Leadership in the Age of Disruption

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Technological innovation is compelling and necessary, but it complicates the economic and policy frameworks that communities—governments, businesses and families—have bet on.

Mayor-Steve-AdlerAustin, Texas Mayor Steve Adler discusses entrepreneurship at NLC’s Big Ideas for Cities. (photo: Jason Dixson Photography)

Disruption. It may be a buzz word, but it perfectly encapsulates this moment in time. Sharing economy behemoths like Uber and AirBnB have redefined how we navigate and experience the built environment. Trends in driverless technology promise to further shift the dynamics of personal and public mobility. The rapid acceleration of automation is forcing all of us to consider – will my job be done by a machine?

Technological innovation is compelling and necessary, but it complicates the economic and policy frameworks that communities—governments, businesses and families—have bet on. New technologies don’t simply disrupt business models; they disrupt lives. At times, they forcefully forge change and demand swift adaptation from every size of community.

The real challenge is ultimately the one that hits home. And if it hits home, it’s something city leadership can’t neglect. Cities are not simply at the whim of disruption. Our democratic systems provide the public an opportunity to have a say. So here are three ways cities can lead in this age of disruption:

1.    Take Time to Weigh the Pros and Cons

NLC’s city survey on the sharing economy, Shifting Perceptions of Collaborative Consumption, identified three key benefits and concerns of city leaders. When city leaders were asked to identify the greatest benefit sharing economy businesses offer their communities, 22 percent of respondents identified improved services, 20 percent identified increased economic activity, and 16 percent identified increased entrepreneurial activity. On the whole, cities want to encourage economic development and accommodate the services that their constituents want, and the sharing economy in many respects has delivered.

At the same time, our survey found that cities have concerns about the sharing economy—the biggest being public safety. The lack of comparable insurance requirements coupled with general safety concerns was cited by 61 percent of respondents. Cities also cited the protection of traditional service providers and industry participants (10 percent), as well as non-compliance with current standards (9 percent).

We’ve learned that the sharing economy poses significant policy questions, but also that the sharing economy offers great promise for cities—and city leaders are well prepared to successfully navigate the ever-changing development. However, cities must allocate time to understanding and weighing the costs and benefits of these emerging trends. City leaders must consciously ask, “Do we want our city to be a socially cohesive place, where the benefits of growth and new technologies enhance quality of life across a diverse range of demographic groups? Or will it be one where disruptive change serves to benefit only a few?”

2.   Avoid the Trappings of Old Ways of Thinking

The ability to automate work and use artificial intelligence to augment everyday tasks is here. Robots can be found walking outside factories, the whir of drones grows louder in the air, and driverless cars are poised to join us on the streets in cities nationwide. We are rapidly approaching an inflection point. These changes are likely to result in a sea change in the workforce. McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that by 2025, robots could produce an output equivalent to 40-75 million workers in both industrial and service roles. A University of Oxford study found that 47% of U.S. jobs might be at risk within the next two decades due to advances in computers, automation, and AI.

Drastic and rapid change makes it easy to focus on what has and will be lost, but comparisons to the past do not have to dominate our narrative of tomorrow. We must move the policy discussion away from job retraining to job rethinking. By embracing what machines do better and bolstering the areas where humans thrive—creativity, craftsmanship, and human judgment—we will be able to harness the power of these technological changes to create products and industries that are entirely new. City leaders have an important part to play in helping to rethink how we approach work across the spectrum—from service industry to professional jobs, white collar and blue collar—and what changes these areas will require in terms of new skills and education.

3.   Be Diligent in Staying Ahead of the Curve

The availability of new modes of transportation will fundamentally alter urban environments. This is evident in our recent City of the Future research, which analyzed long-range transportation plans in the 50 largest cities (and metro regions) as well as the plans of the largest cities in each state. What we saw is a widening gap between where technology is rapidly taking us and where cities are currently planning to go. So, will cities be ready?

Only 6 percent of the plans we analyzed consider the potential effect of driverless technology. Three percent of these plans look at companies like Uber and Lyft or other players in the transportation network space—even though they operate in 60 or the 68 markets. Fifty percent of the plans contain explicit recommendations for new highway construction while only 12 percent clearly state no new highways are planned.

This doesn’t necessarily comport with what community residents are requesting, and in many ways, reflects the disruptive speed at which recent transportation technologies have come online. If cities are always playing catch up, city leaders will miss out on crucial opportunities to structure how further innovations take hold.

All of these developments and shifts will drastically alter our future cities. With the rapid changes facing us all there will undoubtedly be unforeseen advancements in the coming years that no one could have predicted. City leaders have a unique moment ahead of them to help shape our collective future in exciting new ways.

We are living in the age of cities. Cities are the platform for growth, and in order for our economy to succeed, cities are the vehicle to success. Leadership during these changing times can be challenging, but our city leaders are on the front lines getting things done. It may be an age of disruption, but it is an environment that is ripe with opportunity for leadership.

About the Author:

Brooks Rainwater bio photoBrooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.