Ignoring the Future of Urban Governance Will Kill Vibrant Cities

My three takeaways from URBAN-X’s event: Hyperlegible Cities

Vibrant community of NYC’s Chinatown

The URBAN-X panel on “Hyperlegible Cities” was thought-provoking. Bianca Wylie, Elizabeth Bowie Christoforetti, Tara Pham, Paul Salama, Miriam Roure, Sara Trigoboff all participated in a lively discussion moderated by Greg Lindsay.

The key questions of the night probed (1) the consequences of being “too” legible and (2) some solutions to mitigate problems. I interpreted “legibility” as the rules that govern our cities.

The conversation sparked three takeaways that I delve into below:

  • Benefits — Rules, obviously, can result in efficiency.
  • Costs— Our rules and meta-rules can result in inequality, even if those rules are governed formally by participatory democracy.
  • Solutions — I review an incomprehensive list of strategies for how we might rewrite the rules: trust companies, empower companies to be ethical, empower governments to create better meta-rules.

1) Our rules can result in efficiency.

Rules have some obvious benefits. One big one is standardization, which helps societies create stable expectations about the present and the future. When we know how things should be built and the consequences of violating these rules, we can act more efficiently.

An obvious example are local zoning laws and building codes. They’ve created baseline standards to promote building safety, public health, responsible infrastructure use, and (socially-constructed) standards of neighborhood quality and image.

Classic suburb following a strict set of zoning laws

2) Our rules and meta-rules can result in inequality, even if those rules are governed by participatory democracy.

But it’s hard to write rules — and the meta-rules to influence those rules — that are fair for everyone. Even in participatory democracies, those who have more resources are able to stack the rules and meta-rules of the game in their own favor. As Miriam (or Sara?) mentioned, we need to think about who profits from the rules.

Take zoning laws again. Housing is extremely expensive in some of our highest-growth cities, like SF and NYC. A major cause are rules that exclude many housing designs: we can’t build houses on smaller lots or without garages. Bigger sizes mean fewer and more expensive units, excluding people who have more moderate means. Unsurprisingly, urban scholars often name these rules “exclusionary zoning” laws.

Laws encourage McMansions

It makes sense why people don’t want density. Increased traffic, for instance, can harm local quality of life. Many cities lack good public transit systems to help people get around.

Yet our meta-rules hamper the generation of new possibilities. Many planning meetings happen after work or during weekday afternoons without food or childcare, and require extensive time commitment. Those who have the resources (time, money, and network) are more likely to have influence than less-resourced actors, such as renters, people of moderate means, or minorities. Participating groups may have homogeneous life experiences. Without diversity, new ideas to balance density and quality of life will be harder to generate.

Example Community Planning meeting

And even when less-resourced actors do participate, conversations are understandably tense, not collaborative, as discussions are framed as binary choices to approve or reject new proposals.

3) Given the problems above, there’s an argument for rewriting the rules. I review an incomprehensive list of strategies that include: trust companies, empower companies to be ethical, and empower governments to create better meta-rules.

1. Trust companies

Most of the panel was against this. Public companies, Tara Pham pointed out, are legally bound to their shareholders, not to the broader public. Bianca Wylie noted that many companies, like Uber, actually violated rules and process when launching their services and in the name of growth.

Yet, as Paul Salam discussed, these companies often have the resources and technical capacity to start ambitious experiments, such as Google’s Sidewalk Toronto.

While they can partner, Bianca argues, they should not be rule-makers. It’s the private sector’s responsibility, in fact, to recognize those boundaries publicly and call for democratic processes on rules of import, such as data and AI governance.

2. Empower companies to be ethical

Technical tools are emerging to help companies do better. Regtech, for instance, helps companies reduce the cost of compliance — rather than find ways to shirk their obligations. Ethical data management software, for instance, helps companies easily become ethical stewards of their customer’s data.

Legal tools can also start to rewire companies for social impact. Public benefit corporations protect the vision of mission-oriented founders. In public benefit corporations, social benefit is embedded in a company’s charter, creating the legal obligation to balance shareholder value against social impact.

3. Empower government to design better meta-rules

When we design meta-rules (again, rules about our process to create rules), we need to think about what our goals are for this participatory process. Is it more diverse, inclusive participation? Is it more creative ideas? Is it to make higher-quality, evidence-based decisions? Is it, sadly, mere CYA? When we identify goals, we can design and test better meta-rules.

Designing better meta-rules also means we, as Bianca Wylie urges, don’t give up on the public sector. An entire industry of startups — such as govtech, civictech, and suptech startups — has this as its mission.

Upgrading the infrastructure for more diverse, inclusive, and data-driven urban governance is one of the most promising we can do to create better cities.

1. Meta-rules that spur new actors to grow and participate

We should also, perhaps, be wary of over-regulation (i.e., being hyperlegible?). Regulation in the data governance realm, for instance, can hurt small businesses and other small actors without large compliance departments. These rules, as a result, need to be crafted responsibly.

Take the housing space. As discussed above, extensive height and minimum lot size restrictions restrict density and innovation. By relaxing these rules, new housing actors are emerging, such as micro-living developers, co-living operators, and tiny home owners that I survey in The Multifamily Executive, Shelterforce, and Hackernoon.

2. Meta-rules that favor social responsibility

Yet relaxing rules and providing incentives can reek of corruption. Many housing incentives — such as free land grants — favor large, shareholder maximizing corporations. To the public, this looks like crony capitalism and diminishes trust in urban governance, even though the government truly believes private actors can build housing more efficiently.

But if private actors can be more efficient, as Chris Chou and I ask in the Columbia Public Policy Review, why not instead favor those that embrace social good? Community-driven development cooperatives, like Baugruppen, and public benefit corporations come to mind.

To build capacity of these actors, policy should provide technical assistance and promote the use of proven cost-reduction techniques, many of which I feature in The Multifamily Executive.

3. Meta-rules that promote evidence-based experimentation

Only once policies are shown to be effective, governments can decide to scale them. In a forthcoming article, I discuss that through pilots, governments can engage in evidence-generating experimental pilots before scaling new policies. These efforts can suss out harms early and iterate on policies after examining real data. The startups that benefit from such pilots should promise to hold their data in a public data trust, similar to Sidewalk Toronto’s recent proposal.

Tara Pham’s Numina can help governments better understand problems and track the impact of their policies. Using sensors, Numina can track data on how things move in streets and open space.

Paul Salam’s own ClearRoad can help governments experiment with new types of policies that were previously impossible to execute, such as usage-based policies of roads. As a result, private companies and other actors that use public infrastructure more can pay more for its repair and construction.

4. Meta-rules that promote inclusive participation

In the realm of national elections, other countries have experimented with mandatory voting, voting holidays, electronic voting, publicly-funded campaigns, participatory budgeting, gerrymandering reform (a point Tara also raised), and proportional voting systems.

The efficacy of these ideas are unclear. But they nonetheless address key problems that hamper diverse, inclusive participation in national elections. For instance, voting holidays and electronic voting reduce the costs to participation. We need draw from these areas for urban governance.

CoUrbanize’s and Neighborland’s platforms reimagine how people can participate in the development process. They use data-driven platforms to identify the needs of local neighbors, especially those that do not have the resources to participate in time-consuming processes. By helping policymakers make more fairer, data-driven decisions, these platforms can speed up approval processes.

Camino.ai helps developers and citizens obtain permits more easily. They turn complex paper-based permitting processes into a streamlined, digital workflow. Their software has increased the speed with which permits are submitted and processed, helping mitigate the pain in one critical step of the development process.

5. Capacity-building to keep promoting process innovations

More generally, governments can prioritize research and develop to enhance their own capacities to create better rules. Such efforts have precedent in the Federal level, such as Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government that happened in the early 90’s.

Such initiatives were not easy. They had to overcome capacity issues — governments pay less and have a harder time attracting technical and other scarce talent that would get paid much more elsewhere. They also had to overcome slow-moving processes to navigate red tape, which hampers innovation.

Technology can and has helped. Designed appropriately, it can enhance our goals of inclusive participation (e.g., coUrbanize), new idea generation (e.g., Democracy21), higher-quality decisions (e.g., Open Data and Outline India), and decision-making accountability (e.g., Ethics and Algorithms toolkit).

Transparent and fair government procurement and request for proposal processes are foundational to to ensure the highest-quality solutions are used.

In sum

Recently, the revamping of meta-rules happened in the data regulation world.

The General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) rewired some meta-rules about who could participate in data management. Up to the passage of this legislation, most companies assumed customer data was their to keep and control, with broad consent. In fact, most people thought data protection was dead. But GDPR — along with voracious critiques of Facebook and Sidewalk Toronto — have sparked global conversations about including individual people so that they have more control in the management of their data.

I’m excited about how people are going to tackle these governance challenges. URBAN-X’s panelists did a great job illuminating them. Please share other promising strategies to do so.

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