Stranger things

Julie Årving
Dec 11, 2018 · 3 min read
photo: Gard Hagen

“Great cities are not like towns, only larger. They are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of them is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.”

- Jane Jacobs

Digital urban services are shaping our cities and how we connect with others. We are in an age of networked individualism, and we observe that many digital urban services today are mostly solution-oriented, helping us with productivity and efficiency. At the same time we are exploring new ways of connecting with others, and there is a big potential to connect with strangers.

The sociologist Richard Sennett presents this definition of a city: “a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet.” And writer and activist Jane Jacobs argues that streets and cities feel safe because of familiar stranger’s [2] presence. What if we translate this value into urban digital services?

There are many services creating romantic relationships, quickly. We see a great potential in digital urban services for also creating slow evolving, non-romantic relations. These relations are important to create collective, social experiences, that contribute to a sense of belonging.

The city has a way of normalizing interactions with strangers. It’s also a scene for a particular relation to grow: the one between familiar strangers. Familiar strangers are people who know of each other, from a natural development, over time, in public space.

The danger with not having these connections in cities is that it quickly becomes about ‘us’ and ‘them’. Sennett argues that urban design shape how we treat each other, and that it’s the anonymity of the city that makes us respectful towards the other, the different.

Journalist McGuirk (2018) argues that this urban value is under attack:

“For Immanuel Kant, the cosmopolitan was a “universal citizen”. For Theresa May, he is “a citizen of nowhere.” The crucial difference is that May, like President Trump, seems to see belonging in the tribal sense: it’s “us” and “them.”[3]

If the largest metropolis in the U.S. and the U.K. are bastions against such impulses, it is precisely because their diverse populations make them cosmopolitan and liberal leaning.”

This contextualizes the need for designing for connections between familiar strangers. We cannot only look to physical urban development to create spaces for connections between strangers. It’s also difficult to change physical behavior that is so rooted in culture. But digital behavior is more flexible and experimental. Digital services have the same responsibility as buildings and landscape to do this, because they are the urban networked space.

Digital Urban Services have the power to show and promote diversity, almost regardless of their initial purpose. They can create curiosity for those that are different that you. They can create a sense of belonging by connecting people over shared values. They can promote helpfulness and kindness. They can make people feel accepted and valued. Looking at the nature of familiar strangers, this must be done over time, with small interventions and interactions that feel natural for people.

How could the inclusive digital city look like?

See the design examples in our manifesto.


How can we promote a socially and culturally inclusive city through digital services?

Julie Årving

Written by


How can we promote a socially and culturally inclusive city through digital services?

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