Does a thriving tech sector really benefit a city – or does it just increase inequality?

500m around Silicon Roundabout. Is this as far as its benefits stretch? Image: Google Maps.

The tech sector has been making its presence felt in many larger cities for a number of years now, and in an uncertain era is proving to be one of the dynamos behind the “next economy”. That’s a good thing right? More jobs, more money, smarter cities?

Well, yes – but who exactly is it a good thing for?

Some of the cities that profess to be the smartest, most data driven, tech paradises – London and San Francisco come to mind – have both a flourishing tech sector and high levels of inequality. How smart are these cities, really, if they are teeming grounds of unfairness?

Research shows that, left to its own devices, the tech industry can be quiet self contained, producing an insular organism with few spillover benefits for the wider city. Positive externalities from tech clusters can be highly localised: spending by firms tends to occur in a particular zone, sometimes in a radius as small as 500m of their base. (This of course differs with location.)

Nevertheless there is a global trend of tech growth leading to one part of the city benefitting disproportionately, creating gentrified ghettoes and social tension of the sort witnessed in San Francisco. Tech growth in the Bay Area has driven property prices to levels far out of kilter with the average local salary, pricing out smaller firms, and costing the city infrastructure funding due to tax exemptions and privately run transport services.

This need not be the case. Tech is not an untameable force of nature. Its impact on a city and who gets to share in its potential benefits are grounded in the choices we make as a society. The question is, as as a tech industry grows, what are the best policy decisions to enhance opportunities on offer to the greatest number of people?

Experience shows that, if there is proactive leadership and public decision making about who should feel the benefits of tech growth, then it can be balanced across a city.

Take Chicago, where mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s office has formulated “The City Technology Plan”. It provides long-term strategies to use the burgeoning tech sector to enhance social as well as economic opportunity for Chicagoans. The main strategies include building a next generation digital infrastructure; fostering tech education through 2smart communities”; and providing for efficient and open government, and civic innovation.

The primary goal of the plan is to provide social and economic opportunities, with resident engagement, access, and skills – as well as job creation – among the top objectives.  Where there is effective leadership, city-level planning can be instrumental in ensuring that the spatial clustering characteristic of tech sector growth leads to positive spill over effects for the whole city.

But it won’t just happen organically; there needs to be planning and engagement if these mutual benefits are to be reaped. City and industry leaders alike need to collaborate and make decisions as to the level and type of interaction between tech growth and the wider city. As the Royal Town Planning Institute has argued, an important function of contemporary planning is recognising and understanding current economic factors and growth trends so that strategic decisions surrounding development add value to the local area. By understanding the needs of a community, planners can assist with achieving successful outcomes by working closely with the private sector, leaders and neighbouring authorities

In The Death and Life of American Cities Jane Jacobs promotes

the need of cities for a most intricate and code grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially... The science of city planning and the art of city design, in real life for real cities, must become the science and art of catalysing and nourishing these close-grained working relationships.

This may mean the creation of new roles at the city level: employing a tech lead in the mayor’s office as has been done in New York, Dublin, and London. However, if this is the route taken, the remit of the city tech lead needs to be wider than just inviting tech companies to locate in the city.

Ideally the tech lead would liaise with city planners who can articulate the issues being faced by the city – such as housing affordability, infrastructure pressures, and skills shortages. Dialogue with industry leaders about their plans may then reveal how the growth of tech could feed into a plan for addressing these issues.

Industry too should to take account of the affect it has on, and what it owes, the city in which it sets up. After all, it is often planned public investments in infrastructure that makes a city attractive to firms and their aspirational employees in the first place. And it’s this that continues to facilitate growth through the creation of what the Brookings Institute’s Bruce Katz has christened “Innovation Districts”:

…mash ups of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments – all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fuelled by caffeine.

Whether or not it is acknowledged to the extent it is in places like Chicago, many cities have a relationship with the tech sector. The more this relationship is formalised, the more likely it is that conscious decisions as to how each can mutually support the other’s goals will be made.

One of the RTPI’s current work streams focuses on the relationship between cities and the tech sector. The project will combine case studies and evidence drawn from interviews and round tables with industry leaders, members of the academic communities, and city planners. Taken together, these will articulate the role planning has to play in creating the kind of places that attract tech – and planning's role in ensuring that the economic growth that emanates from tech clusters benefits the wider metropolitan area.

The huge potential for mutual economic and social support that exists between a city and the tech sector should be nurtured into a collaborative relationship that has as its objectives the provision of public goods – as well as economic growth.

Joe Kilroy is a policy offer at the Royal Town Planning Institute. You can find him on Twiter here.

To find out more about the RTPI’s tech project click here.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.