Modern cities increasingly compete on the basis of infrastructure, human capital and tax incentives to draw big, successful companies. Politicians and policymakers emphasize the benefits of luring innovators, but many lower- and middle-income inhabitants do not feel they share in the prosperity. Indeed, rising inequality of income, health and opportunity is most pronounced in big urban areas.

Automation continues to displace workers, and while the digital “gig economy” offers opportunities to make extra money, the vast majority of profits accrue to platforms like Uber and Airbnb rather than to gig workers themselves. This perception of hopelessness feeds urban anxiety and presents a dilemma which urban leaders cannot solve by drawing more corporate headquarters or well-paid tech workers.

Larry Keeley, a world-renowned expert on innovation and design, argued in a recent TEDx talk that cities – and the businesses that operate in them – need to think differently about how to bridge the opportunity gap while tapping into the human capital of struggling communities.

The lessons of Keeley’s presentations have implications not just for Chicago, the city for which his framework is designed, or just urban areas, but for the global issue of widening inequality and lack of opportunity. Companies have a vital interest in helping to address these issues, as they are also losing out when human potential goes unfulfilled.

Keeley, who leads Doblin, the design unit of Deloitte he founded, is a leading authority on companies that succeed in the digital “gig economy.” The emphasis of Keeley’s work is on how innovation has changed from being focused on product development to achieving scale via digital platforms. “Modern innovation is more about elegant integration than invention,” says Keeley. Similarly, the modern city needs to not just build new roads or apartment buildings but create an environment in which individuals can pool ideas and resources. Some of Keeley’s suggestions include:

  • Enterprise zones where volunteers create local gig economies, independent of the big digital platforms
  • Cyber credits” that can be earned by communities through volunteer projects and then cashed in for government or business investment
  • Designated public spaces for creative expression or entrepreneurial initiatives

Keeley’s concept of “designing for opportunity” aims to turn the drawbacks of the gig economy into tools for individual and community empowerment. In doing so, cities can transform despair and inequality into dynamic optimism in the ability to cooperate for personal success as well as the common good. Ultimately, governments and businesses must look to people rather than policies for the answer. The solution is to create a thriving marketplace in which people have the ability to shape their own destinies.