Are We in the Era of Platform Urbanism?

The Shifting Landscape of Cities and Technology

For years it has been obvious that digital technologies have become deeply embedded in cities, but it has been difficult to conceptualize this change. My scholarly career has seen a revolving door of buzzwords and concepts surrounding technology in cities, like open data, open government, gov 2.0, civic technology, and the most popular of them all, smart cities. I even published an article delving into the smart cities literature, arguing that most smart city concepts were based on the theory of cybernetics, which focuses on how communication can allow for real-time feedback loops to improve a system’s function. My article argued that this metaphor is inappropriate to apply to a city as a whole, since cities have many shifting goals and therefore can’t be optimized like a machine. Since then, I have been in search of a concept which describes the ways in which digital technologies have changed cities that connect technical developments with their constituent ideological, economic, and social elements.

During this time, a group of faculty at UM developing a new graduate certificate coalesced around the term of urban informatics to describe our program. Emphasizing the epistemological dimension of these new technologies, namely the new sources of data and analysis available for research, the term informatics as pioneered in the health field also refers to the use of digital technologies and tools in organized areas of professional practice. Therefore, the term served to usefully bridge the research culture of the university–focused on data and its use to create new knowledge–with the perspective of the professions grappling with how to prepare practitioners to enter fields with very dynamic tools and methods.

Although the term has had its usefulness, it also had weaknesses. Although our description contains a gesture towards how digital technology may change urban life, through new apps, visualizations, or interfaces, this aspect was underdeveloped. Urban informatics focused mainly on the potential for new forms of knowledge and its related application in professions, less on how digital technologies may be changing the nature of cities in profound ways.

Over the years, the nature of the digitalization of cities has become more apparent. Whereas early on the internet could be dismissed as simply another form of media present in cities, supplanting telephones, televisions in homes and offices, recently it has spawned developments touching many aspects of city life. The local paper is bankrupt and neighbors chat on NextDoor and Facebook. Amazon and other online retailers have captured a sizable chunk of the retail market. Homes are rented on AirBnB and streets filled with Uber or Lyft vehicles. Restaurants live or die by their Yelp reviews, and delivery is so ubiquitous that restaurants do not even need to be open for walk-in customers. Most importantly, the companies involved in these changes have grown with dizzying speeds, enriching their investors and the cities where their employees live and work.

Within nearly each of these sectors, a cottage industry of research and analysis has sprung up grappling with how they are changing urban life. Analysts have mapped AirBNB listings, quantifying their effects on urban housing and sparking diverse regulatory responses. App-based smart mobility services like Uber and Lyft have sparked research but also regulatory responses to re-negotiate their role in urban transportation, seeking to improve working conditions for drivers or guarantee government access to system data. It is obvious social media platforms have reconfigured the public sphere, creating new opportunities and hazards for participation and local politics.

Enter Platform Urbanism

To make sense of these myriad developments, a growing group of urban scholars have developed a literature on platform urbanism. The term makes explicit reference to the key work platform capitalism, which articulated creating a platform as a business strategy. Through the use of technology to cultivate a two-sided market, firms using a platform strategy seek to create a monopoly within a particular economic sector, but one which also supports an ecosystem of others who benefit from the platform, such as app developers and users. By serving as an intermediary, the platform captures profits, as well as obtaining data that can be used to develop further products and services which serve as sources of further growth. Another key citation in the literature is Tarleton Gillespie’s 2010 article “The Politics of ‘Platforms’” (noted here) that analyzes the different ways the term is used by social media companies to pursue their interests.

Sarah Barns delves into the ideas in a 2020 book Platform Urbanism, my primary reference for this post, tracing the concept both to technological elements–the key role of application programming interfaces (or APIs)–but also acknowledging the concept serves as an imaginary. She has also argued in the Mediapolis journal that “We are all Platform Urbanists Now”–saying that the term simply describes urban reality–while also suggesting a role for critical responses.

One insight Barns makes is to point out that while individual platform services–such as Uber–take the form of cybernetic systems, the broader imaginary of platform also encompasses the business model and organizational structures behind the narrow cybernetic system elements. Indeed, Barns observes that the concept of the platform may have arisen in the private sector but has been promoted in the public sector as well, where cities now operate open data platforms, and even 311 systems which can be understood as platforms coordinating the request and delivery of city services. In a related public-sector example, I have long been puzzled by the powerful allure of the Mobility-as-a-Service (or MaaS) concept that seeks to provide all transportation through a shared platform (often an app), since simply spending money on boring old buses is probably a much simpler and more effective way to address transportation needs. However MaaS can be understood as another manifestation of the platform concept, and one where the public and private players are in competition to determine who will own the platform, and where the profits are to be made in the new ecosystem that is emerging. The high financial and political stakes are motivating the rush into Maas, not necessarily an obvious user demand or even demonstrated public value.

Therefore, platform urbanism is a useful concept primarily because it simply describes urban life today, where various platforms have become central to how people navigate, understand, and live in cities. Unlike more general terms like urban technology or digital cities, platform urbanism provides a gesture towards the political economy of urban space today, where in many sectors a small number of large companies play an outsized role in urban life. Indeed, the “tech lash” has been sparked as the size and power of these firms has grown, and as Barns comments in her book, earlier associations with collaboration and openness have become tempered with a realization of platform company’s monopoly market power and stores of proprietary data. Barns observes that the success of platform businesses is due to the very real convenience and value they provide us–hence a discussion of platform urbanism contains a normative angle inviting nuanced discussions about how public and private platforms should be deployed or reigned in to serve public value.

Needed Developments for the Platform Urbanism Concept

For all the effort focused on defining the nature of the platforms, in my view the urbanism has been a bit neglected in the literature thus far. After all, urbanism typically connotes a particular urban form and related aspects of culture and economy, describing a way of living in cities related to particular form and structure. Thinking about this issue is one area where those with a design sensibility can make an important contribution. Here I will offer some early speculations about what that may mean.

Platform urbanism means that city life is defined not only by material elements, but also by the constellation of platforms available to or in use by different residents. It seems likely a few platforms may reach near-universal adoption (such as Amazon), but it seems inevitable that in many sectors adoption will remain limited to certain groups of city citizens. Those with the greatest literacy, skill and money, will find urban life made even more convenient by platforms, with ever wider range of options for mobility, housing, food, dating, and entertainment. Others will not benefit from the platforms if they do not use them because they are excluded, can’t afford them, or lack access. For others, the platforms will serve as a major and growing option for employment. At UM, my colleague Tawanna Dillahunt has researched the use of platforms for those seeking economic opportunity (see also). MIT graduate student Rida Qadri is investigating the drivers on mobility platforms, and the role they play navigating the city and making the platform work. Widening inequality may be one tendency as platforms can exploit their market power to pay low wages to their workers, but it is not inevitable and can be countered by regulatory responses to guarantee improved pay, working rights, and working conditions of platform employees.

The urban form implications of platform urbanism is unclear and deserves exploration. Obviously, platform urbanism can thrive in many city forms as services like Ubers can be hailed nearly everywhere. However, due the scaling economies involved, many platforms will only work in cities of sufficient size to generate adequate supply and demand, so platform urbanism may pass by rural areas and small towns. Within the city itself, the extensive use of platforms reduces the importance or relevance of the antiquated notion of “walk in traffic” for retailers and restaurants, as the platform is mediating which choices people make, not serendipity or proximity. However, accessibility still matters, as travel times incur costs and frictions for the platform system, which in the case of ridesharing may be desirable (hirer fares), but in the case of food delivery is undesirable (long waits, cold food). Platform urbanism most likely facilitates more intensive physical sharing of place while reducing the social interactions required, with apps steering residents to different businesses, housing, and services that may be in close proximity to others that remain unknown or closed to them. In a subsequent post I hope to explore the concept of the street in platform urbanism, and show how the concept allows us to see the nature and structure of the digital layer which now mediates and influences daily urban life.

From an urban planning point of view, platform urbanism also leads to important insights. Whereas the field has traditionally assumed city or regional stakeholders hold sufficient powers to shape urban form (like zoning, eminent domain, and infrastructure investment), platform urbanism points out many of the systems mediating urban life are beyond the reach of cities or even state law. As Schweitzer and Afzalan observe, services like Yelp can have big local influences but are beyond the reach of local planners . Ongoing debates about how AirBnB should be regulated show how governance structures are adapting–legislation has been introduced in the Michigan legislature that would preempt local regulations of AirBnB, while others like Oregon have allowed individual cities to choose their regulatory responses.

What’s Missing?

Finally, what do we miss by adopting the platform urbanism concept? By emphasizing the technologically mediated aspects of urban life, perhaps the remaining parts of the city may be less visible or neglected. Although online retail has captured 13.6% of the market, ride-sharing constitutes less than 1% of person-miles traveled in 2017, meaning big chunks of retail and travel are not platform-mediated. An excessive focus on platforms runs the risk of neglecting the old urbanism which remains at the heart of cities. The counter-argument to this view is the spectacular growth of the platform companies, and their demonstrated ability to disrupt industries, suggests that they are ignored at the city’s peril.

Another risk is that we become seduced by the openness implied by the platform imaginary, and overlook not only the obvious ways platforms exclude through limited access, but also ways seemingly open, neutral mediation can perpetuate discrimination by race, gender, or other dimensions of identity. This may be manifest through how individuals interact with the platform (such as through ratings), as well as in a broader sense how different groups use platforms to seek power and control space. Surely, NIMBY activists must make skilled use of many platforms to politically mobilize against changes to policy which would foster racial and economic inclusion, whereas other communities may be less successful using platforms for political power due to gaps in access, literacy, and capacity. On the other hand, activist movements like #blacklivesmatter have shown platforms can be potent venues for mobilization. The concept of a platform also emphasizes individuals (and often in the role of consumers), perhaps at the expense of family, community, or collective identities.

Towards a Progressive Platform Urbanism

Even if much work remains to flesh out the platform urbanism concept, one thing I like about it is how it not only captures elements of the cultural zeitgeist, it also helpfully suggests a powerful way digital technologies can be used that is not specific to any sector. The openness of the concept suggests it may inspire progressive platforms aimed at achieving community–and not only economic–goals. One example of this comes from my own research into the concept of civic crowdfunding, an emerging community development method which involves dedicated platforms where individuals or community groups collect donations and volunteers through a project page. Adapting the crowdfunding model of Kickstarter, where donors can be little more than early buyers of a product, my research showed that civic crowdfunding resulted in donors making or strengthening social relationships, thereby building social capital. The project sponsors I spoke with, that ran the gamut from individuals and loose collectives to formal organizations like art museums, understood the value of civic crowdfunding not only to provide funds but also achieve social goals by recruiting, involving, and empowering participants. In a similar vein, my colleague Bryan Boyer developed a concept for a platform called Brickstarter several years ago which formalized the dual participatory and financial aspect possible through a crowdfunding platform dedicated to urban projects.

Whereas there continues to be a role for developing a collaborative consensus about the future of cities and regions–such as through methods like scenario planning–cities obviously also thrive on the entrepreneurial spirit of their residents that produces projects like public art, community festivals, community centers, and the like found on civic crowdfunding platforms. The example of civic crowdfunding shows that platform urbanism need not be exclusively a capitalist affair, but instead support diverse forms of community building and urban improvement required for vibrant, inclusive, and healthy cities.

Going forward, I hope to foster a lively debate about platform urbanism here at Michigan among those involved in our new degree in Urban Technology. Like it or not, urban life is shaped by platforms, and a pressing question is how the platform imaginary can be stretched and bent to better serve the public interest, or consider whether it should be discarded for other concepts that describe a more fruitful direction for how technology can improve city life. In that spirit, I welcome your reactions and thoughts. Is platform urbanism here to stay, or simply the latest urban tech buzzword?

Author: Rob Goodspeed