Video: Rit Aggarwala on the Promise of Big Data and a More Responsive City

Rit Aggarwala says we should think of the city as a machine. “It requires capacity to handle the people, the traffic, the throughput, the sewage, the garbage, everything that a city is there to handle. And if it is overcapacity, it inevitably breaks down. That’s where we get traffic congestion, that’s where we get environmental degradation.”

Aggarwala, co-head of labs at Sidewalk Labs and former head of New York City’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, recently visited WRI to discuss the opportunities for technology to add to capacity and improve urban life worldwide.

Many cities in the global south simply are not prepared for the number of new residents they are seeing. Technology and big data can help, Aggarwala argues, but only if they are part of a larger plan for managing growth.

“If you plan for growth, you can make it okay,” he says. “If you don’t – if you ignore it, if you pretend it’s not going to exist, if you pretend that you can stop it by neglecting it – you actually get a terrible environmental catastrophe and you get a city that does not provide opportunity for its people.”

Data for Decision-Making

“The millions and billions of activities and decisions and interactions that are going on in a big city at any given moment, humans can’t really keep track of all that,” Aggarwala says. “What technology offers is the opportunity to gather all of that information and process it and make available what’s necessary, what’s useful.”

Big data doesn’t necessarily mean big government, with centralized decision-making powers, he cautions. Big data can also enable decision-making at the individual and local level through user-oriented technologies like self-configuring transit networks and automated permitting and approval systems. “You can think not only about streamlining government, but in fact about driving government decisions down to the public in a way that’s responsive and also doesn’t just empower one group that might be advantaged in terms of interacting with government,” he says.

Accountability and equity are key, and urban decision-makers have an important part to play, Aggarwala says. From wi-fi access to car-sharing services, city governments can help ensure that technology benefits everyone, not just those who can pay the most.

“We know from cities all over the world that poorer people have longer commutes than wealthier people,” he says. “If we can improve traffic congestion, that will actually have a disproportionately greater impact on the poor people who are coming from longer distances.”

Lessons from New York

From 2006 to 2010, Aggarwala worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg where among other tasks he was responsible for “PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York,” which helped reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 19 percent from 2005 to 2013. He had three takeaways from the experience.

First, it’s important to include a wide range of stakeholders. “You can’t do this as a top-down plan,” he says. The Sustainability Advisory Board brought together a group of 17 leaders from different organizations to advise the city, and Aggarwala’s team met with more than 50 community groups through private and public meetings to collect ideas and feedback.

Second, it’s essential to tie decision-making to data and analysis. “‘If you can’t analyze it, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,’ as Mike Bloomberg always said. And what decision-makers need to do is provide evidence both for what they want to do and how they are doing as they progress.”

Lastly, Aggarwala believes that government should be ambitious and aggressive – but also focused.

“I think one of the things that the Bloomberg administration did very well was focus on policies that the city government had the power to determine, rather than trying to have programs and other things where it was trying to make up for the shortcomings in policy areas that it did not actually have authority over,” he says. “I think if every mayor in the world, if every city government in the world actually used all the tools at its disposal and thought creatively and aggressively about how to do that, cities would be more empowered and you would have more responsive cities that served their citizens better.”

Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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