Activating Urban Communities Through Tech

When you think about it, 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 hey, 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.

Social networks weren’t originally built to create social-media-clingy weirdos or create a feeling of intrusion — they were meant to create a 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 self-indulgent, while at the same time detached, intangible, and mostly irrelevant to daily life and surroundings. None of these things are present in a healthy community.

The gap in scale

The moments I’ve found the hole in communal, local platforms to be most void is when I recently moved to New York. Suddenly, I realized that I was in a city and neighborhood with so many people and things happening around me — the ultimate urban community to interact with and learn from. The energy was there but I couldn’t tap into it. Something that should feel communal actually felt isolating.

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 — And there’s no place more densely-populated than cities.

The Urban Potential

For the first time since the 1920’s, cities in the U.S. are actually outpacing the growth outside of them. According to Nielson 2014 Consumer Report, a whopping 62% of Millennials like myself would prefer to live in a dense urban center. Joe Cortright, an author who has documented young people’s migration to cities, states that young people today are also much less likely to move to the suburbs than the generation before them. In the 90’s, 25 to 29 year old’s were twice as likely to move from the city to the suburbs than vice versa. Now they’re only a quarter more likely to.

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 account that to Millennials’ concern for environmental issues and certainly elements of convenience. But ultimately, this speaks to the beauty of density. The most fulfilling part of the ability to move easily on-foot around a dense and meaningful place 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

The Internet of People explores what’s left out of these two major sectors of tech. The resource of people is being tapped in the Sharing Economy — However, it’s still service-focused and not about enhancing connections between people and places. The Internet of Things focuses solely on relationships between devices to increase convenience and data intake, not on people — The Guardian touched on possible issues with that.

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.

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