Among the ever-growing list of Democratic presidential candidates, Pete Buttigieg—current mayor of South Bend, Indiana—seems to stand out as a fairly promising rising political star. It isn’t only his millennial status and openness about his sexuality that attract attention to Buttigieg, but his innovative approach to major issues—from tackling climate change to dealing with unemployment. One of Buttigieg’s key points in advancing his candidacy is the manner in which he utilised technology to uplift South Bend from decades of socio-economic decline. The same method of intervention, Buttigieg and his supporters argue, should be applied to the United States as a whole (something he intends to do if elected president).
A close inspection of the situation in South Bend, however, reveals a slightly more complex reality, and while some aspects of Buttigieg’s transformation of the city should be lauded and learned from, others warrant a certain degree of scepticism and criticism.
Since the shutting down of Studebaker, then America’s fourth-largest automaker, in 1963, South Bend appeared to have slumped into a downward spiral. Like many cities and towns in what has become the country’s Rust Belt (stretching from mid-Pennsylvania to western Illinois), South Bend was hit hard by the collapse of America’s manufacturing centres, and by 2011 was declared a ‘dying city’. With widening poverty gaps, a dwindling supply of fresh talent, a crumbling downtown, and a growing number of abandoned properties—there seemed to have been virtually no hope for South Bend.
Yet, the city’s shared border with the highly reputable Notre Dame University had proven to be its salvation. Back in 2008, in a bid to morph Notre Dame and neighbouring South Bend into an attractive employment hub for faculty and their spouses, the university launched an initiative to transform its technology research into new businesses. The initiative was further developed when Buttigieg became mayor in 2012, which attracted big data companies to the city.
Buttigieg’s overall vision was to turn South Bend into a smaller, Midwestern version of Silicon Valley, and employ new data systems and technologies in order to boost its economy and prosperity. Among Buttigieg’s first and most prominent endeavours, was the creation of SBStat—a data-operated system which tracks, and troubleshoots services in the city. Currently, the system tracks each individual municipal department, reviews its goals, and reports on whether or not they were met. Buttigieg also facilitated the transformation of abandoned houses and factories into apartment and office buildings, utilising old infrastructure and an abundance of available fibre cable to attract big tech and data companies (more of which have been relocating their headquarters to South Bend).
Alas, Buttigieg’s emerging techtopia has failed to uplift all of South Bend’s residents. It’s been reported that South Bend’s median income stands at about 61 percent of the national figure, and roughly a quarter of the city’s residents still live in poverty. The data becomes even more alarming while focusing on racial minorities in South Bend. For instance, 40 percent of African Americans in the city, who comprise about a quarter of its residence, live under the poverty line and make half as much as their white counterparts. It has also been reported that while the creation of new high-tech jobs in South Bend has benefitted university graduates, it did little to improve the conditions of the working class, and that Buttigieg’s adoption of technological innovations (such as installing robotic arms on city garbage trucks) has resulted in frequent layoffs.
Although his track record of urban development is far from being blemish-free, there’s no doubt that Buttigieg is onto something. While many politicians capitalise on the frustration of those who were left behind following the downfall of America’s manufacturing centres and fill their minds with unfeasible promises of a grand return to a glorious past, Buttigieg urges them to adapt to reality and find a new niche within the ever-changing landscape of the job market. Buttigieg also recognises that this isn’t a simple task that would yield absolute success, and stresses that it’s impossible to expect people to simply align themselves with whatever the market demands at any given moment. In an interview for WIRED, Buttigieg states that, “The things that make a great carpenter are not that different from the things that make a great coder: The ability to handle ambiguity, to not get frustrated when it’s off, dealing with other people.”
Even if Buttigieg makes it all the way to the White House, it will certainly prove challenging to apply the same transformative logic used in South Bend to the country as a whole. One thing is certain, though. In a sea of candidates belting familiar slogans, Buttigieg stands out in his honest approach to the unavoidable challenges that accompany technological innovation, and his eagerness to harness such innovations to improve living conditions and secure our future.