Stories of people, cities, and new technologies (sometimes involving pizza).
I knew something was up when I met with an urban tech recruiter and she asked me if I had heard of ‘Slice.’ We were in the glass conference room of her midtown office snacking on a take-out spread of Korean tacos and flavored sparkling water. I had just finished explaining my training in city design and social science, my work on inclusive housing and street-trade policies for immigrant and refugee communities, and my desire to get back to urban policy and design issues — all the while trying to not come off as too academic or political (I needed a job after all!). After a few hmms, she chimed in excitedly with, “Oh, wait! Do you know Slice? It’s an app for ordering pizza. It’s gonna be big. It’s about empowering local businesses to compete with big chains.” In my mind, I was like wait, it’s Seamless, but just for pizza — I don’t get what that has to do with urbanism. I wrote it down, politely pretending to pursue this lead.
A few weeks later, reflecting more on this conversation, I realized that this suggestion was not so ridiculous. The way people source, prepare, and distribute food was core to urban infrastructure, cultural identity, and community cohesion: issues that I cared deeply about. And with more startups and venture capitalists eager to reinvent and disrupt urban systems — from co-working and ride sharing to construction analytics and predictive policing — to be an urban design practitioner today, I needed to know about Slice, and every other platform shaping urban systems, policies, and lifestyles. I also realized that the stereotypical image of “smart city” tech — the IBM-designed command-and-control centers of cities like Rio and X was passé — and that emergent urban tech was much more diffuse, distributed, and potentially much more flexible and even democratic (Yay!).
Shortly after that conversation I met John Edgar, co-founder of Stae, who was interested in understanding urban design and data challenges from a cities- and people-centered perspective. I became the first urbanist to join Stae to lead brand and marketing, where for two years, I explored what an alternative voice and visual language could be to the shiny, oversimplified solutionism common in smart city tech. A big part of my work was questioning the dominant narratives and norms of technical platforms and products that often reduced cities and governments to design problems that could be “optimized” or “solved.” To do this, I had wonderful conversations with urban planners, architects, designers, scholars, and activists taking a people-centered approach to design and cities.
What follows is a collection of curated essays and interviews originally published on Stae’s Medium community, City as a Service. I’ve grouped them into three themes that embody a ground-up perspective on cities and designing them together with people.
1.The Power of People: Taking a people-centered approach to introducing new urban technologies
- Taking a People-First Approach to Building Cities
- Measure What Matters — People!
An interview with Shin-pei Tsay
- De-prioritizing Cars in the Transportation Hierarchy
2. The Power of Place: Why the physicality of cities continues to matter alongside the evolution of digital platforms
- On Digital Placemaking
An interview with Dan Latorre
- On Situationism
An interview with Ximena Ocampo
- On Co-Design
An interview with Riccardo Luca Conti
3. The Power of Practice: The need to collaboratively engage communities in co-creating technologies in ways that are ethical and respectful
- Move Carefully and Test Things
An interview with Ben Green
- Start Small and Scale Out: An Effective Approach to Designing Cities
An interview with David Schwartz
- The Reality of Wrangling Dockless Bikes and Scooters
Research by Stephen Larrick & Sam Wu
My hope is that these perspectives and provocations can continue to bring much-needed criticality and balance to the way we think and make new technologies for our cities — from pizza delivery to inclusive placemaking.