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POV

The Invisible Network That Makes Cities Work

Despite fears of declining social capital and lack of faith in civic institutions, the “new trust economy” is thriving in urban areas.

A Londoner labors alone in a tech hub. Technology may appear to be isolating citizens, but Ian Klaus argues that urbanites are increasingly enmeshed in complex trust networks. (Reuters )

Do you trust your neighbor? With your spare keys? With your dog? To not look when you change clothes with the blinds open? And has that behavior changed?

As patterns of communication, social interaction, and economic exchange shift, so too does the nature of trust. You can’t see trust. You can’t touch it. But like the copper below city streets and the wires above them, a network of trust undergirds urban neighborhoods and communities. And it’s undergoing something of a revolution.

Economists who write about trust love behavioral game theory experiments that measure the risk-reward premium of trust. The Trust Game, a version of Daniel Kahneman’s famous Dictator Game, allows counterparts to loan or give each other money in the hope of receiving some or more back in return. The game has been used to measure everything from “beauty premiums” to the heritability of trusting behavior.

The game being played out in cities today, however, is not only measured in phone surveys or iterative lab experiments. Instead, cities are the sites of ongoing natural experiments in the future of trust, being conducted by citizens, academics, bureaucrats, venture capitalists, graffiti artists, and chat robots. And some of the results of these experiments are encouraging.

Interpersonal trust, particularly but in no way limited to urban spaces, always seems on the verge of collapse. Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s famous essay and book on declining social capital (a phenomenon highly correlated with trust) is more than twenty years old now. Many are convinced that the rise of digital devices and the self-curated universes within them has only exacerbated the decline Putnam described. In a recent London Review of Books, Iain Sinclair wandered through what he called the “Last London.”  There in the hipster coffee shops of Shoreditch, he found Londoners laboring before their laptops in “an occult circle of pale screens and fearful concentration”—the updated version of T.S. Eliot’s London Bridge commuters. “Why,” he asked, “do these digital initiates always look as if the screens hold bad news, as if the power is on the point of shutting down permanently, leaving them disconnected in outer darkness?”

And yet, in what Edward Glaeser called Jevon’s Complementarity Corollary, the revolution in information and communication technology hasn’t rendered face-to-face interaction—or the cities that facilitate such meetings—obsolete. If anything, technology has enhanced their value. And mobile phone data appears to suggest that our devices are frequently used to arrange meetings rather than replace them. (Many of Sinclair’s coffee-sipping zombies were probably doing just that.) If these studies are right, the need for proximity has not been destroyed by new technology, nor has the desire to build trust through human exchange. Rather, technology can help human connection or render them more important than ever.

True to that potential, trust games are also being played by designers who are turning our digital conversations into modern public squares. Future Cities Lab is a design studio and architectural think tank in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. “Datagrove,” their 2012 installation for the ZERO1 Art and Technology Biennial in San Jose, made nearby data streams visible in light and sound. Trending Twitter feeds were rendered audible through small speakers. The installation, according to the Lab, functioned “as a social media ‘whispering wall’ that harnesses data that is normally nested and hidden in smart phones, and amplifies this discourse into the public realm.” Bright, a France-based digital arts company, will soon make the digital life of Parisians more visible at bus stops.

But perhaps the most notable urban trust experiments between individuals are being performed by Uber and Airbnb. Who would let a stranger stay in their house, early (regretful) skeptics once asked, or get into a stranger’s car? In his recent book Upstarts, Brad Stone charts the technological, commercial and political battles of the tech giants. “Airbnb and Uber didn’t spawn ‘the sharing economy,’ ‘the on-demand economy,’ or the ‘one-tap economy,” writes Stone, “so much as usher in a new trust economy.” Early scandals for these companies focused on trashed houses and mistreated riders, but for the most part the trust challenge was overcome. Enhanced insurance policies for drivers and renters helped reduce risk on all sides, but there is much more at work. Trust between riders and drivers, renters and rentees is not based on a centrally distributed permit, medallion or license, but rather on digital reputations.

And what of the experiments in “vertical trust,” the kind that exists between individuals and institutions, including city governments? Here too, the instinct is for pessimism as trust in large institutions is on the decline. At the municipal level, police departments in particular face many of the trust challenges befalling institutions that are either centralized or rely on coercion. Nonetheless, municipal governments are also sites of dynamic trust experiments.

From identifying potholes to proposing ideas for newly elected mayors, cities are engaging the knowledge and needs of residents. Such efforts, often supported by public private partnerships, or in collaboration with universities such as the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, seek to facilitate both engagement and action. Last month, on the 5th anniversary of New York City’s Data Law, the city launched a new portal for its open-data efforts to help “data novices” more easily access it. “Refreshingly,” writes Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at the Ash Center, “we also see that a citizen’s judgment concerning the trustworthiness of the local government can be facilitated by public transparency and social media use, resulting in more participation in solving the community’s problems.”

“Civtech” has come to be a catch all for such efforts, but the term leaves much to be desired. In The City of Tomorrow, Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel give the concept an alluring tweak. “Futurecraft in urban space,” as they call it, refers not to the new technologies and platforms but to the practice of developing, enabling, and utilizing the technologies and platforms. Crucial to successful practice is “bidirectional interface,” by which participants can access information as well as add and change it—two-way conversations, in other words, but with way more than two people.

Nearly a decade ago, Clay Shirky published Here Comes Everybody, which foretold of a radical future in which organizing could proceed, as the subtitle has it, without organizations. Not dissimilarly, trust building today indeed favors everybody over traditional organizations, a phenomenon being played out in cities around the world.

About the Author

  • Ian Klaus is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House and a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was previously Senior Advisor for Global Cities at the U.S. Department of State and Deputy U.S. Negotiator for Habitat 3.