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Radical Municipalism and Tech

What we thus need is a strong discussion in how local governments, particularly in cities, can influence technology in a progressive direction.

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We're experiencing a renaissance in left-wing thinking about tech. More commentators, books and policy proposals are coming out by the day, and rhetoric is being taken up by left political movements. Exhibitted by having Labour in the UK and Democratic Socialists in the US commenting with increasing confidence on these questions.

What I think is, however, underrated, particularly in UK and US thinking about tech and politics, is the level of power we will actually assert in the future. Most interjections are broad, national-level proposals, generally aimed at large tech platforms like Google or Facebook. Yet, a strong possibility in the UK notwithstanding, the left will probably not be able to conquer power at the national level for some years to come in the best case, possibly decades in some countries.

The left derives power from it's idealism, yet it shouldn't let that blind itself to the real situation of power in society. That's why left techies should increasingly look at the municipal level for their tech interjections and policy suggestions, because that is probably the level we are going to exert power first.

Exerting power here doesn't only mean winning elections, although that is one strategy. Across Europe, for example in Spain, progressive movements have managed to conquer the city halls of cities like Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid while the left has been relatively stagnant at the national level. But even beyond electoralism this is true, the left has, in the West at least, generally been an urban movement. And extra-parliamentary movements manage to pressure those in power the strongest here.

What we thus need is a strong discussion in how local governments, particularly in cities, can influence technology in a progressive direction. Either by having leftists enter the city hall, or by having them pressure it. These authorities might not have the power national governments have, they still have significant degrees of leeway, and influence of tech policy. The left should thus take note.

Three prime fields of action are:

Procurement policy
This one doesn't sound very exciting, but municipal procurement budgets are often large, and can influence the local economy in a large measure. A possible example of this could be something like the Preston Council:

"Rather than lowering his sights, Preston council leader Matthew Brown is raising them. He aims to establish a Lancashire-wide community bank to provide loans to small businesses, and Preston is pioneering the use of drone technology in public services and urban construction. The city exemplifies what Neil McInroy, the head of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, calls the “new municipalism”. Rather than a narrow commitment to the state, this model encourages a plurality of forms: co-operatives, mutuals and trusts, as well as government ownership."

Smart cities
Probably the most notable policy issue for left-wing urban tech activists will most likely be smart cities. This very diffuse term, generally refers to attempts to use information technology to improve the management of cities.

This sounds relatively benign, but so far it has mainly been used in a neoliberal way. With a large role for big tech and telecom corporations, large scale surveillance through sensors and automated cameras and little democratic control over tech roll-out. A post-neoliberal model of smart cities, exemplified by for example the Barcelona City Council, is going to be a key for the left to move forward the coming years.

To Read: Rethinking the Smart City, a policy report by the Rose Luxemburg Stiftung by Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria, the Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer of Barcelona.

Finally the left should look at alternative models of ownership when building a local tech community. Any city in the industrialised world today probably has a local tech (start-up) scene, even though they aren't of the size of say a Silicon Valley or a Berlin.

Cities should be able to think about how to still promote economic growth, while offering different models of tech organisation than the usual VC-funded start-up. Thinking in the direction of platform co-ops, or municipally owned companies could be very interesting here.

To Read: the proposal to introduce government-owned Khan Cars in London after Uber exited sometime last year.

Of course this is just a start, and probably wholly inadequate, but still we cannot overlook the local level when thinking about tech and the left. In the coming years our power will most likely be restricted there in most countries, lets make the most out of it.

This was issue #18 of the fully automated luxury communism newsletter.

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