Photo: Patrick Moher

Call technology disruptive, just don’t do so around Aaron Zifkin, Airbnb’s country manager in Canada. “The term disruptive drives me nuts,” he said during the “Transforming Our Future: How Disruptive is Disruptive Technology” panel at Urban Land Institute Toronto’s inaugural two-day Emerging Trends and City Building symposium. But whatever you call it, there’s no denying it’s having a profound impact on virtually everything people do, including planning, running and building cities, and that was a major underlying point during the discussion.

Joining Zifkin in the one-and-a-half-hour Tuesday morning talk at the Metro Convention Centre were Ian Black, Uber Canada’s general manager, Colin McKay, Google Canada’s public policy and government relations head, and Steve Ladurantaye, Twitter Canada’s government partnership head. Fittingly, active tweeter and Toronto chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat moderated the panel. BuzzBuzzHome News was on hand, and here are three things we learned about how tech could shape the cities of the future.

Driverless cars are coming, but maybe not in the way you think

“We should be moving to a world where the vehicle is available on demand,” said McKay, pointing to a possible widespread automated car sharing model that sees private ownership down, and people simply ordering vehicles on their mobile devices to commute or run errands. Once a passenger gets to his or her destination, the vehicle will drive off to pick someone else up. Generally speaking, Zifkin thinks the idea of ownership will be turned on its head. “I think you’ll see this idea of ownership which has been ingrained in us sort of turn the tide towards sharing,” he said.

It’s an idea that Keesmaat thinks has traction. “One of the great opportunities of driverless cars is in fact that we no longer need to own vehicles,” she said. Among the benefits of this model, McKay said it could alleviate congestion. It could also reduce healthcare costs by eliminating human error. “Honestly, everyone in this room is a bad driver, none of us are good at it.” Those savings could go towards fighting “social inequality,” he suggested.

Tech is taking on the role of government

Uber’s uberPOOL option, which pairs users going in the same direction letting them split the cost of a trip, might seem like little more than glorified carpooling right now, but Black sees the potential for something bigger. “What if rather than a four person vehicle, that were a 20 person vehicle and then does that start to actually look like public transit and is public transit not the job of the municipal government?” he asked.

Black sees situations like that, where an app addresses something that the government was previously responsible for, happening more and more in coming years. “The question for cities is going to be what do we allow to happen, under what terms do we allow it to happen, and do we want to take the point of view that ideas and experimentation are a good thing.”

But it can also improve the civic process

Important gatherings like city planning meetings, which let community members express concerns about proposed developments, aren’t always well attended. Ladurantaye emphasized technology’s power to help residents get involved with the civic process as it exists today and help build upon it. Social media, for instance, allows for a much broader public discussion. “Now, there’s a conversation that can happen with thousands of people,” said Ladurantaye.

And as technology makes the collection of data more efficient, it will allow levels of government to make better decisions about things like infrastructure spending. “The ability to harness the interests of our citizens and to lay over detailed data about their actual behaviour, allows us to make much more sophisticated assumptions and long-term investments,” said McKay.

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