I am basically an optimist. The future certainly holds challenges but, on balance, I think the future will be significantly better than the past. In the previous posts in this series on future trends, I have tried to emphasize the positive aspects of these trends along with the potential potholes that our society and our cities need to try to avoid.
This post will be different. The growing social unrest in this country and the rise of political extremism are dark clouds in which I see very few silver linings. There are foundational causes for this unrest which have little to do with the three “mega trends” upon which this series has been based, but unfortunately at least two of the three mega trends are acting as amplifiers of social unrest. Although they have the potential to advance social equity and inclusion, they are currently acting more like the problem than the solution.
Some may wonder why I am even writing about this topic. What do social unrest and political extremism have to do with “the forces shaping the urban form of Midwestern cities'' as referenced by the subtitle of this blog? Unfortunately, a lot. Cities are “ground zero” in many political and social movements and this is a prime example. Although many of the underlying causes are global or national in scope, cities will have to deal with the expressions of social unrest and political extremism even though they have few tools with which to address the basic issues. Environmental protests, Black Lives Matter marches, tent cities full of the homeless, left- and right-wing political rallies, or acts of violence by white supremicists or other fringe groups almost always happen in cities – and the way we as a society respond will shape how our cities look and will determine which cities move forward and which fall into decay.
Social unrest almost always comes down to power – who has it and desperately wants to keep it versus who doesn’t have it and desperately wants to get some. In our nearly 250-year history, this country has won great wars, pioneered new discoveries, and invented institutions that have made life better for people in every corner of the world. But we have not been particularly good at sharing the reins of power with people who are not white and of European ancestry. Our history with Native Americans, blacks, and hispanic and asian immigrants is full of examples of violence, overt discrimination, and subtle chicanery.
To be honest, throughout human history people in power have always taken advantage of those without power, and been particularly ruthless with those who look different or have different religious beliefs. So it is not a uniquely American failing, but we tend to tout our “all men are created equal” heritage which makes our actions seem particularly hypocritical.
I think we have reached a point in history where recognizing our diversity and finding ways to share power equitably is an absolute requirement, not an option. After all, our nation is becoming racially and ethnically diverse at an increasingly rapid rate.  By 2045, and perhaps sooner, the country will be “minority white.” Yet despite the obvious facts and the progress of recent decades, there is still considerable resistance to change which means minorities often have to push their way into the room where decisions are made – sometimes sparking violent confrontations. This is not going to change anytime soon, nor do I see it becoming less contentious.
Impact of the Mega Trends
I wish I could say that the three overarching trends that I think will shape the future of our cities and our society will be forces for inclusion and equity, thus leading to less social unrest. At least initially, I think some of them will have largely the opposite effect by underscoring and exaggerating the existing differences that tend to drive us apart.
The age of ideas and the power of scale. You may recall that the first mega trend was about our changing economy. The industrial age was focused on making and transporting things as efficiently as possible. In the current economy however, profits are driven by ideas, data and discoveries. As a result, the path to huge profits and market capitalizations is based not on the complex supply chains, huge factories and massive workforces of the past, but on the mental and creative output of a relatively small number of highly talented people that is then sold to millions of people around the globe. Of the five most profitable US companies in 2020, three of them (Berkshire Hathaway, JP Morgan and Alphabet) are not really known for making any physical product at all. And the other two (Apple and Microsoft) are successful primarily because of product innovations – which are ideas turned into distinctive products.
The result is that idea-based companies, such as Alphabet or Microsoft, make roughly $220,000 in profit per employee while manufacturing focused companies make far less (e.g. GM makes roughly $43,000 in profit per employee). Due to these outsized profits and due to the fact that an idea-based company is only as good as the latest stream of ideas, the most talented people are incredibly well compensated. At the same time, globalization, automation, robotics and similar trends are putting a cap on the compensation for the average employee, particularly for those in more “old school” industries.
The net effect is that income and wealth inequality has been increasing steadily for the past 50 years. For example, the share of US aggregate income taken in by high income households (those making more than 200% of the median household income) increased from 29% in 1970 to 48% in 2018. Meanwhile, the share of aggregate income taken in by middle income households (80% to 200% of median household income) fell from 62% in 1970 to 43% in 2018. 
Household wealth has followed a similar pattern. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, the top 20 percent of households (based on income percentile) have two-and-a-half times more wealth than the remaining 80 percent of the population. And that discrepancy has been growing, not shrinking. In 1990, upper income households (the top 20%) had 61% of total household wealth, while middle income households (40th to 80th percentile) had just under 29% and poor households (the bottom 40%) had just over 10%. By the end of 2021, the share of total wealth held by upper income households had increased to over 70% while the share held by middle income households fell to just under 23% and the share held by poor households fell to 7%. 
To be fair, total wealth (adjusted for inflation) grew during that time period for all income groups. But as I’ve written before, perception is just as important as reality and the perception is that the middle and lower class families are losing ground.
Income and wealth inequality is likely to fuel social discontent. Many people, particularly those in the middle class, are likely to feel that the economic deck is stacked against them and may support extremist political views in hopes of a remedy, particularly on the far left. Equally important, however, is the negative effect that income inequality may have on the fundamental American belief that talent and hard work will result in economic success regardless of how humble your origins might have been. Research by Alan Krueger, president of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama, suggests that periods of high income inequality harm the economic mobility of the next generation. This correlation has been referred to as the Great Gatsby Curve after the last period in US history when inequality was as high as current levels.  If working class families start believing that they are worse off than their parents, and that the economic prospects for their children will be even worse still, then conflicts between rich and poor may reach the point where draconian political steps threaten capitalism and our economic institutions.
Climate change. Our society’s response to climate change also has the potential to disproportionately impact poor households. Whether it is an effort to minimize the degree of climate change (e.g. a tax on carbon) or to mitigate the impacts of climate change after it happens (e.g. a seawall for a coastal community), the fact of the matter is that poor families tend to have less ability to deal with unexpected costs and a greater likelihood of being involuntarily displaced by climate change impacts such as flooding.
Perhaps the poster child for climate change impact in the U.S. is Miami/Dade County, Florida – a rapidly growing city built in a low-lying area with a porous limestone base. Local communities have already spent hundreds of millions on sea walls and pumping systems which have no guarantee of being effective for more than a decade or two. Billions more will be needed to deal with tens of thousands of septic systems that will fail over the next 20 years as rising sea levels cause the water table to rise. At some point, frequent flooding events and a rising (and increasingly salty) water table are going to undermine the aesthetics and structural stability of beach-front property and force relocation to higher ground. Ironically, much of the higher ground in Miami – known as the Atlantic Coastal Ridge (a whopping 11 feet above sea level) – is already home to several moderately priced, immigrant communities such as Little Haiti, Liberty City, Overtown and Little Havana. Property owners in these neighborhoods are already experiencing pressure to sell to developers. Thus it is likely that poor households may be faced with higher taxes to pay climate change mitigation costs and be priced out of their neighborhoods at the same time.
Perhaps equally divisive, however, is the philosophical debate that climate change may push to the forefront of both national and local political races. The issue is how to balance the potential need for governmental taxes or mandates designed to promote the common good versus the need to protect individual liberties and freedom of choice.
It is easily conceivable, for example, that climate change becomes such a big concern that various levels of government start taking significant steps to alter personal and corporate behavior with the intention of reducing greenhouse gas emissions or minimizing the damage caused by climate change. Possible actions might include a carbon tax, a ban on beachfront development, a ban on natural gas for heating and cooking in new construction, or a ban on coal-powered electrical generation. Each of these potential actions has been either enacted in a limited form or discussed as a climate change response and so are not outside the realm of possibility. It is also likely that each of them would be opposed by a significant segment of the population as an attack on their personal freedom to choose the lifestyle they feel is best.
How best to strike this balance is something that policy-makers, lawyers and academics have been debating for hundreds of years (see, for example, the Mayflower Compact of 1620). There are strong arguments on both sides and the best resolution often depends on the details of what government action is being proposed and what danger to the public welfare is supposedly being addressed. Unfortunately, the details are almost always complicated, and the general public is typically unwilling (or unable) to engage in a complex debate. This opens the door for politicians, pundits and talk show hosts to preempt any serious discussion by substituting slogans and half-truths that appeal to fears and prejudices. Barry Chudakov (writing about technology change in general, not just climate change) put it very succinctly:
The diminishment of complexity invites tyranny. It is the tyranny of simple-ism and reductionism papered over by happy talk, lies and distortions designed to distract us from real issues. 
A recent example of this phenomenon can be seen in the early responses of President Trump to the COVID pandemic, which clearly was more complex than he or any of his close advisors understood. This led to an abundance of “happy talk, lies and distortions” apparently designed to distract us from what more credible sources such as the CDC were trying to get across. Trump’s statements that the virus was “very much under control” in February of 2020 or that “it will go away” by April of 2020 had the effect of convincing many people that they didn’t need to take the COVID virus seriously and that local government shutdowns or mask mandates were crazy overreactions. His later musings about injecting disinfectants as a possible cure encouraged a cottage industry of homemade treatments that were at best ineffective and at worst dangerous.
The fractious nature of our pandemic response, however, should at least be fairly short-lived. Climate change, on the other hand, is something we may be arguing about for the rest of this century. Some people dispute the science behind climate change and many more question the severity of climate impacts even if the scientific projections are correct. Evidence-based challenges along those lines should certainly be taken seriously, but the fact that climate science is not perfect should not devolve into claims that it is a “hoax” (Sen. James Inhofe, et al).
There are two competing, and seemingly irreconcilable, world-views at play here: (1) that climate change represents an epic crisis of global proportions that can only be addressed through strong and prolonged government action, and (2) government power should always be held in check lest it destroy individual freedoms. Quite frankly, I don’t see any common ground here and I worry that this will fundamentally split our country in two.
Artificial intelligence and virtual reality. If there is any hope that technology will help unite our country instead of dividing it, I think it will come from the linked technologies of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. After all, both of these technologies deviate from our past experiences enough that they might easily be viewed as weird or even creepy by people who are technologically challenged. As is typically the case with new technologies, these two are likely to be adopted first by those who are wealthy, young and trendy. Groups who are traditionally reluctant to adopt new technology – the elderly, the poor, and those living in isolation – may reject the idea of taking advice from a computer or spending time in a virtual world, thus creating a new dimension to the existing technology gap.
On the other hand, I believe that the potential power of both artificial intelligence and virtual reality will be so enormous that their rate of adoption will be similar to that of the smartphone (estimated to now be roughly 85% of the population). Although it may sound a bit creepy now, I think having conversations and taking advice from a computer with an AI-powered voice and personality will prove to be so easy and useful that the technology will win people over pretty quickly. If even basic artificial intelligence capabilities can be made available to a large segment of the population, it will dramatically help people make sense of an increasingly complex world. In a sense, it will help “democratize” knowledge. The rich will still have the latest and greatest versions, but the gap between the level of information available to the rich and the level available to the masses should shrink considerably. The decisions you make about your health, personal finances, or career should all be improved by the suggestions from your AI companion. You might even be able to fix that leaky toilet without having to call the plumber.
Virtual reality, I think, holds equal promise. Keep in mind that the goal of virtual reality is to immerse you in different worlds. You might visit one virtual world to play games or be entertained. You might visit another to learn something new. Or still another world to transact some type of business. In all of these worlds, your presence is configurable – in other words, you can appear to be whatever visual representation you would like. I might want to appear to be a male model like Zoolander, or an ogre like Shrek, or a talking moose like Bullwinkle. Think how freeing that might be to someone who is self-conscious of their appearance or feels like they are pre-judged because of the color of their skin. Think of how our society might change if our reactions to the ideas and actions of other people cannot be shaped by our biases about black people, or gay people, or old people. If I’m debating an issue with a talking moose, I might simply have to base my response on the quality of their ideas and the skill with which they can articulate those ideas.
Neither of these technologies, however, are panaceas. In fact, technology in general holds as many challenges for humanity as it does opportunities. Genetic editing, to take a recent example, has advanced to the point where we may soon have cures for many inherited diseases – or we may get distracted and end up using the technology so that the wealthy can have designer babies that are slender, blonde and blue-eyed. As sociobiologist and the Pulitzer-prize winning author of On Human Nature E. O. Wilson puts it:
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.” 
Impact on Cities
Many Americans are discontented and on edge. They feel economically squeezed and pessimistic about the future. They feel inundated with change caused by social and technological trends over which they have no control. They are adrift and desperately seeking safe harbor.
Most of these Americans view government as part of the problem, not the solution. Rightly or wrongly, they see the federal government as being in cahoots with financial and intellectual elites that are forcing change down their throats. They may understand that most of the issues are at the federal level, but their distrust of government includes every level.
This poorly defined sense of discontent is likely to crop up locally as opposition to some proposal that disrupts the status quo or seems conspiratorial. National buzz words may get linked to local issues regardless of whether it makes any sense. In the process of galvanizing the opposition, grassroots leaders may emerge and may eventually run for office. In many cases, these new politicians will be much better at defining what they are against than articulating what they are for, and the campaigns they run will often promise a “return” to some idealized past or treasured set of values. Unfortunately, this type of politician is almost always a poor leader because they don’t know how to build consensus for something, only angry indignation against something.
The distrust of government is amplified by our growing reliance on social media for information. Many social media sites are more concerned with promoting a particular point of view and maximizing the number of viewers than with verifying facts or understanding the nuances of a particular issue. People tend to be emotionally attracted to extreme stories, especially negative ones. This leads to a lot of “news” reports which are sensationalized and exaggerated, and yet trivial in terms of their overall importance. Consequently, misinformation and distortions are common, and the algorithms that track our online viewing habits tend to reinforce our biases by suggesting new content that is similar to what we have viewed in the past rather than expose us to other points of view.
So what should cities do in response?
Be as transparent as possible. Backroom decisions or sweetheart deals for influential people are never good ideas for local government, but they are especially damaging when distrust is so high. Publicize as widely as possible the issues that are coming up for discussion, the opportunities that citizens have for input, and the ultimate decisions that are made. Make sure that staff reports explain the issues as clearly as possible, including the likely impacts of various options. Encourage elected officials and other decision makers to succinctly explain why they are voting a particular way rather than simply casting a vote in silence. Votes without explanation invite conspiracy theories. Finally, stream public meetings whenever possible. Most people will find them too boring to watch, but the fact that they are easily available will make government seem more open and understandable.
Focus on the basics. Trying to implement grand plans, particularly those with a high price tag, is probably not a good idea when skepticism of government motives is already high unless there is broad community consensus. Instead, focus on delivering essential services efficiently and promptly. Plow the snow, pick up trash, fill potholes, keep parks clean, and respond to 9-1-1 calls promptly. Effectively delivering basic services builds trust in the competence of government – something that will be essential the next time a big project is up for discussion.
Continue promoting diversity, inclusivity and equity. These types of initiatives have become popular targets for some right-wing groups, but this is no time to back down from efforts to improve how people are treated and how decisions are made. The vast majority of people realize that this is the right thing to do. The key will be to set the right environment and tone – educate and enlighten rather than berate or shame. Support ethnic festivals or other community gatherings, for example, where diversity can be highlighted in fun and entertaining ways.
Expand opportunities for adult education. The forces that divide our society often prey on our fears and insecurities, which are often based mostly on our ignorance and inexperience. Particularly when it comes to technology, cities should participate (and perhaps lead) in efforts to educate the public in ways that are neutral and non-threatening. A community lecture series on trends in technology might sound hopelessly antiquated in the age of online streaming, but combining a speaker who is good at explaining complex issues with cookies and soft drinks might be a bigger draw than you expect. It might also be an opportunity to build partnerships with local universities, junior colleges, or even high-school tech programs – something that might pay dividends in other ways.
A Final Word
I want to be clear that I am not opposed to technological progress nor do I blame technology for the ills of our society. Technology is just a tool – one which has generally benefited our society economically and physically. But as Voltaire (and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) supposedly have said “with great power comes great responsibility.” I am concerned that we do not always use the power of technology with the wisdom it deserves.
In particular, I am troubled by the divisiveness, distortion and polarization that characterizes recent public discourse. Technology has played a role in that degeneration, but I am hopeful that it can also play a role in raising facts, logic and experience as the primary basis for future decisions.
Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at email@example.com. Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting? Send me an email with your name and email address.
William Frey; “The nation is diversifying even faster than predicted, according to new census data”; July 2020; The Brookings Institution; https://www.brookings.edu/research/new-census-data-shows-the-nation-is-diversifying-even-faster-than-predicted/
Juliana Horowitz, Ruth Igielnik, Rakesh Kochhar; “Trends in income and wealth inequality”; January 2020; The Pew Research Center; https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/
U.S. Federal Reserve; Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989; March 2022; https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/chart/#quarter:129;series:Net%20worth;demographic:income;population:1,3,5,7,9,11;units:levels;range:1989.4,2021.4
David Vandivier; “What is the Great Gatsby Curve?”; June 2013; Obama Archives; https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2013/06/11/what-great-gatsby-curve
Janna Anderson, Lee Rainie, Emily Vogels; “Experts Say the ‘New Normal’ in 2025 Will Be Far More Tech-Driven, Presenting More Big Challenges”; February 2021; The Pew Research Center; https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/02/18/experts-say-the-new-normal-in-2025-will-be-far-more-tech-driven-presenting-more-big-challenges/
Harvard Magazine; “An Intellectual Entente”; September 2009; https://www.harvardmagazine.com/breaking-news/james-watson-edward-o-wilson-intellectual-entente