5 new tech books for urbanists

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The meeting of the two dominant megatrends of our day, technological innovation and urbanization, leaves almost no issue untouched: political stability, protest, mobility, coffee and love. Recently, Toronto announced it would partner with Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary, to develop the city’s eastern waterfront. The New York Police Department, meanwhile, reportedly has sought to move away from a focus on statistics.

As it comes to urbanization and technology, to paraphrase the late rock-and-roller, the future is wide open. No wonder Google is in the game as are upstarts such such as Neighborly in the “fintech” space. As the authors of the following five books — which stretch well beyond the confines of Silicon Valley — demonstrate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to think about new technologies and not consider urban spaces, and just as hard to think about new cities without weighing the great technology-delivered uncertainties to come.


“Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest”

By Zeynep Tufekci (Yale University Press)

Tweeting in Tahrir Square

The city meets the digital arena, with the public spheres of yesterday and tomorrow entwined today in Cairo and Istanbul. “Twitter and Tear Gas” provides accessible guidance on the “affordances” that new technology platforms make possible while also drawing out some of the fundamental and crucial differences between, say, Facebook and Twitter (the latter favouring communication by mutual consent).

[See: 5 new books on global affairs every urbanist should read]

But “Twitter and Tear Gas”, in being an anthropology of recent protest movements, is also a book about cities. Tufekci provides useful digital histories of the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011 and Gezi Park in 2013. For the author, the digital domain is, at its best, a historical successor to the city, fostering heterogeneity and individuality and breaking down barriers. But the physical still matters, she notes, referencing a recent study that found that protest groups that meet in person forge stronger connections.

“The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley are Changing the World”

By Brad Stone (Little, Brown and Company)

Uber’s Brexit?

When Rex Tillerson was nominated and eventually confirmed as U. S. secretary of state, many commentators noted the real-world lessons in diplomacy he must have learned as chief executive of ExxonMobil. In “The Upstarts”, Brad Stone documents the rise of two companies very different from Exxon: Uber and Airbnb. Like large oil companies, these two have become global operators — but trafficking in transportation and housing.

And while natural resources have long fallen under the purview of national capitals, transportation and housing are frequently municipal issues — and fraught ones at that. Indeed, the regulatory regimes, politics and social tensions Uber and Airbnb must navigate are as frequently municipal as they are national. “We must tell the stories of progress Uber has brought to cities and show our constituents that we are principled and mean well,” tweets Travis Kalanick, the former head of Uber. For both companies, cities are their targets, units of analysis and operating scales.

The first half of Stone’s book charts the sometimes sordid ascendancy of the “sharing economy” giants in the competitive tech environment of the Silicon Valley. The second outlines their global expansion beyond the Bay Area and the United States. In so doing, “Upstarts” provides, at times unintentionally, fascinating examples of both commerce and diplomacy in an increasingly urbanized world.

“China’s Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business”

By Edward Tse (Portfolio)

Groceries in Guangzhou

There’s a popular refrain regarding urbanization in China, something along the lines of: “China has more than 10 cities of more than 5 million people that I’ve never even heard of!” The same rhetorical trick, it turns out, can be deployed in tech. Quick, name the most influential technology companies in China — companies that have all expanded hand-in-hand with the growth of China’s urban population.

The answer, according to Edward Tse in “China’s Disruptors”, includes Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, Haier and Baidu. Alibaba, perhaps the best known among these companies, raised $25 billion in 2014 in what was then the largest public offering in U. S. history. Xiaomi sells more phones in China than Apple or Samsung.

[See: 5 beach reads for urbanists everywhere]

Tse sets out to demonstrate China’s entrepreneurial capacity and thus to rebuff the long-held image of a top-down, state-centric economy that inhibits creativity. If you wonder what Amazon might mean for urban grocery delivery, for instance, you could do worse than considering the story of Yihaodian, the online grocery-delivery service.

“Understanding Cyber Conflict: 14 Analogies”

By George Perkovich and Ariel Levite, eds. (Georgetown University Press)

The “Fast and the Furious 8” car-hack scene in your city

In what is perhaps the most amazing scene of the eighth volume of the “Fast and the Furious” film series, Cipher, the bad guy, provokes an international crisis by hacking into all the cars in Manhattan. In pursuit of a foreign dignitary, driverless cars pour down streets, constrained only barely by the city’s buildings.

While you cannot get further from “The Fast and the Furious” than this new collection of essays edited by scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, the volume does offer helpful principles and historical examples through which we might understand the current and coming domain of cyber conflict. Not unlike the conflicted nature of the film’s hero Vin Diesel, in the cyber world it is difficult to decipher offensive and defensive postures or to distinguish between benign and malign actions and platforms, the authors argue.

Does this apply to cities? The answer, from both city and national leaders, is certainly yes. In August, the U. S. National Institute for Standards and Technology and the U. S. Department of Homeland Security launched a partnership around smart cities and cybersecurity. Meanwhile, city IT leaders are sounding the alarm about cyber risks associated with expansion of the “Internet of Things”.

“Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future”

By Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson (W. W. Norton & Company)

Robots in … well, everywhere

First we were awaiting the robots. Then we were awaiting everybody. Now we’re awaiting everybody and the robots. “Machine, Platform, Crown” is the authors’ follow-up to their much-celebrated (and -purchased) “The Second Machine Age”. As co-directors of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, they are not urbanists, but as the book makes clear, many of the trends they describe are playing out in urban spaces. Experimentation and choice remain at the core of their recommendations, as it comes to both technology and, it turns out, cities.

[See: We need to bring ‘agility’ to city planning and development]

“Globalization and the emergence of new technologies are revolutionizing the way we structure our businesses, hire our employees, and produce our goods,” concluded “The Future of Work in Cities”, a 2016 report by the U. S. National League of Cities. “This change is manifesting itself first and foremost in cities, which serve as the economic drivers of society and focal points for innovation.” Brynjolfsson contributed to the NLC’s report, where, with cities rather than technology being the core subject, he got right to the point: “I’m optimistic that we can do the right things, but I don’t believe that the outcomes are automatic or inevitable, they really depend on our choices.”

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Ian Klaus is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House and a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was previously senior adviser for global cities at the U. S. Department of State and deputy U. S. negotiator for Habitat III. Full bio

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