The information and communications technologies (ICT) in use today have one thing in common. Interactivity. From email and social media to enterprise resource planning and the weather service, their greatest value is not in sheer computing power but in giving us access to vast amounts of information, as well as to each other, in near real time. The database is only as good as the search system through which we interact with it. Email and social media are only as good as the number of human beings who use them. Global navigation and mapping platforms revolutionized the way we get around only when billions of people gained access through easy, intuitive apps.
Interactive, Digital Domains
It changes the number of people we can relate to, as well as the geographic area over which we can do it. Today, we create and maintain relationships with unimaginably more people in more places than the generation before us. Our personal, career and commercial opportunities expand – but we live with the fear of losing real human connection at the same time.
Our data systems interact with the world, compiling massive amounts of data. Interacting with them, we find our understanding of the world transformed. We track disease outbreaks by Google search terms. Amazon and Netflix make recommendations to you based on the experience of millions of people whose buying patterns show similar tastes. We participate remotely – but with great immediacy – in dramatic events, from revolution to disaster, taking place a world away.
|Is this little girl running through a shopping center
or a field of flowers?
An interactive digital dimension now overlays most of the physical spaces you use in your daily life, and it is slowly but fundamentally transforming what we need from them and how we get it. We telecommute instead of making the trek to an office, which transfers our need for reliable power and high-quality broadband to our homes. We can conduct videoconferences uniting people in a shared mission across multiple time zones instead of gathering physically together. We navigate using smartphones, select restaurants using apps, and shop by mobile in one store while walking the aisles of another.
| Are these people visiting an historic town square
or playing a video game?
The impacts of this digital overlay on the places we live, work and play are just beginning to become visible. Jones Lang LaSalle is a commercial real estate broker operating worldwide. One of the most common things its brokers do is to advise companies on how much office space they need for their employees. For many years, the rule of thumb was 200 square feet (about 18 m2) per employee. But in a 2012 report, the company predicted that by 2014, the average space needed per employee would be only 50 square feet (about 5 m2). That’s a remarkable fourfold decline.
The change is the result of the increased mobility of the workforce. In a growing number of industries, employees aren’t spending their time in the office. They are visiting customers or suppliers or branch offices. They are working from home or hotel or cafe. They are using the mobile tools of the information age – laptops, tablets and smartphones – to cut the physical tether to the office while remaining connected, accessible and accountable to their companies over broadband.
Consider the impact on demand for office space in the central business district and surrounding suburbs. In a March 2013 Webinar, Norman Miller of the Center for Real Estate at the University of San Diego, examined what would happen if US tenants used 20 percent less office space. He estimated that the change in demand would create US$250 billion in excess office capacity in a market worth $1.25 trillion.
Much has been written about the rebirth of big cities, where a mix of millennials and retirees are drawn by new walkable neighborhoods that mix housing, business and culture. Behind the scenes, however, that rebirth is much less a matter of city design and much more about the transformative power of ICT. As economic competition has risen in a connected world, it has drastically raised the value of skills and relentlessly replaced low-value employment with hardware and software. In the process, it has accelerated changes in population. Cities where digital economies flourish have grown, but other cities – particularly those that relied for too long on a single industry for employment – have seen their populations plummet.
Those downsizing cities are having to explore new ways to rebuild vibrancy and retool their economies for a very different future. Pittsburgh, in the US state of Pennsylvannia, is one well-known example. According to The Economist:
|Its revival since its steel industry collapsed in the early 1980s is partly thanks to good long-term planning. Under the leadership of Mayor Tom Murphy, more than 1,000 acres of abandoned, blighted industrial land in Pittsburgh was cleaned up and is now thriving commercial, retail, residential and public space. Once lined with factories the city's waterfront has been given over to parks. Mr. Murphy oversaw the development of more than 25 miles of new trails alongside the river . He helped develop public-private partnerships, which leveraged $4.8 billion in economic development. Even as its population continues to fall, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself as a successful tech and health hub.|
Almost one in ten American cities is shrinking – but so are more than a third of German ones, and the trend is also visible in Japan, South Korea and even Asia’s economic engine, China. China’s total urban population is expected to peak by mid-century, and its older industrial cities are already in decline.
Shrinking cities seek a new future. Growing metropolises reinvent their downtowns and their delivery of services for a new population. The suburban and rural regions around them gain new opportunities for economic growth and cultural richness in a society and economy that operate increasingly online. Seeking urban and rural renaissance, city builders are overturning old ideas to create places with the best chance to prosper in a century producing greater disruption with each passing year.
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