Tech, Cities, and the Human Story

The smart cities movement is about, at its core, the opportunity to improve urban life through technology. Normally, we dive into details about how that is happening. Today, we’ve taking a step back, since there are some broader trends that suggest that the meeting between urban life and technology is so important to the future of humanity. We hope that you’ll be as inspired as we are.

Key trends in urbanization and the concentration of tech development

Let’s start with the broadest trends we’ve identified.

  1. At the foundational level, we are witnessing, of course, an ongoing trend towards increased urbanization (about 56% of the world’s population today, projected to increase to approximately 68% by 2050).

  2. The density of cities makes them natural test-beds for new technologies, business models.

  3. Tech talent continues to concentrate in (a handful of) cities1

Increased urbanization has been correlated with a shift from agricultural employment to employment in manufacturing/industry/services. While the shift to urban areas has been accelerating rapidly throughout the 20th century, there are arguments that some new factors are at play today.

Here are some intriguing thoughts from Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart newsletter [emph. ours]. The argument here points to the increasing relevance of cities, as wealth-generation machines, as civilizations become more complex. Bear with us :)

  • “The logic of empire is the logic of mercantilism: the idea that all wealth derives from land via relatively simple technology, and that cities are merely consumption centers for surpluses, adding little of real, necessary value.

  • If that were true, however, cities would not keep recovering from barbarian sackings, great fires, plagues, and other disasters. They would not periodically shape the fates of territories far bigger than themselves.

  • The logic of city-state polities is the logic Schumpterian creative destruction: the idea that all wealth derives from innovation-driven change in the technological sophistication with which the world's resources are used. [emph. ours]

  • The higher the technological level in a civilization, and the higher the automation level, the more the city-state view of wealth and value is the correct one, and the more wrong the imperial-mercantile one gets.” [Note: One of our relatives is a big blockchain advocate and insisted that we point out the opportunities that technology provides for local currency development.]

Urbanization as a response to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity

In addition to these very broad trends, there may be some shorter-term political and social reasons that urban areas are growing in influence and importance in the world today. Again, from Breaking Smart [emph. again ours]:

“The most fertile mental model of a city-state polity is based on a computing metaphor. City-state polities are a phase of history where the environment favors what information security types call data-based security over perimeter-based security. This happens when the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) in the environment is high, as it is today. Under such conditions, it is easier to protect things of intrinsic value, no matter how and where they move or live, rather than to defend boundaries around spaces containing things.”

The Story of Humanity and the Story of Technology

So, bringing it all together: (1) the increasing complexity of civilization is making cities more relevant as engines of wealth creation and tech innovation… and, (2) more recent political and economic “VUCA” may be compounding those tendencies.

The “Smart Cities” scene and moniker is really, then, a way of focusing folks on the convergence between wealth creation/tech innovation/urbanization. Or, to put it another way, Cities are where the Story of Humanity and the Story of Technology are merging most meaningfully.

A reviewer asks, though: “When is the story of technology not the story of humanity?

We agree, as our good reviewer notes, that technology has always had a huge impact on the human story--from stone tools to shoes to fire to eyeglasses to the factories and computers he notes. What’s changed the increasingly central prominence of the technology story. It’s become near-impossible to tell the story of humanity and/or to talk about its future without focusing on the role of technology. This is, of course, due to the raw impact of technology but also due to the pace of technological change: We can’t look away, can’t act treat innovation in a matter-of-fact way--we know that these disruptions are defining how we live and who we are, and that it’s quite difficult for us to be ‘proactive’ in the face of these trends.


So, cities are growing and becoming more critical to the ‘bets’ humanity places on its own future. And, tech is becoming more central to how people see themselves and their place in the world. “Smart Cities” as a scene is interesting since it focuses our attention on a nexus of multiple critical changes going on today.

Later, we’ll take this further, and look at how this ‘smart cities nexus’ relates to other nexus points for tech and civilization. That post will be about some more general trends re: how bits and atoms move across the world and/or are stored. And cities—no surprise here— play a key role in that story.

1 For relative tech talent scoring data, including some fun graphics, check out this CBRE page (Austin, by the way, ranks as the #6 US market for tech talent in this report.).

Ethics, Virtues, and SmartCities Tech

Occasionally, at SmartAustin, we like to take a step back from the rapid pace of tech and startups, and to consider some of the ways in which tech is impacting our broader society. We've covered, for instance, the "Blockchain for Impact" and Estonia as a "Digital Republic". More recently, we've been thinking (as have many) a bit more about AI (top AI-focused book we've read is Kai-Fu Lee's AI Superpowers) and came across a quote from Shannon Vallor, a professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University and AI Ethicist/Visiting Researcher at Google. In Wired's 11/13/18 issue, Vallor is quoted as saying that "There are no independent machine values. Machine Values are human values."

After reading a bit more about Vallor's work, we were inspired to pick up her book, Technology and the Virtues and found it a delight. The book deserves a much more thorough treatment than what we'll give it here, but for the purposes of this blog, and thinking a bit about how startups launch themselves at technical problems, with maniacal focus, we'll call out a couple of quotes.

  • Quoting the philosopher Ortega y Gasset: "in the very root of his essence man finds himself call upon to be an engineer" but ". . . technology is . . . not the beginning of things. . . . it does not draw up [the human] project.

  • Vallor earlier quotes David Friedberg, "the CEO of a big data analytics firm . .  : 'What happens when every secret [is exposed] from who really did the work in the office, to sex, to who said what is that we get a more truthful society. . . . Technology is the empowerment of more truth and fewer things taken on faith.'" . . . "Implicit in this statement," Vallor comments, "is the unquestioned privilege of truth over other moral values, including trust, respect, compassion, humility, and flexibility. Better to always have the 'truth' about whom on the team 'really did the work' than to permit the guy who was up all night soothing a colicky child to quietly slack off at work one afternoon without risk of exposure. . . ."

You can definitely argue that all of these high sentiments and moral qualms have very little to do with startups, or that startups can't afford themselves the luxury of thinking too hard about these kinds of things. Founders need to make a living, get their businesses started, and solve problems that other people agree exist. Usually these have to do with efficiency, speed, and customer experience, and not with “drawing up the human project” or with the propagating "compassion, humility, and flexibility." Fair enough.

Fortunately, Vallor's work (and we're sure there are others like her) goes beyond her excellent book, and includes practical tools for helping businesses integrate ethics into their work. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, where she is on the Steering Committee, includes a list of Best Ethical Practices in Technology, which can guide tech companies looking to instill a culture of ethics (more detail is available at the site):

“1. Keep Ethics in the Spotlight—and Out of the Compliance Box

2. Highlight the Human Lives and Interests behind the Technology

3. Consider Downstream (and Upstream and Lateral) Risks for Technologies

4. Don’t Discount Non-Technical Actors, Interests, and Expectations

5. Envision the Technical Ecosystem

6. Mind the Gap between User Expectations and Reality

7. Avoid Hype and Myths around Technology

8. Establish Chains of Ethical Responsibility and Accountability

9. Treat Technology as a Conditional Good

10. Practice Disaster Planning and Crisis Response

11. Promote the Values of Autonomy, Transparency, and Trustworthiness

12. Consider Disparate Interests, Resources, and Impacts

13. Design for Privacy and Security

14. Invite Diverse Stakeholder Input

15. Make Ethical Reflection & Practice Standard, Pervasive, Iterative, and Rewarding

16. Model and Advocate for Ethical Tech Practice"

Finally, the site offers a series of tools and frameworks to support applying ethics in technology. We'll end with a schematic (source here, screenshot below) that grabbed our attention, provided here for your reference:


We believe that companies that adopt rules and practices around to support ethics in technology will be at an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retention. A systemic approach may be extremely difficult or impossible in the very early survival stages but is well-worth considering as your company gains traction and begins to mature. We'll all benefit.