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CityLab
Perspective

Urban Tech Leaders Need Some Basic City Literacy

A growing number of startups are pitching technologies to “solve” urban problems. So it matters when they can’t even name their own local representatives.
Ride-share drivers and supporters with the Independent Drivers Guild protest outside New York City Hall as they rally for wage enforcement and a drivers' bill of rights.
Ride-share drivers and supporters with the Independent Drivers Guild protest outside New York City Hall as they rally for wage enforcement and a drivers' bill of rights.Drew Angerer/Getty

Don’t let the WeWork, Uber, and Lyft implosions fool you. Hundreds of urban tech startups are thriving right now—and billions of dollars are still being invested in them. Venture capitalists and the entrepreneurs they invest in are more excited than ever about building new tech startups to improve urban life and governance. Richard Florida recently estimated in CityLab that between 2016 and 2018, urban tech investment totaled more than $75 billion, representing roughly 17 percent of all global venture-capital investment.

I encounter these urban tech entrepreneurs and their investors regularly: I’ve interviewed them on my podcast Technopolis, I’ve taught them in my Berkeley Haas class, and I’ve even joined a few of their advisory boards. Like any savvy venture capitalist, when I meet a new urban techie, I size them up to understand whether they’re a good investment—of my time. Most VCs assess for product/market fit, how well the founding team gets along, or how scalable their solution is, and those are all important indicators for success. But for me, there’s one indicator that is essential for the success of an urban tech startup: Are they civically engaged?