The 10 tech companies that shaped the last decade of urban life
In 2010, less than a third of American adults carried around smartphones. Ten years later, these devices, now owned by 80 percent of adults, seem ubiquitous. The rush of apps and services built off the proliferation of this technology may have left a bigger mark on our cities, for better or worse, than just about any other technological shift. Smartphones may well be the default way many of us experience and even see cities, helping us get around, plan a night out, book trips, and even shop for groceries.
Here are the tech giants, startups, and apps that have shaped the last decade of urban life.
Uber: Tech’s terrible role model
The ride-hailing Goliath represents so many of the ways technology has changed our cities; it’s a symbol of smartphone technology’s rise as the operating system for urban life, a shorthand for the exploitative “Uber-for-X” contract labor system, and a character study of the bold, boorish tech founder (Travis Kalanick) who sells utopian snake oil—in this case, a vision of a transportation revolution.
But perhaps the biggest impact Uber will have, in addition to failing spectacularly at reducing both congestion and emissions, is in setting a template for the way tech companies work with cities. For much of Uber’s existence, it collaborated with cities only when necessary or forced. Uber’s early relationship with local regulations, mostly blithe indifference and an “ask for forgiveness not permission” policy, wrote the playbook for so many urban innovations to follow.
Today’s startup transit ecosystem still refuses to share rider information that would perhaps lead to more sustainable and multimodal transit innovation. Entire industries, including dockless bikes and scooters, realized it was okay to simply litter the streets with private vehicles because Uber—and local government’s reaction to the company—showed it was possible.
Uber has since been humbled; its stock price has struggled since going public, California’s new independent contractor law has created an existential economic crisis, and its driverless car program has been mostly sidetracked after a fatal crash revealed the company was moving ahead at unsafe speeds. But at its most brash, this company helped pave the road for today’s tech backlash.
Citi Bike: A civic app success story
While some decried the launch of the nation’s premier bikeshare system in 2013 as folly, Citi Bike now stands as one of the decade’s brightest transit success stories. A model for similar systems around the country, Citi Bike (initially run by Motivate, a national bikeshare operator) has helped enshrine cycling as an everyday mode of transit for New Yorkers and tourists alike.
The system is far from perfect: like many bike-share networks, it has a poor track record of operating in underserved communities, the rollout of electric bikes was marred by safety issues, and it remains to be seen how Lyft’s recent purchase of Citi Bike’s parent company plays out over time. But as Curbed New York’s Amy Plitt wrote, the fleet of bulky blue bikes has become “an essential part of the urban fabric.” With the clear dangers to the environment and pedestrian safety posed by cars, it’s more important than ever to recognize how influential this program has been.
Airbnb: The tourism accelerator
At the dawn of this decade, Airbnb still seemed like a novel, exciting way to see a city, a scrappy room-sharing startup founded by a few tech guys in San Francisco trying to make extra money renting out their loft space. Today, the company, now worth north of $40 billion, has become a worldwide lodging juggernaut reshaping the hotel industry—and a force shaping how people see a city.
Neighborhoods where Airbnb rentals proliferate attract endless processions of rolling suitcases. The sheer scale of activity and number of rooms in play has led many to conclude that Airbnb activity has made the housing crisis worse by restricting inventory, and led to crackdowns by municipal governments. The proliferation of super hosts, and the company’s pursuit of business travelers and growth before its expected 2020 IPO, have made it big business. With Airbnb, it’s never been easier for travelers to find a unique space or explore a residential area of a city. But as concerns of overtourism impact neighborhoods and even entire cities, it’s worth asking whether that’s always a good thing.
Instagram: Today’s tour guide
Airbnb helps you figure out where to stay; Instagram helps you figure out what you’ll see. The photo- and video-sharing network, which launched in the fall of 2010, has become the visual guidebook for urban life. The most Instagrammable spots become magnets for visitors (see the view of the Manhattan Bridge from Dumbo), and even private homes become must-see parts of an itinerary. The Instagram aesthetic—modeling spaces to include shareable, click-worthy photo ops—has reshaped everything from restaurant interiors to museums, which some argue has created a sense of sameness around the globe. And while it may be easier than ever to share photos of great locations, the quest for viral content and social media feedback has also created tourist logjams that damage, threaten, or crowd unique sites or natural wonders.
Amazon: Reshaping the retail landscape
During the 14-month saga that was Amazon’s HQ2 contest, the e-commerce giant’s wooing of local leaders, with its push for incentives and tax breaks, showed just how desperate mayors had become for tech jobs and tech money. It also underscored the outsize influence that the Seattle-based firm has had on the country, specifically cities, over the past decade. Amazon’s increasingly sophisticated and sizable logistics and warehouse operations, in addition to being a boon for owners of industrial real estate, have truly redefined customer service and delivery (same-day delivery is fast becoming a standard).
But the company’s footprint goes beyond that. The company has helped create a bottleneck of delivery traffic in urban centers, and accelerated the decline of the brick-and-mortar retail sector, even as its Amazon Go stores and acquisition of Whole Foods provide the company with more traditional retail outlets. While the promise of Amazon is all about eliminating the traditional store footprint, the company has made its presence felt in other concrete ways.
WeWork: A lasting symbol of tech’s hubris
Many would argue that the beleaguered coworking startup isn’t even a tech company, simply a giant game of real estate arbitrage that was exposed when reality (in the form of its public financial statement) caught up with the fantasies spun by ex-CEO and cofounder Adam Neumann. The frenzy for creative office space reflects the last decade of economic development in cities, which has been predicated on the idea of creating and gestating innovation centers and tech hubs.
It’s also the symbol of the venture capital-funded “millennial urban lifestyle,” according to the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, where all manner of consumer tech companies kept prices low (and pushed off profitability) with river of venture capital. The fall of the We Company has only highlighted the precariousness of such a model.
Bird: A transit unicorn promoting a new way to get around
When Bird founder Travis VanderZanden decided to launch a dockless scooter system in Santa Monica, California, in 2017, his idea for a different kind of mobility network was so new, local officials didn’t know how to license it. (City Hall told him to get permits for vending machines.) More than two years later, Bird and its competitors, such as Lime and Spin, have become big business, helping turn micro-mobility into a huge industry (Bird became the fastest startup in history to achieve a billion-dollar valuation).
Early press about San Francisco’s “scooter-geddon” and the rash of scooters clogging sidewalks has since given way to discussions of unit economics, the sustainability of a more durable generation of scooters, and whether or not Uber and Lyft can make them part of their transit services. Other transit tech concepts, such as dockless bikes, have also flooded the market in recent years and failed to become widespread replacements for car trips. Bird and other scooter operators are still trying to make electrified, more sustainable two-wheel transit a true game changer.
Waze: An app-based traffic cop
Boasting more than 100 million users, Waze has become the world’s largest community-based navigation app, helping drivers avoid traffic jams and find the quickest route. It’s also a symbol of how we’re losing the ability to navigate without our phones—and ultimately losing the battle against congestion. Despite the best efforts of transportation officials to add highways and build their way out of traffic jams, Americans are stuck with ever-longer commutes, spending more time behind the wheel.
In its efforts to steer drivers clear of pile-ups and stop-and-go traffic, Waze often pushes traffic congestion onto side streets, merely spreading out the problem. To be clear, the app isn’t the reason congestion, traffic, and the resulting pollution are so bad—we have decades of transportation and urban planning policy to thank for that—but Waze does stand as a symbol for our inability to fix our transit woes.
Grubhub: An early innovator in the new delivery ecosystem
Due to its relatively early founding in 2006, Grubhub makes the list ahead of numerous other food delivery and task-oriented services, including Postmates. But they all represent the same sea change on city streets: an increasingly large, mostly contractor-based army of delivery drivers and riders. The sheer size of the market, expected to top $200 billion by 2025, has radically reshaped the restaurant industry, as the number of digital orders tripled this decade, with 60 percent of them coming via mobile apps. Experts predict the desire for convenience will eventually lead to drones and delivery bots on city sidewalks, exacerbating the challenge of keeping order among evolving transportation technologies.
Niantic’s Pokémon Go: A virtual reality phenomenon
Arguably one of the decade’s most popular apps—at its peak in 2016, the game had more daily users than Google Maps—this addictive game, which asked users to catch and train Pokémon, provided a vision of how mobile technology could be harnessed for something fun, social, and engaging. As Curbed’s Alissa Walker wrote, despite requiring people to remain glued to their phones, Pokémon Go became a tool for city discovery and civic engagement, and inspired many to think about ways to use technology to bring people together.
In a decade when so many people lamented how fellow citizens seemed buried in their screens in public, Pokémon Go offered an optimistic vision of how the dominant technology could bring people together. “Pokémon isn’t going to solve our equality issues,” wrote Walker, “but it might help in some small way to bridge divides by luring us into different communities and encouraging us to talk to strangers.”
Maria de Tollis
Friday 31 Jan 2020