Editorial: Big Data, Big Money & The Power Of Urban Influence

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While the core tenants of New Urbanism are pure, sustainable, beautiful and fruitful, the desire to manufacture this effect has had mixed outcomes at best. As a result, the perception of “Urbanism” as a whole has taken some hits, and as more people turn to the joys and conveniences of city life, an equal share are becoming skeptical of the idea that this shift will, or should, continue.

As with any good idea, the original intention of New Urbanism is good. The idea that we can make our cities about people instead of cars, that our cities can be places where people can live and thrive instead of simply visit for a fun night out is beautiful and within reach.

But the perceptions of New Urbanism are being tainted every day as the market begins to turn to the idea that money can be made via this new desire to throttle-up our cities once again. The organic attempts to regrow our cities have become infested with the steroid-ish approach of big spending in an attempt to accelerate the naturally occurring process.

Countering the New Urban method of growth that preaches incrementalism and sustainability, many of our cities are beginning to make the same mistakes based on market-dictated propaganda rather than market driven decisions.

My problem with the idea of “free market” (and mind you I don’t necessarily know a workable solution as of yet) is eventually those with means and power will stop responding to need and begin dictating it for personal gain. In our cities, the market is responding to the desire for an urban revival, but it is dictating to us that this revival must be one based on wealth and entertainment rather than growing a livable urban environment. It is pockets of big investment and tireless wealth telling the people that this is good for you, instead of working together in an effort to rebuild our cities into places where long term, sustainable and healthy growth can occur.

How is the market being dictated to us? Enter my new favorite term, “Big Data.” Whether it’s winning baseball games or determining social patterns, data is being collected today at a rate that is unimaginable. While this data tells us many fascinating details about what we really want, think and do, it also can be used to manipulate and coerce. The problem with regard to data is that it costs money to collect and process, so those who have it and wield its power are most often those who have tremendous means.

Here’s the hard part to stomach. We as humans are more predictable than we think. While we are individuals, we usually respond in similar ways given similar stimuli, circumstances and environments. While data may not be able to predict how YOU personally react to a situation or an event, it can tell a lot about how MOST PEOPLE will. Furthermore, if data says that people are desperate for jobs, economic growth and vibrancy in their cities, those with means can create an expensive, lavish but overall damaging project and deliver it to you in a way that they know you’ll respond positively, by saying the project will create an urban destination while employing people and creating tax base. It doesn’t matter that the project might be underfunded, subsidized and may have little or not long term impact… They’ve just sold the population on it with a few buzz words that have been statistically shown to have a positive effect on public perception.

Big Data is an incredible resource, but it has also become a dangerous weapon with regard to our urban growth. At what point will the informationally empowered overwhelm the informationally ignorant, creating an unsustainable urban pattern where the market is dictated to us by those who don’t have our best intentions in mind?

Data continues to be a driving force in our world today. When we can predict outcomes, reactions and patterns, we can use this knowledge for public good, or we can use it for personal gain to the exclusion of a healthy financial and social urban outcome. Let’s continue to be mindful and critical of data and how it’s being dictated to us to further big money agendas.