Molly Turner is an urban planner who teaches urban innovation at the Berkeley Haas School of Business. She was the first policy person at Airbnb.
Don’t let the WeWork, Uber, and Lyft implosions fool you. Hundreds of urban tech startups are thriving right now—and billions of dollars are still being invested in them. Venture capitalists and the entrepreneurs they invest in are more excited than ever about building new tech startups to improve urban life and governance. Richard Florida recently estimated in CityLab that between 2016 and 2018, urban tech investment totaled more than $75 billion, representing roughly 17 percent of all global venture-capital investment.
I encounter these urban tech entrepreneurs and their investors regularly: I’ve interviewed them on my podcast Technopolis, I’ve taught them in my Berkeley Haas class, and I’ve even joined a few of their advisory boards. Like any savvy venture capitalist, when I meet a new urban techie, I size them up to understand whether they’re a good investment—of my time. Most VCs assess for product/market fit, how well the founding team gets along, or how scalable their solution is, and those are all important indicators for success. But for me, there’s one indicator that is essential for the success of an urban tech startup: Are they civically engaged?
Sure, as the early Uber lobbyist Bradley Tusk suggests, every urban tech startup should invest in a smart government and community relations strategy. But, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the founder who boasts their startup will make streets safer, or the investor who boasts their portfolio companies will make cities smarter.
While they’re “solving” those issues for cities around the world, how much do they care about those very issues in their own backyards? Based on my conversations with hundreds of urban tech entrepreneurs and investors, I’d estimate that many don’t. How can I tell? I convene groups of tech leaders to talk about local politics regularly, and host ballot analysis events every election cycle. The attendees are sometimes well-versed in the high-profile ballot measures (eg. taxing Uber/Lyft) and top-of-ticket candidates (e.g. president, senator, mayor). But when I ask them what city council district they’re in and which local candidate they’re voting for, only about two out of ten of them have any idea. Many will then confess, quietly, that they usually leave that one blank.
How can someone genuinely care about solving city problems if they don’t care enough to vote for city council?
That’s why I’ve come up with five Urban Tech Table Stakes. (Table stakes, according to Urban Dictionary, is “the minimum amount required to play a hand of poker. Also, the minimum amount of effort your lazy ass needs to expend to compete at work, in relationships and basically all facets of life.”) In other words, if you want to be an urban tech entrepreneur or investor, here is the bare minimum you should do to be civically engaged—and credible:
Join a neighborhood group
I confess, I avoided this for a long time. As someone who’s been engaged in local politics and on the boards of local policy organizations, I thought that relatively powerless (and oftentimes NIMBY) neighborhood groups wouldn’t be a good use of my time. I was wrong. Joining my neighborhood group has connected me with neighbors I’d never have met and helped me understand different perspectives on urban policies I’ve worked on for years. It’s also helped give me a more visceral comprehension for how how grassroots politics impacts decision-making in city hall (in a city like San Francisco, that impact is huge). And the best part is, I now know more about what’s going on around my corner and when that new restaurant will finally open.
Attend a public meeting
It can be both inspiring and depressing to see our local democracy in action. Sometimes public meetings show the best of our cities: when elected officials demonstrate their diligence and diplomacy, advocacy groups fight for their values, and citizens from all corners of the city have a chance to chime in. Alas, public meetings are usually more mundane or dysfunctional than that. And in many cities the “STPs” (same ten people) show up to every public meeting (because few citizens have time time, or care, to attend) and have a disproportionate impact on decision-making for everyone. That is exactly why we should still participate. And while your neighborhood group might help you understand the perspectives of folks who live near you, a public meeting can help you get out of your neighborhood bubble and understand the perspectives of different communities.
Read—and subscribe—to your local news outlet
CityLab is fantastic, but it doesn’t cover your city as closely as your local paper will. Your local paper can not only help you be a more informed voter, it can help you stay up to date (and more involved) in local policy issues. Reading your local paper is good for you, but subscribing to it is good for your city. Many have documented how local papers act as watchdogs to keep municipal budgets in check, increase voter participation and the number of people running for elected office, and decrease partisanship. Subscribing or contributing helps keep that paper in business.
Know who represents you in city hall
Mayors are high profile and I’ve found that most urban tech leaders are familiar with the executive branch of their city government. But the legislative branch (eg. the city council) is just as important if not moreso. In some cities, council members can be like mini mayors, with huge sway over what happens in their districts. In others, city councils hold far more power than mayors. So, don’t just vote for the top of the ticket. Learn about who your local representatives are and what their voting record is on issues you care about. Your vote—for or against them—can have a significant impact on how your city funds and regulates those issues (particularly when voter turnout is low).
While we’re all focused on the top of the ticket this primary season, many municipalities have local officials on the ballot too. And those elections can have as much, if not greater, impact on your city than a presidential election. Unfortunately, voter turnout is abysmal for local elections. CityLab’s Kriston Capps recently documented that in 15 of the 30 most populous cities in the U.S., voter turnout in mayoral elections is less than 20 percent. So, I’ll make this easy for U.S. voters: register here.
Some of these stakes might feel like time-consuming distractions to busy urban tech leaders. They’re building global businesses that improve millions of lives around the world, they’d say. No time for the pettiness of local politics. I’d respond that being civically engaged in your own city can give you insights that help you build a more effective, and successful, urban tech business. And I’d also remind them that while the private sector may be an important lever for change, public policy is the greatest lever for change in our cities. So if you genuinely care about the future of cities, learn how to pull the policy lever, not just to benefit your company, but to benefit everyone. And start in your own backyard.