Urban Technology at University of Michigan week 50

When was the last time you heard someone sing about the Big Belly trash can?

Here’s a secret: The state of Michigan is not the global center of urban technology. Here’s another secret: there’s no single place that is the epicenter of urban technology. It’s an unclaimed title.

In Germany, the capital of urban technology today would be Berlin, where the smart cities ecosystem is both bottom-up and top-down. In Spain it would be Barcelona, with their government-backed D-CENT participatory platform and circular economy efforts at the FAB Lab. Singapore would be a strong contender for its extensive use of “digital twin” city modeling and early experiments with autonomous vehicles. But in America, which town or even region has what it takes to be an enduring center of urban technology?

Hello! This is the newsletter of the Urban Technology program at University of Michigan, written by faculty director Bryan Boyer, to explore the ways in which technology is reshaping urban life. If you’re new here, try this 90 second video introduction to the program.

🥁 Why the Soundtrack Matters

Michigan has more than a few stories: birthplace of the automobile industry and state where roadways are among the first parts to flood; mismanagement of drinking water in Flint but somehow also gateway to the Great Lakes and the 20% of global surface freshwater that they contain.

Here are a couple more that are undeniably from the provenance of Detroit’s 142 square miles: Motown, “the sound of young America,” started here and Techno did too (for a compact discussion of Detroit music, check Dan Sicko’s chapter in Shrinking Cities). These two pillars of American music are not side acts to the industrial development of Detroit, but powerful forces in their own. In the words of Jerry Herron, Wayne State University professor, “Washington DC is the capital of American Government, but the capital of American culture is Detroit” (quoted in a speech by Grace Lee Boggs). What does culture have to do with urban technology?

When new technologies emerge, whether they have an allure like the sparkle of a new iPhone in 2007 or menacing presence like the facial recognition and surveillance system Project Greenlight in Detroit, new things are… new. That means it takes time and collective processing to make sense of new urban experiences as behaviors change, definitions of “cool” are revised, and norms evolve.

When technology makes life strange, culture—including music, dance, art, and design— provides society a way to collectively process that strangeness. Ride hail services like Uber and Lyft are a useful recent example of “technology making life strange.” It was just a few years after the founding of Uber that the attractive strangeness of “push button get ride” had been memorialized in numerous hip-hop songs according to XXL Magazine’s tabulations, including Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late mixtape. When they sing about you, you’ve been accepted. When was the last time you heard a popular song mention a Big Belly trash can?

The auto industry started with the invention of a vehicle, but came into its own with the introduction of the production line, the creation of consumer credit, and robust marketing and myth-making that made all of this socially acceptable and desirable. If 48% of Americans are extremely skeptical of autonomous vehicles, that’s informed by some swirl of: the risks/rewards of the technology itself, the unknown-ness of the devices (most people have little or no direct exposure to AVs still), and the mythologies of American society. Decades of movies, television, songs, and print media have contributed to establishing the relationship between the automobile and its driver—that is not unwound through technological sparkles and low prices, but requires alternative narratives that are even more seductive than the current ones.

Putting an autonomous vehicle on main street is not merely a question of engineering the self driving car (and yes that’s extremely hard, as our colleagues at M-City will attest) but of also reconfiguring the ritual and routines of movement in American cities, and of reimagining the icons and expressions of freedom that scaffold national identity. The soundtrack (and other forms of cultural expression) matters because music is a machine that helps people processes new technology into something is part of their everyday life rather than adversarial to it. You better believe that if the rest of this century is dedicated to revising how we see, shape, and inhabit cities, that culture and the arts are going to be every bit as important as hard engineering and careful policy work.

So what are the ingredients needed for center of urban technology in America?

✅ Nerds: Inventive design and engineering of new tech (e.g. Ford’s invention of the Model T)

✅ Wonks: Creative finance, operations, business, and policy folks to make new ideas widely accessible (e.g. GM’s invention of consumer finance)

✅ Artists: Ineffable cultural expressions that help create a new milieu (e.g. Motown’s capturing of the mid-century zeitgeist, and Techno’s translation of urban decay into infectious optimism)

The auto industry has been essential to the story of Michigan and, indeed, mobility is a critical area of urban technology, but it’s not the only thing that matters. When we think about the reason that Detroit, Ann Arbor, and the whole of Michigan are an interesting place to focus on urban technology, it’s because the story here is as much about assembly lines, as it is about civil rights, as it is about Dancing in the Streets.


🚲 “An American Buys an E-Bike Every 52 Seconds” and cities are struggling to regulate/incentivize/support them in a coherent way.

🛴 City Observatory takes a deep dive on Miami’s micromobility taxes and how they stack up against cars. Headline: e-scooters pay 4-50x more than cars to use public roads and right of way.

🪵 This log motorcycle is an amazing motorcycle.

🚛 Drivers on the Indonesian instant delivery platform Gojek have started using unofficial and homegrown apps that reduce congestion and make gig work better for drivers.

🛖 Mobility and logistics matter when you don’t have what you need close at hand, but what if more daily needs could be addressed within walking distance? This paean to tiny neighborhood grocery stores is a nice addition to the 15 Minute city discussion.

🤝 The National Shared Use Mobility Summit is going on every Tuesday this month with a headline of “building the infrastructure for shared mobility.” Special pricing available for students.

This week: More website, more admissions, more teaching, more meetings, more computer vision, a little less drones, more socializing (!) 🏃