Four ways to look at “trust” in our changing cities

Trusting soul: Phillip Zakhour drives for Sidecar, rents out a housing unit on Airbnb, and does odd jobs on TaskRabbit. Those three pillars of the "sharing economy" pair entrepreneurs like Zakhour with strangers who need his services. (JOHN GREEN/MCT/Landov)

I like to play buzzword bingo at conferences —  you “win” when you hear experts drop five voguish words or phrases, preferably within one stream of consciousness. At The Atlantic’s stellar CityLab summit this week in Los Angeles, winning words included most of the keywords sprinkling urban conversations today, such as apps, data, innovation, resilience, transit, biking and sharing.

But one word I heard a lot at CityLab surprised me. It came up both in conference sessions and in discussions I had with mayors and their staffs. And it surfaced in quite different contexts related to the ways urban dwellers, local leaders and businesses interact with one another.

That word was “trust.”

Obviously, trust has always been a social dynamic in cities. (So has mistrust. See Ferguson, Missouri.)  Today, some combination of technology, austerity and social transformation, seems to be changing the conversation. The rise of mobile apps, social media and other web-enabled forms of communication are a big part of what’s going on. These platforms don’t create trust, but they do create new ways for us to discover trust and put it to work in cities.

Here are some of the ways I heard these ideas discussed at CityLab, and some thoughts about what it might mean about how our cities are changing. I’ve noted four things here —  but of course, you need five chips to call “bingo” (at least in U. S. variants of the game). So please, tell me: How do you see the value of trust in your city? Is it changing?  Leave a comment below or on Citiscope’s Facebook page, or tweet to us @Citiscope.

Enabling sharing. The first time I heard trust come up at CityLab was at a panel on the “sharing economy.” Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky described how his service, which lets people rent out their homes or spare bedrooms to strangers, had in only six years expanded to more than 34,000 cities in 190 countries.

“At it’s core, the thing that we invented wasn’t the ability to book someone’s home,” Chesky said. “What we invented was a very streamlined mechanism for trust.”

As with other sharing sites, such as Sidecar or Lyft for car rides, that mechanism has a lot to do with online profiles. Users on both sides of a transaction can rate their experience with one another, allowing others to know what to expect when they pair up with someone they don’t know.

“Before us, essentially everyone was a stranger,” Chesky continued. “The only thing you could buy was from companies — those companies had brands, and those brands said the companies could be trusted. A person — you couldn’t trust. The moment identity got attached to people, suddenly the playing field was level. People could act as businesses. They could act as microentrepreneurs.”

The Atlantic magazine’s James Bennett (left) talks with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky (middle) and Kirklees, England Council Leader David Sheard. (Christopher Swope/Citiscope)

This flavor of trust is a peer-to-peer thing. It’s facilitating not just transactions but also community connections —  people coming together, however briefly, out of mutual benefit. Whether it truly creates stronger neighborhoods is an open question, as Citiscope recently explored in this story from Amsterdam. But there’s reason to hope, said New York University’s Arun Sundararajan, who was on the panel with Chesky.

“When I look at the sharing economy, I see people getting connected with each other and having real human interaction in economic activities that used to be faceless,” Sundararajan said. “There’s a tremendous need. Cities tend to be the loneliest places, despite being the most densely populated.”

Foiling corruption. The next time I heard trust come up was at a panel on cleaning up corruption. Transparency International founder Peter Eigen described his fight since the 1990s to convince Western corporations to stop bribing officials in the developing world. A big obstacle, he said, was the feeling among businesses that “we would like to stop but we cannot.” Why play it clean on big contracts when everyone else pays bribes?

Eigen proposed creating “islands of integrity” around contracts. Companies bidding on a deal would simultaneously agree not to bribe, forming a pact with monitoring and sanctions against violators. This principle of collective action based on trust was a breakthrough, Eigen said, and it cleared the way for greater support of national and international efforts to criminalize corruption. It also underlies other integrity initiatives aimed at extractive industries such as oil and gas, as well as efforts to get the garment industry to do a better job of protecting workers in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Now, Transparency International is taking aim at local government corruption with a toolkit for assessing and improving the integrity of local institutions and actors. In addition to these “top-down” approaches, “bottom-up” approaches are protecting whistleblowers, empowering citizens to make their complaints heard and applying new pressure on government officials to resist accepting bribes.

If corruption sometimes seems like an intractable problem, Eigen’s message was that a little trust can go a long way. “Fantastic mayors alone can’t do it,” Eigen said. “If they work together with the other actors, private sector and organized civil society, all of this can make tremendous progress. It’s hard to do. It is slow, very incremental. But creating a new direction in many parts of the world has worked.”

Strengthening social networks. European cities that participated in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ most recent Mayors Challenge were well represented at CityLab. At the core of many of the proposals was the idea that social problems can be solved — and taxpayer money saved —  by expanding existing reservoirs of trust in the community.

That’s true of Barcelona’s scheme, which won the competition’s €5 million grand prize. The idea was to tackle the problems of an aging population by establishing “trust networks” for elderly residents. Those networks would include family members, friends, and neighbors, and be augmented when needed with volunteers and professional services.

The idea is to strengthen the circle of personal connections around each senior. The goal is to avoid isolation, keep the elderly healthy longer and avoid some costs associated with institutional care. “If the trust isn’t there, then the idea can’t work,” Jim Anderson, head of government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, told me. “That’s front and center to their design and their vision, and certainly something that was hugely captivating to our selection committee.”

Similar thinking runs through the plan of Kirklees, England, which won a €1 million runner-up prize. The idea in Kirklees is to create a mechanism for city government and nonprofits to share their “space, stuff and skills.” Fiscal austerity in the UK means that Kirklees is wrestling with 40-percent cuts to its budget. Unable to provide services at previous levels, the city is putting its trust behind community groups and individuals as they pick up the slack.

I asked Kirklees Council Leader David Sheard what that might look like in practice. He noted that city-owned buildings are typically used for only eight hours a day. Rooms can be rented out in the evening, but the £50 fee might be too much for some groups. “It might be that we recognize they’re doing something worth more than £50 to the community,” Sheard said. “So we say yes, it’s better for the council to have that room used. It wouldn’t have been used otherwise.”

Gdańsk Mayor Paweł Adamowicz focuses heavily on citizen engagement, trying to build trust with a public that has been alienated by outside powers for centuries. (Christopher Swope/Citiscope)

The crushing costs of elder care are also part of the thinking in Kirklees. For example, Sheard can see a day when Kirklees may have to turn library services over to retired volunteers. “The benefit is we get a library service delivered to the rest of the community,” Sheard said. “The benefit to older people is that people who get more social interaction and are more active go into care at a later age. If one person is kept out of care for just a year, that saves us £20,000 to £30,000.”  

In both Kirklees and Barcelona, the trust factor flows from a recognition of local government’s limits — some challenges are so big that the only way to scale up a response is to have it come from the community. “One of the major trends we’re seeing is cities experimenting with new forms of governance and new forms of problem solving,” Bloomberg’s Anderson said.  “A very clear shift is from an expert, city-goes-it-alone approach to a more distributed problem-solving model. The focus is on empowering citizens to create value alongside government — or instead of government — to solve problems.”

(See this Citiscope story for more on the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge.)

Reducing suspicion. Other cities are wrestling with more fundamental questions of trust. When I asked the mayor of Gdańsk about his city’s idea for the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, the story began with Poland’s centuries-old history of suppression by outside powers.

“Polish society doesn’t trust government,” Mayor Paweł Adamowicz told me. “For a long time, it wasn’t ‘my’ government, but Communist Russian, or German, or Austrian. We have had only 24 years of self-government rule, and it’s not easy to build and educate trust between local government and society.”

Gdańsk’s idea was to create a mechanism for citizens to propose ways to make the city a better place. City staff would work with citizens to flesh out their suggestions — what would it really mean to, say, “create more green space” in a neighborhood? And what would that cost? Through an online platform, citizens could vote on these ideas. Proposals receiving a threshold number of votes would be put into the government’s planning process. Easy or cheap ideas could be implemented quickly. Hard and expensive ideas would take more time and need to be balanced against the city’s other priorities.

Gdańsk didn’t win any prize money through the Bloomberg challenge, but city officials still hope to push ahead with parts of this plan. It lines up well with other citizen engagement initiatives in Gdańsk, such as opening up data on city spending and contracting, and a new participatory budgeting program that gives citizens control over about $3 million of the city’s budget.

Tomasz Nadolny, an adviser to the mayor, says these steps are important to healing communism’s social scars. “To understand Gdańsk, it’s really important to know there was no private sector at all —  no private possession. Only houses were private,” Nadolny says. “Everything was ours, so it was nobody’s. Right now, we are teaching and they are learning, and we are learning, how to work on ‘ours’.”

I heard similar stories from Athens, which did win €1 million of the Bloomberg prize money — and is still reeling from an economic crisis. As Amalia Zepou, deputy mayor for civil society, explained it to me, informal groups of energized citizens are popping up all over Athens to clean up abandoned lots, plant trees, aid homeless people and help take care of their city. “A lot of those groups were unemployed architects or designers,” Zepou said. “It was a new wave of ideas flourishing.”

Zepou was a documentary film director before she joined the city administration, and founded several of those groups herself. She says community groups and government in Greece typically share a mutual distrust. Now, Athens is reaching out to these groups so that the city can both support them —  and learn from them.

With the Bloomberg grant, the city will create an online platform for the groups to connect with each other and the city. A big goal is for Athens to discover what regulations get in the way of the work these groups do and reform them.

“My goal in this was to prove that this very active part of society does exist in Greece,” says Zepou. “Even though they were considered to be marginal or sometimes seen very suspiciously by the officials. It’s just groups of friends acting spontaneously, taking initiatives for the city.”

As Zepou sees it, “trust” isn’t the only word being redefined in cities. So is “volunteer.” The word, she says, carries negative connotations in Greece — it implies gullibility, working for someone for no money. She wants to ban use of the word.

“It’s a cultural thing, you know: Greeks take care of their village. It’s a natural thing. Only they’d never call themselves volunteers,” Zepou says. “It’s not about volunteering. It’s about creativity and participation.”

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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