 billion in venture capital (VC) funding, second only to Silicon Valley as one of the highest-performing innovation ecosystems. Global real estate firm Savills UK and many others are even referring to New York and similar cities as “Silicon Alley.” The original Silicon Valley now has a lot of competition when it comes to VC funding, a more diverse and skilled talent pool and opportunities.

But companies aren’t the only change in urban areas.

Census data, indebted to the analysis of William Frey, shows that American cities are becoming the home for a younger and younger population, a more skilled population and a more diverse population of more individuals born outside the city or even out the country. These demographic changes are going to have a major impact: Today’s shifting populations come with their own cultures, needs and, more importantly, expectations of what governance and service delivery looks like.

The role of technology companies

Insert tech companies. All companies from Amazon to car companies are now also data-collection companies. McKinsey’s report from 2016 estimates that the data that car companies collect on users will be valued as a $750 billion industry by 2030. This data includes location-based data, driving patterns and behavior and vehicle-use data, like from sensors to sense speed and road markings, all of which are all transmitted directly to automakers.

There are more worrying indicators too — like newer cars recording drivers’ eye movements, the weight of people in the front seats and whether the driver’s smartphone was connected to the car — pointing to targeted uses of data. What’s more pernicious is that this data is tenuously held, or worse, could be used against the driver.

A lawsuit against General Motors found that warrantless tracking was not permitted, and made its way into a 2012 Supreme Court decision on the same. While the information gathered can help driving performance and safety, it still constitutes a huge infringement of privacy when it comes to losing control over your own data to massive monopolies. Moreover, the consumer gives up the right to advocate for themselves if the only anecdote of an accident or a defect a company is receptive to is the vehicle’s.

How will we ensure this data is not used perniciously?

As these companies continue to amass large quantities of data on people, they are able to deliver tailored experiences and services to a population growing increasingly used to receiving tailored experiences. Try using Google Maps with privacy settings checked and see what happens. Cities and its residents have become used to navigating with the help of data that knows where you’re going and where you’ve been. Regardless of how the data is used, people have fundamentally gotten used to a personalized and tailored system of services — whether it is Google Maps knowing how far locations are from their home, a Nest cam telling them when someone enters the baby’s room or a Lyft car coming directly to their door on a rainy night.

Tech companies’ new powers pose two challenges to government: While their services raise privacy concerns that demand government involvement and regulation, these corporations also change how these new urban populations expect to receive basic services.

Amazon HQ2 may be out of New York City, but Amazon continues to set the standard for what New Yorkers expect from their companies. For example, Amazon’s recent push for next-day shipping creates an industry standard that puts pressure on other companies. But, there are a lot of lessons to learn from Amazon leaving.

First, the benefits of a tailored service delivery needs to benefit all, not the few. And as The New York Times’ recent privacy series shows us, the disadvantages of data collection cannot fall disproportionately on the few and the most vulnerable. All companies have access to an unprecedented level of data on their consumer basis, but there is now an opportunity to use this to expand an audience base so that all city residents are beneficiaries of tailored tech services rather than only the few. Economies of scale will allow companies to serve residents outside of the downtown core.

How will we ensure this data is not used perniciously? That’s where the public sector steps in. If we’ve learned anything from Amazon and the rise of ridesharing apps, it’s that residents are seeking tailored service delivery, but not at the expense of their own privacy. The public sector can use multiple tools: enforcement of guidelines to protect residents, punitive measures against organizations that seek to harm and expanding digital access so the benefits of innovation can be shared.

Second, the public sector can leverage some of the same innovations and digital technologies that their private counterparts are using. No, not CompStat, but moving from disparately sourced Excel files or analog notes, it’s high time for the government to opt into CRMs to enable quick, speedy and efficient service delivery. At a time when city residents can get a car and groceries delivered to their house at any time of the day, it’s high time that governments, too, meet where their constituents are.

Third, the question then arises, how do you create a structured engagement process to enable co-creation from the onset to set realistic expectations, but also to move beyond public affairs toward genuine community empowerment? How do you get residents and governments to come together? Moreover, how is this structured engagement process going to co-create with all communities, rather than some. This must include traditionally marginalized communities and communities of color.

The “middleware” of the future

Companies are moving faster than governments on questions around the future of people’s privacy with large implications for governance.

How do we create “middleware,” as Ari Wallach, founder of Longpath, describes the space, for new forms of understanding to arise.

The idea of encouraging “middleware” comes out of a common challenge: a lack of realistic expectations set on behalf of both companies and communities themselves. Currently, real, structural limitations prevent dialog and co-production. Too often, it’s public affairs shops or removed experts running community engagement on behalf of technology companies without true experience on the ground. On the other side, NGOs need a nuanced understanding of the changing nature of society and the opportunity for technology companies to be productive community members. If successful, what arises is then, a space for structured dialog, deliberation and engagement to lead to productive, co-produced outcomes.

This middleware of the future will enable participatory mechanisms to ensure mutual respect and cooperation between communities and the companies that will increasingly shape the urban landscape, be it in the built environment, the data-sphere or some combination of both.

We need to create third-party spaces and processes that have transparency and accountability, and that actively engage and empower communities. These spaces can meet communities where they are now. If done well, technology companies can work with communities to help them grow, adapt and become more responsive and better equipped for the changing societal trends facing the future.

There is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

What would these convenings look like in practice? These convenings will create transparent, open processes that bring together community leaders, academia, industry and experts in facilitation to foster genuine dialog and understanding. On the one hand, it will require community groups gaining deeper expertise of the vast quantities of data being collected on them. On the other hand, the public also needs awareness about the opportunities for leveraging that data to improve their communities and public services. And grassroots groups need government support to make sure that data collection is fair, reasonable and regulated.

Through structured and facilitated engagement, communities will make road maps, share their expectations, air their frustrations, outline the opportunities and work toward actionable solutions. These engagements will enable opportunities for weighing realistic trade-offs, identifying barriers to implementation and addressing the very real concerns around equity and structural inequities.

The future is already here. Community organizations bring deep know-how of residents and neighborhoods. Technology companies both possess vast amounts of data on people but also are intricately linked to the way people live their lives today and in the future. They’d both benefit by speaking to one another and co-creating this “middleware.”

There is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

There is, however, an opportunity for new dialog and process. Companies will continue to outpace the public sector and the role of government for important governance decisions. Whether or not Amazon HQ left Long Island City, there is the need for better processes and understanding about these companies’ roles and responsibilities: a participatory business model that is not based on conflict, but rather empowers people to be active participants in shaping their future.

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