WeWork Toronto
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Where does We go from here?
WE BUILT THIS CITY?

The We Company is launching a “smart cities” project and hired a Google executive to lead it

By Simone Stolzoff

Quartz contributor

The company behind the WeWork real-estate empire is starting a “future cities” initiative and has hired former Waze and Google executive Di-Ann Eisnor to run it. According to the We Company, Eisnor and her team of engineers, architects, data scientists, biologists, and economists will create products and partner with local groups around the world to help address problems spurred by globalization, urbanization, and climate change.

If the concept sounds a bit abstract and more than a tad ambitious, consider its source. We Company CEO Adam Neumann unveiled the company’s new brand in January with a mission to “elevate the world’s consciousness.” WeLive, its co-living arm, wants to “build a world where no one feels alone.” And WeGrow, its education group, has a stated mission to “unleash every human’s superpowers.”

Helping to solve climate change? Perhaps it can be accomplished between dropping the kid off at WeGrow (the company’s Montessori-inspired private schools for children age 2 to 11) and jumping on the elliptical at Rise by We (the company’s holistic health center).

The move to launch a smart cities program, though, is in line with one of the company’s non-spiritual missions: to compile the world’s largest data set on how people work and live. With 425 co-working spaces in 100-plus cities, WeWork has data that economic development agencies would fawn over. The company not only has a robust sense of how businesses start and grow, but also how they use space and consume energy.

“WeWork has created the physical-world equivalent of a digital platform,” says Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the author of The Sharing Economy. “Its global constellation of companies and entrepreneurs allows members to tap into and realize value from these economic spillovers, within their local communities and across cities.”

While there’s certainly value in the WeWork network for a member who might be able to, say, find a graphic designer who works on the floor above them, there’s arguably even greater value to cities and other potential partner organizations when data on the membership base is aggregated.

We has data—lots and lots of data

Eisnor knows something about the power of aggregated information. In 2009, she helped start the US office of Waze, the navigation app that collects travel times and traffic information from users. The app was acquired by Google in 2013 for just under $1 billion.

Though sparse on specifics, the mandate for Eisnor’s new team at We is to tie all of the firm’s disparate data sources together. As the company’s latest Chief We Officer (er, CWeO), her goal is to build on what We has already done inside the building, take it outside, and reimagine a sort of connective tissue for 21st-century cities.

We already has been doing its part to get Eisnor the data she needs. Not only has the company bolstered its network of co-working offices with co-living spaces, schools, and wellness centers, but in the past two years, it has been on a data acquisition spree.

In November 2017, We acquired Meetup, the platform for, well, meeting up, which also happens to have an 18-year repository of how people gather offline. Last year, We acquired Teem, a workplace analytics company that measures how workers use conference rooms. And this year, it acquired Euclid, a startup that uses wifi signals to understand how people move through physical spaces like malls.

With that in mind, it’s suddenly easy to picture the contours of a Blade Runner-esque future where members-only WeCities exist within every metropolitan area. But We also sounds interested in trying to influence urban life beyond the confines of its own communities. No doubt it would have its pick of problems to tackle.

The UN predicts two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. That’s 2.5 billion more people who will need public transportation, affordable housing, and civic infrastructure. Every city government in the world is looking for creative solutions for how to deal with this unprecedented level of urbanization—and private-sector companies like We, with scale and troves of data to prove it, are arguably well-positioned to help.

“The problems we face as a society are too complex for anyone to own,” says Eisnor. “When you’re dealing with so many different tools in order to solve these problems, we have to be working together.”

Take Rio de Janeiro, where Eisnor’s former employer Waze has been sharing its traffic data to help solve the city’s congestion problem.

But public-private partnerships are not without their pitfalls.

Technopolis

When governments partner with industry, or even just take on public works projects with a private-industry mindset, a common set of issues tends to arise.

First, there’s the question of who the public-private partnership is serving. Governments have a responsibility to serve all citizens, whereas private companies have a fiduciary responsibility to serve shareholders. When private-sector initiatives aren’t profitable, as was the case with the Ford-owned transportation service Chariot, citizens can be left out to dry.

Second, with public-private partnerships, there’s always the question of who will own the data. We’ve seen this in Toronto, where Sidewalk Labs, the civic tech initiative of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is attempting to prototype a sensor-filled smart city from the ground up.

Alphabet has received an onslaught of criticism from privacy advocates who are concerned with putting a private company at the center of a city’s infrastructure. One critic called the Toronto initiative “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic, and political issues.”

Then there’s the question of accessibility. The line between a WeWork office that revitalizes an up-and-coming neighborhood and one that accelerates the effects of gentrification can be rather thin.

“The real question is whether we’ll keep some of the standards we have enshrined in our public spaces if they are to be developed by private companies,” says Fred Turner, a communications professor at Stanford. “On a public street corner, you are free to pass out a political pamphlet, but if a private company starts building the sidewalks, who knows whether that will be allowed?”

Still, taking these ethical questions into consideration, if we’re going to address the imminent threat of problems posed by urbanization, it seems vital for the public sector to look to the private sector for help.

“Despite the best efforts from governments, we’re falling behind the curve,” says Will Fleissig, the former CEO of Waterfront Toronto, which brought on Sidewalk Labs to help build the smart city prototype. “The answer to these fundamental urban challenges—that almost every city faces—involves using technology, capital, and data.”

That’s where We comes in.

How can We help?

Eisnor, who reports to the CEO, comes to The We Company with over a decade of experience in urban mobility and development. While at Waze, she launched Waze’s Connected Citizens program, a free data exchange that 800 cities use to make traffic and infrastructure decisions. Most recently, she was a director at Area 120, a workshop for Google’s experimental products.

At We, she’s joined by Dror Benshetrit, a designer and urban planner who will co-lead the future cities initiative. Eisnor and Benshetrit bring some of the optimism and innovation of the tech sector to a company whose business model still looks, by and large, like that of a real estate company.

The question is: Can two futurists, equipped with the resources of a $47 billion company, actually help solve issues posed by urbanization and climate change?

In the words of Eisnor, “We are in looming global crisis if we don’t figure it out.”

This story has been updated to reflect the latest number of WeWork locations, to correct the stated mission of WeLive, and to clarify that Eisnor is the latest, but not the first, “chief We officer.”