In May, Professor Chan was invited to join the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, a gathering of thought leaders to discuss ideas and solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems. The topic of Professor Chan’s panel was “Transforming the Urban Landscape,” which cut to the heart of many urban conversations today – the role of internet and technology in (re-)shaping our cities.

This topic is endlessly fascinating, but as with most things, not a new phenomenon. I also could not help but draw parallels with one of the most compelling examples of how a new technology has influenced urban form – the automobile. And fittingly, given the location of the Milkin conference, there are few places where the long-lasting impacts of the automobile are more apparent than in Los Angeles, renowned for its sprawl, car-oriented culture and long commutes. Few would dispute that the rise of the automobile has made an indelible mark on the city – and fewer might be able to reach consensus on whether that mark has been positive or negative.

But in fact, in the early 1900s, the automobile was seen as an incredible innovation to solve the transportation woes of the region, which was facing a period of rapid population growth and dissatisfaction with the city’s public transit system. Interestingly, this trend was paired with the rise of the jitney – unlicensed, unregulated taxis often driven by men who had been laid off from their factory jobs – that together with the access to personal cars and federal funding for road projects, slowly, but surely signaled the demise of the rail system for decades to come

[1]. Over time, these changes have been codified not only in the public imagination, but in city policy, enabling Los Angeles to take the form it has today – where, at latest estimates, 24% of its land area is made up of approximately 21,700 miles of roads and 18.6 million parking spaces [2].

Now, almost a century later, the tides are slowly shifting back. In the 2016 election cycle, 70% of Angelenos voted to increase their sales tax by a half cent to improve public transit. Growing numbers of residents are shedding their cars in favour of a mixed-media approach towards getting around the city. (As a former car-less resident of Los Angeles myself, I can attest to the patchwork of ride share, bus, shuttle bus, light rail, train, bicycle share, car rentals, and walking that are needed to replace the personal vehicle.) And indeed, we have seen impacts on city form, such as higher density development around transit stations and bicycle lanes reclaiming some of the road. But is it enough to transform the city once again?

When new innovations are poised to fundamentally, transformatively reshape the city – how do we know if it will be for better or for worse?

Singapore is in many regards another beacon of what’s possible. In the panel, Professor Chan talked about the use of technology to create two of the foundational blocks of this modern day city-state: land and water. These building and reclamation technologies enabled Singapore to build not only up – but also out (into the sea) and down (into the ground) – and thus achieve its tightly planned, modern and dense urban form integrated with green and natural spaces.

Instead of building technologies, Daniel Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, talks about his vision to build a city “from the internet up” – incorporating connectivity, big data, AI, machine learning, social networks, new design and fabrication technologies to “fundamentally alter every single aspect of urban life.” In most conversations, these new digital technologies are designed to result in more efficiency and convenience – traffic flows are smoother because of intelligent signaling systems, pedestrians are guided towards their destination using the safest route with the best air quality, and buses run on demand (or at very least, on time). But what are the physical manifestations of these changes? Does the need for social spaces shrink because people are interacting digitally? Can roads or sidewalk widths be narrower because of more efficient transport flows? Do we need to build fewer houses, or require fewer parking spaces? Can people live even further away from their jobs than they do now?

With a little imagination, it is easy to anticipate the power of the internet and digital technologies to once again fundamentally reshape our cities. The question is: will this transformation follow the model of Singapore, as Professor Chan mentioned – with the government taking the lead, using new technologies to create and make efficient use of land, house its people and support water security – or will we go the way of Los Angeles and the automobile – letting innovation take the lead and following behind with policy? Should we let technology companies lead the way, testing out new interventions using the city as an urban playground? Or should policymakers anticipate the power of innovation and channel it for the public good, at the risk of hampering its potential?

As with all things, the solution is probably a mix of both. But we still need to grapple with the questions – how do we distinguish between good innovations and bad innovations? How do we build the capacity within our city’s decision makers to predict and respond to new technologies? And once we have done so, how do we build the confidence to actively shape and bring our cities into the future?

It’s a provocative panel discussion, also fleshing out the topic of corporate social responsibility. I encourage you to watch the video above and check back as we continue to explore these topics through our Cities and Innovation project.

– Julienne Chen, Sr. Research Associate