On the opening day of the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) Toronto Symposium, a lively series of plenary presentations and breakout dialogue sessions presented attendees with an opportunity to explore the future of the urban realm. While the inter-disciplinary event saw an impressively diverse range of urban topics was discussed and analyzed, one element remained constant; almost every man was wearing a tie.

Jennifer Keesmaat at ULI's Toronto Symposium, image by Edward Skira

The Symposium's second day, however, opened with a panel discussion—moderated by the City of Toronto's Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat (above)—investigating the impacts of disruptive technologies on the urban realm. Four panel members sat to the Chief Planner's right, and only one wore a tie. "I'm trying to find out how to slip it off without anyone noticing," Twitter Canada's Head of News & Government, Steve Ladurantaye (below), quipped, joking he'd failed to meet the jeans and blazer "disruptor dress code" shared by the rest of the panel.

The panel, (l-r) Aaron Zifkin, Ian Black, Steve Ladurantaye, Colin McKay, and Jennifer Keesmaat, image by Stefan Novakovic

Alongside Ladurantaye, the panel consisted of Airbnb's Country Manager for Canada, Aaron Zifkin, Uber Canada's General Manager, Ian Black, and Google Canada's Head of Public Policy & Government Relations, Colin McKay (above).

While the sartorial banter provided a dose of levity to open the discussion, the contrast in appearance between the 'disruptive' party on stage and the more conservatively dressed attendees below hinted at the changing cultural landscapes being formed by technology. "How is technology changing the way we live and how cities are shaped," Keesmat asked, setting the stage for an engaging exploration of the urban future.

What is Disruptive Technology?

Embarking on a discussion concerning the impacts of disruptive technology on planning and urban life, Keesmaat first asked the panelists to provide a definition of the term 'disruptive technology,' which, despite its preponderance as a Silicon Valley buzzword, lacks a commonly known and widely understood definition. "How would you define the term disruptive," Keesmaat asked, turning to Google's McKay to open the discussion.

"Disruptive technologies make easier, faster, and more in-depth communication," McKay offered, while Twitter's Ladurantaye defined disruption from a more social-media oriented perspective, positing that disruption "brings new voices to the fore, ones which wouldn't otherwise exist." Representing Uber and Airbnb, Black and Zifkin approached the concept on a physical level, arguing that their technologies are about making the wider world more accessible to everyone. 

The common thread to the panelists' perspectives was that disruption is innovation that happens on an accelerated scale, changing markets and value networks by bringing new paradigms to the marketplace. Just as Uber and Airbnb are now massively re-configuring (or 'disrupting') the hotel and taxi markets, the introduction of Google Maps delivered a death blow to traditional cartography and the map industry in the last decade. "My dad was a cartographer," Ladurantaye said, turning to Google's McKay, "so thanks for that."

Twitter, meanwhile, has spelled changes in social interaction and accessibility, with Keesmaat herself telling the audience she "insisted on keeping my Twitter active after becoming Chief Planner, allowing everyone to know what I'm doing and to contact me." While quickly evolving technology has already changed industries and social structures, Keesmaat spurred the panel to consider how new technologies may disrupt urban life and planning.

Technology and Urban Life

"From a planning perspective, I've been curious about what technology will do to cities," Keesmaat told the panel, turning the discussion towards the urban realm. Uber proved an obvious starting point to the discussion, with the legality of the service the subject of heated debate at City Hall ("We're not gonna get into that, though" Keesmaat assured the audience). 

While the issue of regulation looms large over many disruptive new business models, the possibility of businesses like Airbnb and Uber sharing information with municipalities offers exciting possibilities. Accessing Uber's records of the most popular routes and destination in a city could play a role in shaping transit policy, while insight into Airbnb records would provide an intimate glimpse into popular destinations and neighbourhoods throughout the city.

Speaking about Airbnb, Zifkin noted that "the service we provide has already helped to alleviate hotel shortages in Winnipeg throughout the CFL season, responding to greater demand by adding new accommodation to the market." In this sense, de-centralized services like Airbnb hold an advantage over traditional hotels by providing greater flexibility, and potential bringing new tourism to cities while providing an "authentic experience." Zifkin explained that the popularity of Airbnb has even had an effect on the real estate market, with "people buying shareable homes to take advantage of the opportunity." 

Meanwhile, Google and Uber are having significant ramifications on transportation. McKay told the audience that "driving with Google gives real-time traffic data, maximizing the efficiency of routes, and our recently launched carpool service easily allows users to pick up nearby commuters with similar destinations," making the roads more efficient.

Black noted that Uber with "larger vehicles could provide a much-needed supplement to public transit," with the private service providing an impromptu solution to transit problems. To Keesmaat, however, the nascent technologies pose questions about the potentially diminishing role of the public sector. 

"With these services provided by private companies, are people gradually becoming consumers rather than citizens?" Keesmaat asked the panel. The panelists did not share the concern, with talk of a more democratic and inclusive society dominating the discussion. Yet, for all the benefits of a more open, reactive, and affordable economy and society that disruptive industries are helping build, the question continued to loom over the optimistism of the panelists, and continued to remain unanswered.