It’s both ironic and instructional that South By Southwest 2018 presented a panel on “Branded Cities” as part of its growing Cities Summit programming. After all, during the nine days in mid-March when the hydra-headed conference takes over our central city, the branding iron of commerce is hot in downtown Austin and beyond. Empty lots sprout into promotional tent cities adorned with logos, existing buildings and venues get similarly festooned and transformed, and modes of transport are slapped with corporate signage and slogans.
The panel’s speaker, Trevor Hardy, is the CEO of international consulting firm the Future Laboratory, which according to his bio on the SXSW site, “specializes in transformational foresight, strategy and innovation, bringing clients practical and applied futures to create new revenue streams, better connect with their next generation of consumers, create and launch new products and re-invent whole categories.” It’s a bit on the nose, isn’t it?
— Trevor Hardy (@trevorhardy) March 12, 2018
It’s clear that branding is no longer just for sports stadiums, but as the city’s buzz wears off and the dust settles from SXSW, it might be time to critically examine the first question asked by the Branded Cities presentation’s subtitle: “Can We Avoid an Urban Dystopia?” Those who brave the crowds downtown to partake of the festivities already face one potential downside that speaker Hardy identifies as a danger of urban branding: stratification by class and financial means that could affect access to certain areas and benefits. Just as where one can go and enter downtown during SXSW is contingent on having a pass — and also what kind of pass, from top-level platinum passes to the relatively lowly wristband.
The trade-off for giving up our usual access to certain parts of downtown and allowing corporations to go on branding sprees in our public spaces during SXSW is the cash it pours into the local economy — last year’s festival brought in $348 million and change. Similarly, as Austin vies among more than 230 other urban locales for Amazon’s HQ2 by offering packages of sweet deals to woo the Internet commerce giant and its economic benefits, it “illustrates just how much power large corporations exert, especially when cities and city halls are under pressure with lack of funding for schools, hospitals, emergency services, pensions and many other things,” Hardy says.
“We have to ask ourselves what civil liberties could be handed over in pursuit of the cash that such a deal like HQ2 could bring.”
— Trevor Hardy, SXSW 2018
Hardy’s talk, just under 20 minutes long with many of its points drawn from an article on the Future Laboratory’s website, was a brief but broad-minded showcase of cogent information, with much food for thought regarding what cities could and might be in the future. His approach to the topic balanced the technocratic and data-driven utopian possibilities with some of their major potential downsides and ill effects.
At the core of his overview is the upcoming example of Toronto’s Quayside planned neighborhood development, with which the city, its province Ontario and the Canadian national government have “adapted our development model by bringing in a new kind of partner – one with innovation ingrained in its culture – in the earliest stages.”
That partner is Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, that seeks to uplift urban planning and cities through technology and innovation — a noble goal, as well as a notion ripe with dystopian risk. But as burgeoning international urbanism will draw two-thirds of humanity into cities by 2050, the issue all but demands our immediate attention.
“As a society we are racing towards the future and not considering the implications, the trade-offs, the consequences of giving stewardship of the civic environment to corporations.”
— Trevor Hardy, SXSW 2018
At Toronto’s Quayside, Sidewalk Labs plans to digitally monitor and measure separate 25 quality-of-life metrics.
“Zoning would become dynamic,” says Hardy, “directly mapping consumers’ needs onto the city. Imagine a transport route that would change in accordance with the demands of commuting traffic so that in the middle of the day, when traffic is lower, it can turn into pedestrian boulevards when there’s no cars required…it’s entirely possible and maybe even preferable that people will wake up in cities that do not look the same from one day to the next — visible proof that the city was continually optimizing itself to its residents’ requirements.”
But in a climate of increased digital privacy concerns, many of them related to the current Facebook/Cambridge Analytica brouhaha, the question emerges of who should be allowed to own and access this data — not to mention how will it be utilized. Hardy cited as a worrisome example the Chinese Social Credit System as a digitally-enabled monitoring tool for social control.
“If this sounds dystopian when implemented by an authoritarian regime, it sounds downright scary when it could be managed by a private corporation,” notes Hardy.
“In many ways it is inevitable that businesses are going to take a more active role in the formation and managing of the urban spaces in which the majority of the world’s population lives. This is not a future we should necessarily be afraid of,” he insists. “There are many advantages to be gained by letting businesses we have already willingly given our data and allowed them to streamline and augment many of our daily lives, and now allowing them to turn their attention to one of the most complicated challenges: making our experience of the city truly consistent, connected and convenient.”
“Big business will always demand the ability to extract some kind of value. Get this balance wrong, and we may even find ourselves on a path where the branded city’s metrics for success diverge drastically from that of the population.”
— Trevor Hardy, SXSW 2018
He urges discussion among businesses, government, and the public to realize the true potential of the future city without compromising our civil liberties in the process, and concludes the talk with the words of urban activist Jane Jacobs: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it; and it’s to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”