Disruptive tech firms offer convenience and competitive prices. But they also push ordinary people out of jobs, neighborhoods and even public spaces.
BUENOS AIRES — A pair of apparently unrelated anomalies that are partly relevant to the rest of the European Union took place this past winter in Barcelona. One was a two-week standoff between taxis and ride-sharing companies like Uber and Cabify that paralyzed the city and ended with authorities deciding to give traditional taxis a 15-minute head-start. Paradoxical given that it coincided with the Mobile World Congress? Or smart urban management?
Private ride-sharing services like Uber bring vehicles and passengers closer, minimizing car circulation in the city. They make travel cheaper. And they are an answer to unemployment, especially for the worst affected sectors. But at the same time, the spike in the number of "uber-entrepreneurs' puts more cars on the road, adding to traffic congestion and slowing public buses that are used by the majority. It's the least efficient way, in fact, of using the public space, and the benefits of ride-sharing services don't, ultimately, make up for the regressive redistribution of mobility.
An Uber customer in Washington D.C. – Photo: Mark Warner
The other anomaly was the sudden drop in Barcelona's traditional, seasonal rush on stores. It appears that people are instead going online for their shopping needs — to save money, and for the sake of convenience. That, alongside the increasing numbers of people working at home thanks to IT solutions, is another factor reducing traffic and pollution in cities. Both illustrate how new technologies are changing the configuration of cities.
Globalized capitalism ... favors an unprecedented accumulation of power.
These negative and positive influences are not inherent to communication and information technologies. They are a result of globalized capitalism, which favors an unprecedented accumulation of power by sectors that exploit the dynamics of technological change ahead of legal frameworks and controls. And that is where local and national governments have a role in minimizing the negative effects of this new economy.
The globalization of finance and the presence of specialized websites are in turn fueling real estate and rental demand, widening the rift between rising prices and local earnings. This is proportionately and directly displacing local residents from neighborhoods. Across the EU, there is an ongoing battle against property speculation, even as firms are effectively subsidized to create "virtual", if not precarious, employment.
In Buenos Aires, the stadium planned for Agronomía — a district that is one of the city's vital green and leisure spaces — is just one of many examples of public space being sold to benefit of the few. In a city with a dismal ratio of green spaces to residents and a chronic shortage of affordable housing, this type of speculative decision-making will exacerbate existing inequalities and segregation.
The spirit of the 21st century should not revolve around more sophisticated gadgets and applications that provide personal comfort while creating precarious work and living conditions across the system. This is like leaving a few trees after razing the park. Our protective canopy should be better territorial organization, and livable and inclusive cities for all.