Activating Urban Communities Through Tech

Everyone is part of multiple communities: from the largest scale of a globally-connected social network, to the scale of a city, neighborhood, school, down to the micro-scale of groups of friends and family. Technology largely targets the largest and the smallest scales. It assumes that the middle stuff just gets figured out. Or you could always just make a group on Facebook — oddly, this is one of the only real-time platforms for intermediate-scaled communities to find identity and interaction.

Original concepts for social networks weren’t to create clinginess or a feeling of intrusion — they were meant to create digital community, a feeling of inclusion. Their goals were noble (at least I’d like to believe). The problem to me is creating a “community” with an environment that is 1) self-indulgent and 2) detached, intangible, and mostly irrelevant to daily life and surroundings. None of these things are present in a healthy community.

The gap in scale

Communities can and should find their way into technology at more diverse scales of interaction. That gap I mentioned before is one that location-centric, tangible networks can fill. Wherever there’s density of people, there is the potential for a rich and fruitful community.

The Urban Potential

In everything I’ve read on the topic, the most popular reason young people give to explain their desire to move to cities is walkability. You can attribute that to concern for environmental issues and certainly elements of convenience. But ultimately, this speaks to the innate beauty of density. The most fulfilling part of the ability to move easily on-foot is experiencing a community at the scale of a human, not a car or a phone. I’d even argue that for those raised on technology and smart phones, that fundamental longing to feel attached to a larger body of people unified by a physical place is even stronger.

What’s most interesting in looking at city migration of all ages is the why factor. Going back in history, cities were popularized because they were high in resources needed for manufacturing and transporting raw goods. However, in the modern world and job market, you can really work from anywhere. Why is it though that companies that had previously moved out of cities for the exact reason stated before, are moving back to metropolitan areas? Just as cities were highly-efficient in a manufacturing-driven economy, they are today in the innovation-driven economy. Only rather than raw goods, it’s the aggregation of people and ideas — in other words, a community.

Relating cities to technology, terms like Smart Cities and the Internet of Things come to mind. However, what I’m getting at is an arena that I think we’ve yet to truly take advantage of: where the Internet of Things (connecting devices, things) meets the Sharing Economy (connecting people). You could call it the Internet of People, or whatever you want.

Let’s call it the Internet of People

Both are still industries that answer some version of the question: how can the consumer be given what they want even faster or even cheaper. A few questions neglected are:

How can technology help users better interact with their community that they live in such close proximity with?

What new and exciting opportunities can be revealed when technology enhances how people experience physical places?

How can we better integrate a neighborhood/city ecosystem — residents and local businesses alike?

How can technology lessen the isolation felt by residents in dense environments?

These questions can only be addressed by building holistic products. A holistic product takes the collective vision of how a community and its physical environment exist today and attempts to better it through technology. Once you can impact interactions between people and their environment and their community, you’re able to truly delight users in a humanistic way.

What I believe results here is an interesting convergence that I plan to continue to explore: the basic human need for a tangible community, the resurgence of cities, advances in sensor technologies, and the potentials of AR. They all seem to be pointing us out of device-dependent digital experiences and, instead, into a future of using tech to enhance the things that make us human.

Product Design Manager at Cruise. Founder at Huddle. Prev Head of Product & UX at Mapfit (acq by Foursquare). Miami-native.

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