Two (Game-Changing) Ways Cities can use Technology to Fight Inequality

The story of income inequality is not new – as lower and middle-class incomes stagnate while the highest income brackets race ahead, the wealthy have access to goods and services that are increasingly out of the average person’s reach.

But we now see its detrimental effects more clearly than ever. I live in the Silicon Valley, and when news of Donald Trump’s election broke, the overwhelming feeling was disbelief. It was unimaginable. Tears of anguish were shed, yet a large part of the country celebrated. To me, that moment captured the deeper impact of inequality – fragmentation of society. Our politics become polarized, we are unable to find middle ground in our interests, and we increasingly feel like a nation of enemies, not countrymen.

While the problem gets more serious, our typical approaches to tackling inequality are reaching their limits. Redistribution is a political hot potato that pits the interests of the “haves” and “have-nots” against each other. Investing heavily in educational opportunities has diminishing marginal returns on social mobility both in the absolute sense (because the future of jobs is increasingly uncertain) and in the relative sense (because wealthier parents give their children more and more advantages).

We are in desperate need of new paradigms to fight inequality in cities. Here are two ways I believe technology can be a powerful, game-changing force – if deployed thoughtfully by cities.

Inequality

Source: charterforcompassion.org http://bit.ly/1y8DPw1

First, cities should use technology to make life experiences in the city more and more independent of incomes.

 It would be impossible to close the income gap completely, short of communism. A society where incomes are totally equal is also undesirable, as it erodes the motivation to work.

However, I believe that technology can make life in the city increasingly independent of income, which can go a long way towards mitigating the daily experience of inequality.

Let me start with explaining the notion of an aspirational good – things that people wish they had money to buy. In transport, most people aspire towards owning a car. In housing, it is a condominium or a private home (American friends: as opposed to a publicly-built Housing Development Board apartment, which 80% of Singaporeans live in). In healthcare, it is a private doctor or hospital bed – at your choice and convenience. In education, it is getting into top schools and universities.

There is an unsustainable dynamic behind aspirational goods. Because these goods are limited in supply, the more people can afford it, the more expensive they get, and the further out of reach of the average citizen. Aspirational goods are the sources of a huge amount of angst in the middle class.

Technology has the potential to overturn the entire notion of an aspirational good. By creating new forms of value, it can make the alternatives so attractive that even those who have money choose not to buy the aspirational good. 

Take transportation for example. Owning a car is so attractive today because public transportation is an inferior option on many counts – the low cost cannot make up for its lack of time efficiency (it takes about twice the amount of time as a car ride), comfort (especially in humid weather), and customization (as a car owner, I know I can get a ride whenever I want).

What if public transport can be faster, more comfortable, more customized and cheaper than owning a car? With technology, this need not be a pipe dream. Imagine a day when you can wake up in the morning and your phone already knows where you need to be. It recommends the top three ways to get there. You select one, and within a minute, your ride shows up at your door – perhaps a shared car, or an electric bike if it’s sunny. It gets you to the train station just as your train pulls in. When you get out of the train, your minibus has just arrived to take you to the office. After work, you can summon a sleek designer vehicle for your dinner date. On the weekend, an autonomous jeep shows up at your door-step to take your family around for a day of fun.

You don’t need to buy multiple tickets – everything is paid through your phone. Or, you can even pay for transport just like a Netflix or Amazon Prime Subscription: a flat fee for unlimited rides. You never need to worry about parking again. With alternatives like this, how many people would still want to own a personal car? Even the wealthy may reconsider, especially if we simultaneously put in policies to make driving more inconvenient, such as no-drive zones in the city.

Just as technology brings about new forms of value (e.g. customization, flexibility) for those who don’t own a car, how can it do the same for other sectors?

  • How can technology help to transform Singapore’s public housing estates such that they offer new forms of value which private estates cannot provide? For example, how can we help HDB dwellers feel like the entire estate – with all its facilities and open spaces – is their home, one much bigger and diverse than any private estate? Digital communities and intra-town transportation may be aspects of this.
  • How can technology make a face-to-face doctors’ appointment something that people no longer seek as the “premium option”, for example, by making tele-health so attractive and pervasive?

I believe if domain experts and technologists put their minds to this, they will be able to come up with much better ideas than these! In short, technology can help catapult currently “inferior” options to equal status as “aspirational” options by creating new forms of value.

2. Second, cities should use technology to distribute scarce land and human resources more equitably.

In most countries, there is a healthy debate on how progressive and equitable the tax and redistribution regime is. However, not as much attention is paid to how other scarce city resources – land and manpower – are used. These too, must be used equitably, and technology can help cities achieve this.

Land

Reducing the land used on roads is a great example of how we can use land more equitably. Roads and parking lots tend to be utilized disproportionately by those who own cars, who – in Singapore – tend to be wealthier. Can we cut down on roads and parking, and reallocate this land to purposes such as community facilities and public housing, which benefit a wider proportion of the population?

Yes, and technology is critical to this. How much land we need for roads and parking is determined by the concept of “peak demand” – the maximum number of vehicles on the road, ever. We can cut down peak demand by encouraging people to use shared mobility options rather than drive a private car (I write about how tech enables this here), and by investing in autonomous freight and utility so that these activities can be done at night, when roads are far emptier.

Public Sector Manpower

Similarly, we can use public sector manpower more equitably by investing in technology. Technology can significantly reduce the manpower we commit to customer services. For example, Govtech rolled out MyInfo, which enables citizens to automatically fill in their administrative information for Government schemes with the click of a button. Chatbots on Government websites will increasingly be able to answer public queries; phone lines will no longer be needed. Public sector manpower can now be dedicated to functions which are in great need of resources. One such area is social work and education. Families in the bottom rung of society often face a cocktail of challenges – divorce, low-income, lack of stable employment, cycles of incarceration and so on. Giving them (or their children) a real chance of breaking out involves an extremely high level of hand-holding and investment by social workers and schools. Resources are sorely needed here.

Access to top quality healthcare

Let’s take another scarce resource – top surgeons. People who can pay for their services access better quality care, and stand a higher chance at recovery. Technology can change this dynamic. Companies like Verb Surgical are using machine learning to propagate top surgeons’ expertise more widely. This is how it works: every time the best surgeons perform a procedure, every single action is recorded in a common machine “brain”. The “brain” is trained to associate each action with the probability of a successful surgery. As the “brain” records more and more surgeries, it gets smarter and smarter. Now, the “brain” is made accessible to ALL surgeons. At each step of their surgery, they are told what successful surgeons did. Now, the best surgical expertise is within the reach of the average citizen.

Technology that enables our scarce resources (e.g. land, public sector manpower and top surgeons) to benefit the broad population and serve those in acute need are the types of technologies that cities should invest in, and quickly enable through regulations.

Conclusion

If you google the “Smart City” movement, you’ll find many broad and loose definitions. Generally, it refers to how cities deploy technology to improve city life and allocate resources more efficiently, whether it is helping transport systems run more efficiently, making interactions with various Government services easier, or to adding fun to the city experience.

Unfortunately, such broad and loose definitions give cities little guidance to on what to focus on in prioritising investments and regulatory reform, which is an incredibly important conversation given the limited resources at most cities’ disposal. It also does not paint a compelling vision for why being a Smart City matters, which disengages most of the population. Personally, before I worked in tech, I felt absolutely no connection to the idea of a ‘Smart City’. Tech was cool, but I never thought it was crucial.

I believe that using technology to tackle inequality and its effects should be a Smart City’s ambitious goal and guiding force, providing focus and rallying support from its constituents. This article spelled out two ways to do so.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Two (Game-Changing) Ways Cities can use Technology to Fight Inequality

  1. Pingback: Better Consumer Access AND System-level Sustainability: Can We Have Both? – Technology and Public Good

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s