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MIT Technology Review

The great urban tech reset

Our cities issue tells the complicated story of how technology and urban life intersect, and explores what the pandemic might mean for the future of cities.

Concerts—remember those? Or maybe you miss restaurants most, or plays, musicals, art galleries, museums, nights out at the pub, the club, a ball game ... ah, those were the days. 

The thrill of gathering, of being a part of something, is the hallmark of the city. Cities bring us together, inspire us, spur our creativity. At their best, they are monuments of human achievement that draw people from far and wide. They open our eyes to new ideas and cultures, and become greater than the sum of streets and buildings and crowded sidewalks.

For the past year, cities have felt like perhaps the worst place to be. Density has been the enemy; many people, if they could, holed up at home or fled to someplace rural. Lockdowns were imposed; we sheltered in place. City life as we knew it ended, and felt as if it might never come back.

This issue, conceived in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, has come together when the future of cities looks more uncertain than at any other time in recent memory. But the closer we looked, the more we found reason not just to maintain hope but to celebrate all that cities are, and all they could become.

Technology is and will be a huge part of that story. Whether or not that’s a good thing is ... complicated. On one hand, there are real technological systems that can help cities serve their residents better. As John Surico’s profile of the transit-planning company Remix attests, civic-minded software can be a powerful tool to improve people’s lives. Giving digital address codes to residents of Indian slums has provided access to needed services and simple conveniences like pizza delivery, writes Shoma Abhyankar. Joseph Dana finds that cities in South Africa are demanding the right to use newly available, cheap sources of renewable energy to avoid the blackouts that occur nearly every day there. 

But the needs of local governments and the people they serve are at odds with the inclinations of tech companies, which often prioritize scale and market share. As Jennifer Clark writes, that means we should proceed with extreme caution when tech titans promise to deliver the “city of the future”. The tension is starkly evident in Rowan Moore Gerety’s vivid reporting on police in Ogden, Utah, who’ve used an impressive array of surveillance cameras, license-plate readers, and drones to solve some terrible crimes—but also to keep tabs on the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants. The darker side of enormous companies’ takeover of urban life is similarly on display in Tim Maughan’s brooding piece of fiction, “Unpaired”.

In cities this struggle, between the powerful and the disempowered, is hard-coded into the very buildings, neighborhoods, and makeshift dwellings people call home, as Johnny Miller finds in his stunning aerial photographs of cities from Minneapolis to Mumbai. And though the word “city” might conjure an image of gleaming skyscrapers and twinkling skylines, the reality looks quite different. Fábio Duarte, Washington Fajardo, and Carlo Ratti point out that some 2 billion people currently live in informal settlements and many of today’s most famed cities began that way. Indeed, as Annalee Newitz writes, there is much being discovered in the centuries-old histories of Angkor, Pompeii, New York, and elsewhere that challenges our received wisdom about how great cities rose, and who built them. 

The future, of course, is ours to shape. In many cities, aging infrastructure can threaten disaster in the face of growth. Andrew Zaleski writes that technology has a big role to play in helping improve the way cities meet one of their most basic needs, the safe disposal of sewage. Gabrielle Merite points out that where there is a pollution problem, there is an opportunity: the world’s 100 most populous cities account for nearly one-fifth of global carbon emissions, and almost all are expected to grow enormously. In fact, the pace of urbanization shows no signs of slowing; China, for example, plans to build five interconnected “city clusters,” each of which might accommodate a hundred million people, as Ling Xin details. The decisions made by leaders of these metropolises will have an outsize impact on the trajectory of global climate change.

We still don’t know when we will be able to safely gather again and enjoy some of the sweeter fruits of urban life. But we will, and when we do, we can be assured of at least two things: cities will thrive again, and if we are careful we can build them into something even better.