Tech is not a panacea for society’s problems, but it’s far easier to get ahead in a changing world by cultivating an experimental mindset.
Twitter is testing new functions regionally with a view to employing user behavior to inform bigger product decisions–as is Instagram and many other tech giants. An experimental mindset is distinct from the infamous “move fast and break things” ethos. It shouldn’t feel like a burden on society or create adversarial relationships and ugly headlines. Most importantly, it should always be evidence-driven with society’s interests at heart.
Toronto is that kind of city, and it shows.
This summer, the city partnered with MaRS Discovery District, George Brown College, Fitzrovia Real Estate, and an innovative startup called ReMAP to create a new urban manufacturing space and incubator for entrepreneurs as part of a residential development. It’s a fascinating test case for a city with plenty of start-ups and not enough housing.
It also followed on the heels of the permanent implementation of the King Street transit pilot, which New York is now attempting to copy.
Wait – what does a transit pilot have to do with digital technology? On the surface, not much. The transit pilot restricted car traffic on a busy downtown corridor to prioritize the movement of streetcars, which have been plying Toronto’s streets since the 1860s. It’s a great example of what can come from an experimental mindset gone right.
While politicians and transit agencies at multiple levels of government locked horns over region-wide solutions and billion-dollar transit expansions, the King Street pilot was a simple, $1.5-million beta test in the better use of existing transit infrastructure. The city could try it with no commitment and abandon it if it failed.
With this experiment, ridership grew 12% in one year, travel times dropped, and streetcar reliability shot up. After 17 months of study, council voted overwhelmingly to keep it in place.
When restaurant owners expressed fear that the reduced car traffic could hurt their businesses, the city partnered with Ritual on a two-week pilot within the pilot–a promotion that used The Star app to bring new customers to restaurants in the King Street corridor. It was inexpensive and easy to implement, and the city jumped on it. Decisions and approvals that would have normally taken weeks or months were fast-tracked in hours or days.
It was a relatively small amount of money for the city to spend–$164,000–so the risks were limited. But the project boosted spending in the pilot area by $426,000, just on the Ritual platform alone. More importantly, it immediately started returning actionable data for the city to evaluate. This was the experimental mindset in action: small investments to understand the outcome rather than upfront spending on a predetermined outcome.
Another area that is currently a hotbed for regulatory experimentation is e-scooters. While people love them, cities like San Francisco, Austin and Paris have been plagued with the littering of app-based dockless e-scooters with minimal infrastructure like parking and storage to support them. Cities like Chicago, Portland, and Calgary have been more judiciously planning the rollout and anticipating fixes.
Technology has a positive role to play in solving some of our challenges, and there is a way to constructively work with civic leaders when we adopt an experimental mindset. We live in a world where Silicon Valley’s brand has been damaged because its ethos and the arrogance of some companies came into conflict with the interests of its citizens: it turns out that moving fast and breaking things can actually break things.
Tech will not be a panacea to all of society’s issues but it’s far easier to get ahead in a changing world by cultivating an experimental mindset and working with people who are looking for solutions. Any city that wants to have this kind of meaningful conversation will inevitably find willing partners among all kinds of innovators–in tech and beyond.