I recently read an article on the FT by Simon Kupor entitled The App Of Life, which discussed the interesting effect that technology has on urban living. It’s no secret that technology has always affected how we live and the town planning that surrounds it. The industrial revolution led to the creation of densely populated working areas and the mass production of vehicles created greater sprawl, enabling the typical suburbian lifestyle.
When the internet came about and people were able to connect and share information remotely, there was talk of the demise of cities. Why would you want to live in densely populated areas and work in large offices when you can do so from the comfort of your own home in the peaceful surroundings of the countryside? I feel that whilst this sounds good in theory, in practice there is always value in proximity. In a business sense, the internet is no replacement for being around people and bouncing ideas off them in person. For more on the virtue of proximity, see my post The Value Of Proximity. I don’t think that digital connectivity will see the demise of the city, quite the contrary, I agree with Simon Kupor in that I think it will enable them to be better places to live thereby helping them to grow.
This effect can be seen already, mobile technology and smart phones are a perfect example of this. I’m someone who (through no fault of their own) is severely navigationally impaired, paper bags pose a challenge. This problem has thankfully been completey resolved for me by being able to punch an address into my phone, then get GPS co-ordinates of where I am and where I need to go. This makes navigating the complex road network of any city a breeze, making it more pleasant and efficient to get around. Further to this, if I need to find any kind of service, all I need to do is look it up on my phone and it tells me all the options around me, allowing me to make the most of the cities retail and service offerings. Plugging this in to the social graph means I’m never alone as I can find out where my friends are at any given time.
The next step is people using technology and data to help run their cities. We’ve seen the social graph with Facebook, interest graph with Twitter what could happen if we had an entire city grid open to plug in to? With an open graph style system governments could assist us to manage water, transport, parking or power. Imagine being able to remotely check your water or power consumption from your phone and adjust accordingly. Even just being able to find out where parking spaces were available would be a huge step in efficiency! Interestingly the article points out that Dublin has opened data on everything from water use to transport in the hopes that developers will devise opportunities to use this to improve city design and living. To quote the article, “We’re starting to see almost an “open-source design” of cities, says Ratti.”
Whilst the lure of the country side and an internet connection still remains, I think digital technology will enable city life to be more efficient and enjoyable then ever before. This will naturally lead to the continuation of their draw for people and their growth. If you need any proof of this just take a look at the ever increasing rate that we are building Skyscrapers (and their burgeoning height). We seem to be building up rather than out, I’m relieved my phone will tell me which floor I’m on.
By Simon Kupor