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katie portrait 2021 04 04 6

Sharing Economies Shaping Urban Life

Katie Wells has joined the Georgetown Global Cities Initiative as Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Katie has recently co-authored “Just-in-Place” Labor: Driver Organizing in the Uber Workplace, a research paper exploring working conditions in DC's gig economy. We talked with her about the impact of the gig economy in cities, the future trends of tech and local governments and how the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the previous frameworks of analysis. 


Uwe Brandes (UB): Your research lies in the intersection of labor, technology and cities. What's interesting about that for you? 

Katie Wells (KW):  I'm trained as a geographer, and as a geographer, the kind of questions we want to ask are: “Why do things happen where they do?”

My current work on labor and tech is just one of the many inroads that we can take to study cities. When I think of a city, I think of it as this place where strangers live on contested land that has been owned or used by various entities over time. I spent many years studying housing and gentrification. Now, I simply have a different inroad that is a meshing of tech and labor: What are these new technologies and how are they shaping the way we work or don't work? How did they shape the policy decisions that we're making?

For me, labor and tech is simply a new inroad to understanding the same existing questions about how we build cities and for whom we build them for.


UB:  You are working on a larger multi-year longitudinal research project focused on Uber drivers in DC. Can you identify some of the deeper themes that are emerging out of that research?

KW: We're entering the fifth year of a multi-year project about what happens when platforms come to town. We've been studying both the lives of workers for Uber and the actions of local policy makers who govern the Uber platform in DC. We want to see what Uber actually looks like on the ground for the drivers that sustain the service. But we also want to see who's helping to shape that experience and what are the effects of Uber on the city at large, including the management of public transit.

One of the threads of my work on Uber and my previous work on housing, is studying the ways in which policies evolve and advance in non-linear ways. In this project we try to understand DC as a nodal platform for policymaking in the U.S. DC has become a model precedent for some of these companies.


UB: The whole broader experiment of the sharing economy seems to repeatedly land in DC. Why is DC an innovation petri dish when it comes to the innovation of the sharing economy?

KW: I do believe DC is a destination for platforms for three good reasons.

First, we have a regulatory structure that doesn’t include state oversight. There are only 13 members of the city council, which means less of a heavy lift when it comes to lobbying or getting legislation enacted and approved. 

Second, our transit infrastructure is tremendously underfunded, which made it ripe in some ways for experimentation. 

I think the third thing, which is absolutely key, is D.C.’s high-level of income inequality. This inequality means that there is a large number of people who have disposable income for these various new innovative models. At the same time, there's also a large number of working-class people who are having trouble making ends meet who might seek jobs on these various platforms.


UB: It’s been about 10 years since Uber started operations in DC.  While the platform has been broadly adopted by so many people, we haven't really taken the time to envision the kind of city we want to have as a result of the sharing economy.  Is that possible?  

KW: Looking forward, off the top of my head, one of the things that we came into this project with was a sense of how cities are using technology to make decisions and collect data. And where we have ended up is actually the reverse idea. What we ended up finding is how big tech is coming to use cities, and how cities have become sort of this instrument for tech to do its bidding.

There is a need for city-level or state-level governments around some of these issues about platforms and policies. I think there really is an opportunity for a lot of the policymakers that we've been following over the years to do good. They want a good city, but it's really hard to retake the reins from these technology disruptors that, in many ways, hold so many cards and so much power.

So, if we look forward, I would like to see that we go back to thinking about the values of what city life is supposed to look like, and I hope technology becomes a tool, a means to an end, but not the end. I hope the disruption that's happening now with the pandemic is a return to this question of: “wait a second, what was the point of cities anyway, and what are the values that we should orient them around?”

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