What do technology, sustainability, and inequality have in common?

All three are a focus of citizenAR, a new initiative with a debut event in San Francisco on September 30. CitizenAR is a collaborative effort that grew out of a climate change-centered conference last year. Technology, sustainability, and inequality might at first seem like an indiscriminate amalgam, but they have the potential to combine into the world’s next great idea.

Getting to that idea is the first mission of citizenAR. There is more information about the event on the website (link above), and if you are a college student I encourage you to put together a team and apply. But I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the threefold focus of the event, and the synergy possible from combining such disparate topics.

It all starts with sustainability, and the worldwide commitment to keeping climate change under two degrees Celsius, or as close to that number as possible. Until the president of the United States decided that the future of the human race and planet earth didn’t matter, the Paris Agreement ensured 147 countries’ commitment to this goal—that was the commitment of 99.75 percent of the greenhouse gases produced around the globe. The Guardian has some of the best coverage on why this is so important. This direction and commitment is critical, not only for governments and industries, but also for small-business and community-led initiatives.


CitizenAR puts faith in cities as a key component in combating climate change. Much research and many articles have argued convincingly that cities—dense cities—are an essential ingredient for sustaining a growing population within the limits of earth’s resources. In the twenty-first century, sprawl is not limited to middle-class “white flight,” but also includes lower-income relocation from gentrified city centers. A key component of keeping people in cities is maximizing their livability—ensuring that they are safe, pleasant, and affordable for all.

This is where technology comes into play. As sharing-economy apps like Uber and Airbnb have transformed formerly inflexible industries—and, in the process, reshaped the cities where these industries operate—they have demonstrated just how fundamentally intangible technologies can impact the built environment, and how quickly it can do so. Augmented reality has the potential to increase both the speed and the impact of this change. Pokemon Go was the first example of how augmented reality could change user behavior on a city scale, as formerly sleepy stores and unoccupied public spaces were suddenly flooded with hordes of smartphone-holding citizens in search of their next catch. The potential of augmented reality for cities is not lost on Pokemon Go’s creators, and citizenAR believes similar things. Augmented reality has the potential to maximize the livability of cities, but for whom?

Salvation Army

To address this critical question, we have made inequality the third focus of citizenAR. The event is embedded in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, historically one of SF’s most intractable areas in terms of poverty and crime. Approximately 25,000 people, including 3,500 families, live within the quarter-square mile area. The neighborhood has the highest rate of poverty and violent crime in the city while also housing the greatest concentration of youth. The Salvation Army Kroc Center, the host for citizenAR, provides a safe and secure respite for Tenderloin youth, many of whom spend much of their leisure time online and gaming due to a lack of safe access to outdoor space.

How can we leverage emerging technologies to improve the urban experience of youth and their families in the Tenderloin? This is the question that citizenAR has set out to answer, by bringing together interdisciplinary teams of students to generate and present their ideas over the course of one packed Saturday in September. Future tech events, to be determined, will continue to be held at the Kroc Center under the banner of Tech in the Tenderloin, while citizenAR has plans to produce a model event that can be held in locations throughout the country and world.

For sustainability, cities are the future. For technology, augmented reality is the future. For citizenAR, it only makes sense to unite these futures while pushing for equity in both physical and digital spaces.

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