By George McIntire

In the year 2030, about half of the world’s population will be urban dwellers, and with that fun fact comes a renewed focus and study of cities and the people who live in them. At our “Future Cities” tech panel last Monday (co-hosted with General Assembly), we assembled some of the best minds in urbanism to delve into some of the biggest issues our city – and others like it – face in the 21st century.

Panel Lineup

Moderator: Jake Levitas, Fellow of Innovation, SF Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation.


Jack Madans, Government Partnerships Manager, Code for America

Andrea Funsten, Program Manager and Entrepreneur in Residence, Tumml

Ben Grant, Public Realm and Urban Design Program Manager, SPUR

Jason Kelly Johnson, Founder and Design Partner, Future Cities Lab

Urbanism (the study of cities) has experienced exponential growth in interest this past decade. The non-profit SPUR has become a power player in local politics, while blogs dedicated to city life such as (formerly The Atlantic Cities) and The Guardian Cities have been met with huge success. A panel on the subject of tech and city planning could’ve have gone well into the night, but after the lengthy introductions, the panelists got down to business.

Levitas started by asking the experts to describe their favorite companies and projects. Funsten pointed to a startup named Hand-up that is using a crowdfunding platform to help solve homelessness, and another one named, which is a fundraising toolkit for civic projects. Grant plugged the new SPUR San Jose office and touted the benefits of jumping into a place with a different civic and political culture. He added that one of the goals of SPUR SJ is “To fight sprawl, instead of being sprawl.”

Then came a question that was surely on everyone’s mind in the room: “How has tech impacted and shaped our cities?”

Grant discussed the ways tech has helped downtown San Jose flourish in recent years, specifically pointing to the popularity of such cultural institutions as TechShop and NextSpace in that area.

Madans was put on the spot next, when Levitas inquired about the ways Code For America is making cities more livable and walkable. Madans gave the example of a hackathon that birthed an application called “StreetMix,” which allows city planners, designers, and enthusiasts articulate their vision for the streets around them. The East Bay Bike Coalition has already used Streetmix to show the public its ideas for expanded bike lanes on Telegraph Ave.

Johnson discussed the Data Rover project, which employs a series of autonomous robots gathering information about the city and responding to that data by leaving environmentally friendly markings around San Francisco. The first experiment involved the bots marking where the sea level is expected to rise to 40 years from now.

The panelists devoted time to one of San Francisco most pressing issues – namely why is it so hard to develop and change the city. Grant’s simple answer was “Because we’ve gotten it wrong so many times.” He discussed the ways we’ve displaced huge numbers of people and destroyed communities and neighborhoods in the name of progress and freeways. The panelists all agreed that the NIMBYism of today is a harsh reaction to the grave mistakes of San Francisco's past.

The first question to come from the audience was “How can San Francisco attract and retain people/talent?” The panelists agreed that a city that's priced beyond the average worker's means won’t be able to attract the diversity of people and economic backgrounds we need here.

The most controversial question focused on tech facilitating surveillance of our communities. One audience member wondered how this would influence the design of public spaces and other city landscapes. Madans responded by saying that experiments like Oakland's Domain Awareness Center push to the forefront conversations about how surveillance technology impacts public life.

Given the robust and passionate discussion we heard at this panel, there's much to hope for when it comes to the future of a more sustainable, livable, and walkable San Francisco.