By the end of last week, ride-hailing app Uber was still set to lose its licence to operate in London. Despite two rounds of talks between Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi and Transport for London (TfL) commissioner Mike Brown, it looks like Uber will be barred from the capital come 13 October.
Londoners have not reacted well: a petition against TfL’s decision attracted more than 500,000 signatures in the few days after the announcement. In this argument between a regulator and a disruptive start-up, TfL appears to be on the wrong side of public opinion.
But the licencing disagreement throws up wider problems facing authorities. Has the pace of technological change in cities been too quick? In Uber’s case what started in 2008 as an idea between two friends has exploded into a multi-billion dollar company, changing the way we get around in 632 cities worldwide.
As our cities grow smarter, can we find the balance between sufficient regulation – safety concerns were cited by TfL as a reason for revoking Uber’s licence – without compromising on innovation in a rapidly changing world?
Future Cities Catapult strategy, markets and standards team lead Rushi Rama argues that transitioning to a smart future is more difficult than it first appears.
“You put down a plan, that plan has all sorts of systems on it, and then theoretically that should operate and that should transform the city into a smart city,” he says.
“But the way that technology is actually evolving in cities is naturally much more chaotic.”
Rama explains that authorities in cities around the world have struggled with the pace of change. Tensions are emerging between transport operators and citizens, whose smarter choices are driving changes exposed by the Uber debate.
“It’s not a new story, it happens all the time,” says Rama. “It’s just that with the digital revolution there’s a whole spade of new technologies coming at the same time.”
So how should city authorities react? How can innovation be encouraged while still ensuring citizens’ rights and safety are cared for?
“In general an easy answer to this is to be doing more foresight work and future scanning,” Rama explains.
“You can never predict the future but you can do your best guess to try to accommodate it”.
Future Cities Catapult’s forthcoming report into the issue, produced with Arup and titled Global Review of Smart City Strategies, examines smart city strategies in 20 cities across the world to see how they differ, and how authorities can become more resilient to rapid technological change.
But should city authorities take all the weight of regulating for change? What responsibilities do the technology companies have?
In May the journey planning app company Citymapper carried out a series of smart bus trials in London. Citymapper worked with TfL during the trial, using transport data which TfL had made public.
At the time, TfL’s director of transport innovation Michael Hurwitz said: “We work closely with technology companies around the world to support innovation that could improve transport in London.
“We are very much open to new ideas and are actively engaging tech companies and innovators on some of the challenges facing the city.”
Better collaboration between disruptive technology companies and city authorities seems increasingly important as smart city theory becomes reality.