The Connected City

I

During my first visit to Sydney, in 1997, I made arrangements to catch up with some friends living in Drummoyne.  I was staying at the Novotel Darling Harbour, so we arranged to meet in front of the IMAX theatre before heading off to drinks and dinner.  I arrived at the appointed time, as did a few of my friends.  We waited a bit more, but saw no sign of the missing members of our party.  What to do?  Should we wait there – for goodness knows how long – or simply go on without them?

As I debated our options – neither particularly palatable – one of my friends took a mobile out of his pocket, dialed our missing friends, and told them to meet us at an Oxford Street pub.  Crisis resolved.

Nothing about this incident seems at all unusual today – except for my reaction to the dilemma of the missing friends.  When someone’s not where they should be, where they said they would be, we simply ring them.  It’s automatic.

In Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, mobile ownership rates had barely cracked twenty percent.  America was slow on the uptake to mobiles; by the time of my trip, Australia had already passed fifty percent.  When half of the population can be reached instantaneously and continuously, people begin to behave differently.  Our social patterns change.  My Sydneysider friends had crossed a conceptual divide into hyperconnectivity, while I was mired in an old, discrete and disconnected conception of human relationships.

We rarely recall how different things were before everyone carried a mobile.  The mobile has become such an essential part of our kit that on those rare occasions when we leave it at home or lose track of it, we feel a constant tug, like the phantom pain of a missing limb.  Although we are loath to admit it, we need our mobiles to bring order to our lives.

We can take comfort in the fact that all of us feel this way.  Mobile subscription rates in Australia are greater than one hundred and twenty percent – more than one mobile per person, and one of the highest rates in the world.  We have voted with our feet, with our wallets and with our attention.  The default social posture in Sydney – and London and Tokyo and New York – is face down, absorbed in the mobile.  We stare at it, toy with it, play on it, but more than anything else, we reach through it to others, whether via voice calls, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or any of an constantly-increasing number of ways.

The mobile takes the vast, anonymous and unknowable City, and makes it pocket-sized, friendly and personal.  If you ever run into a spot of bother, you can bring resources to hand – family, friends, colleagues, even professional fixers like lawyers and doctors – with the press of ten digits.  We give mobiles to our children and parents so they can call us – and so we can track them.  The mobile is the always-on lifeline, a different kind of 000, for a different class of needs.

Yet these connections needn’t follow the well-trodden paths of family-friends-neighbors-colleagues.  Because everyone is connected, we can connect to anyone we wish.  We can ignore protocol and reach directly into an organization, or between silos, or from bottom to top, without obeying any of the niceties described on org charts or contact sheets.  People might choose to connect in an orderly fashion – when it suits them.  Otherwise, they will connect to their greatest advantage, whether or not that suits your purposes, protocols, or needs.  When people need a lifeline, they will find it, and once they’ve found it, they will share it with others.

How does the City connect to its residents?  Now that everyone in the City – residents and employees and administrators and directors – are hyperconnected, how should the City structure its access policies?  Is the City a solid wall with a single door?  Connection is about relationship, and relationships grow from a continuity of interactions.  Each time a resident connects to the City, is that a one-off, an event with no prior memory and no future impact?

It is now possible to give each resident of the City their own, custom phone number which they could use to contact the City, a number which would encompass their history with the city.  If they use an unblocked mobile, they already provide the City with a unique number.  Could this be the cornerstone of a deeper and more consistent connection with the City?

II

Connecting is an end in itself – smoothing our social interactions, clearing the barriers to commerce and community – but connection also provides a platform for new kinds of activities.  Connectivity is like mains power: once everywhere, it becomes possible to have a world where people own refrigerators and televisions.

When people connect, their first, immediate and natural response is to share.  People share what interests them with people they believe share those interests.  In early days that sharing can feel very unfocused.  We all know relatives or friends who have gone online and suddenly started to forward us every bad joke, cute kitten or chain letter that comes their way.  (Perhaps we did these things too.)  Someone eventually tells the overeager sharer to think before they share.  They learn the etiquette of sharing.  Life gets easier – and more interesting – for everyone.

Once we have learned who wants to know what, we have integrated ourselves into a very powerful network for the dissemination of knowledge.  In the 21st century, news comes and finds us.  If it’s important to us, the things we need to know will filter their way through our connections, shared from person to person, delivered via multiple connections.  Our process of learning about the world has become multifocal; some of it comes from what we see and those we meet, some from what we read or watch, and the rest from those we connect with.

The connected world, with its dense networks, has become an incredibly rapid platform for the distribution of any bit of knowledge – honest truth, rumor, and outright lies.  Anything, however trivial, finds its way to us, if we consider it important.   Hyperconnectivity provides a platform for a breadth of ‘situational awareness’ beyond even the wildest imaginings of MI6 or ASIO.

In a practical sense, sharing means every resident of the City can now possess detailed awareness of the City.  This condition develops naturally and automatically simply by training one’s attention on the City.  The more one looks, the more one sees how to connect to those sharing matters of importance about the City.

This means the City is no longer the authoritative resource about itself.  Networks of individuals, sharing information relevant to them, have become the channel through which information comes to residents.  This includes information supplied by the City, as one element among many – but this information may be recontextualized, edited, curated or twisted to suit the aims of those doing the sharing.

This leads to a great deal of confusion: what happens when official and shared sources of information differ?  In general, individuals tend to trust their networks, granting them greater authority than statutory authorities.  (This is why rumors are so hard to defeat.)  Multiple, reinforcing sources of information offer the City a counterbalance to the persuasive power of the network.  These interconnected sources constitute a network in themselves, and as people connect to the network of the City, this authoritative information will be shared widely through their networks.

The City needs to evaluate all of the information it provides to its residents as shared resources.  Can they be divided, edited, and mashed-up?  Can these resources be taken out of context?  The more useful the City can make its information – more than just words on a page, or figures, or the static image of a floor plan –  the more likely it will be shared.  How can one resident share a City resource with another resident?  If you make sharing easy, it is more likely your own resources will be shared.  If you make sharing difficult, residents will create their own shared resources which may not be as accurate as those offered by the City.  On the other hand, if your resources are freely available but inaccurate, residents will create their own.

Sharing is not a one-way street.  Just as the City offers up its resources to its residents, the City should be connected to these sharing communities, ready to recognize and amplify networks that share useful information.  The City has the advantage of a ‘bully pulpit’: when the City promotes something, it achieves immediate visibility.  Furthermore, when the City recognizes a shared resource, it relieves the City of the burden of providing that resource to its residents.  Although connecting to the residents of the City is not free – time and labour are required – that cost is recovered in savings as residents share resources with one another.  The City need not be a passive actor in such a situation; the City can sponsor competitions or promotions, setting its focus on specific areas it wants residents to take up for themselves.

III

We begin by sharing everything, but as that becomes noisy (and boring), we focus on sharing those things which interest us most.  We forge bonds with others interested in the same things.  These networks of sharing provide an opportunity for anyone to involve themselves fully within any domain deemed important – or at least interesting.  The sharing network becomes a classroom of sorts, where anyone expert in any area, however peculiar, becomes recognized, promoted, and well-connected.  If you know something that others want to know, they will find you.

By sharing what we know, we advertise our expertise.  It follows us where ever we go.  In addition to everything else, we are each a unique set of knowledge, experience and capabilities which, in the right situation, proves uniquely valuable.  Because this information is mostly hidden from view, it is impossible for us to look at one another and see the depth that each of us carries within us.

Every time we share, we reveal the secret expert within ourselves.  Because we constantly share ourselves with our friends, family and co-workers, they come to rely on what we know.  But what of our neighbors, our co-residents in the City?  We walk the City’s streets with little sense of the expertise that surrounds us.

Before hyperconnectivity, it was difficult to share expertise.  You could reach a few people – those closest to you – but unless your skills were particularly renowned or valuable, that’s where it stopped.  For good or ill, our experience and knowledge now  extend far beyond the circle of those familiar to us.

With its millions of residents, the City represents a pool of knowledge and experience beyond compare, which, until this moment, lay tantalizingly beyond reach.  Now that we can come together around what we know – or want to learn – we find another type of community emerging, a community driven by expertise.  Some of these communities are global and diffuse: just a few people here, a few more there.  Other communities are local and dense, because they organize themselves around the physical communities where they live.  Every city is now becoming such a community of knowledge, with the most hyperconnected cities – like San Francisco, Tokyo, and Sydney – leading the way.

The resident of the connected city shares their expertise about the city.  This sharing brings them into community with other residents who also share, or want to benefit from that expertise.  Residents recognize that it is possible to learn as much as they need to know, simply by focusing on those who already know what they need to learn.

Seen this way, the City is a knowledge network composed of its residents.  This network emerges naturally from the sharing activities of those residents, and necessarily incorporates the City as an element in that network.  Residents refer to one another’s expertise in order to make their way in the City, and much of this refers back to the City itself.

How does this City situate itself within these networks of knowledge and expertise?  How can the City take these hidden reservoirs of knowledge and bring them to the surface?  These sorts of tasks are commonplace on digital social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, but both emphasise the global reach of cyberspace, not the restricted terrain of a suburb.  How can I learn who in my neighborhood has worked with Sydney’s development authorities, so I can get some advice on my own application?  How can I share with others what I have learned through a development application process?

This is the idea at the core of the connected city.  We have connected but remain in darkness, blind to one another.  As the lights come up, we immediately see who knows what.  We ourselves are illuminated by what we know.  As we transition from sharing into learning, we gain the knowledge of the brightest, and the expertise of the most experienced.  We don’t even need to go looking: because it is important, this knowledge comes and finds us.

Long before 2030, everyone in the City will have the full advantage of the knowledge and experience of every other resident of the City.  The City will be nurturing residents who are all as smart and capable as the smartest and most capable among them.  When residents put that knowledge to work, they will redefine the City.

IV

For as long as there have been cities, people have quit their villages and migrated to them.  Two hundred years ago, peasants headed into the great cities of London and Manchester, walking into a hellhole of disease and misery, knowing their chances for a good life were measurably better.  They learned this from their brothers, sisters and cousins who had made the move – and the statistics bear this out.  As dangerous and dirty as London might have been, life on the farm was worse.  With our understanding of sanitation and public health, this is even more true today:  even if you end up in a slum in Mumbai, Lagos or Rio, you and your children will live lives filled with opportunities not available back in the village.

As of 2008, fifty percent humanity lived in cities — a revolution ten thousand years in the marking, yet only half complete.  That migration has accompanied the greatest rise in human lifespan since the birth of our species.  We thrive in cities.  We are meant to be urban animals.

The transition from village to city is a move across both space and time, a traumatic leap across an abyss.  The headspace of the city is very, very different from the village.  In the village, everyone knows you.  In the city you are anonymous.  In the village you are ruled by custom, in the city, governed by law.  You arrive in the city knowing none of its ways, thriving only if you master them.

When my great-grandparents left their Sicilian villages for the industrial city of Boston, Massachusetts, they knew of other relatives who had undertaken the same journey, brothers and sisters who had made their own way in America, and who would be their safe haven when they arrived.  Family and friends have always helped new arrivals get settled in the big city.  This is the reason for the ethnic communities and ghettos we associate with immigration.  As the largest city in a nation with an active and aggressive immigration policy, Sydney has scores of these communities.  It has always been this way, everywhere, in every city, because the immigrant community is a network of knowledge that connects to new arrivals in order to give them a leg up.

Something similar happened to me eight years ago, when I moved to Sydney from Los Angeles.  I knew a few people, who became my entry point into the community: my first job, my first flat, and my first mobile all manifested through the auspices of these friends.  They shared what they knew in order to propel me into success.

These immigrant knowledge networks have always existed, informally.  The most successful immigrants inevitably have strong networks of knowledge backing them up – people, more than facts.  It’s not what you know, but who, because who you know is what you know.  The more you know, the more effective you can be.  An immigrant learns how to get a good job, a good flat, a good education for their children, because they are in connection with those who share their experiences, good and bad, with them.

The immigrant’s path to success also works for the rest of us.  Our capabilities can be measured by our networks of connections.  As the City reveals itself as a human network, where residents connect, share, and learn, we each become as capable as the most capable among us when we put what we have learned into practice.  This is the endpoint of the new urban revolution of the connected city: radical empowerment for every resident.

Consider: Everyone resident of the City you work with now brings with them the collective experience of every resident, past and present.  Only a few of them know how to put that knowledge to work.  As they learn, they share that knowledge, and it spreads, until every resident of the City has mastery of the wealth of human resources now available to each resident.

From one point of view, this is an amazing boon: City residents will know exactly how to have their local needs met.  They will have almost perfect knowledge about the right way to get things done.  That takes a burden off the City, and distributes it among the residents – where it should be, but where it never could be, before hyperconnectivity.  Residents will do the work for themselves.  You will be there to facilitate, to maintain, and mediate.

Yet this is no urban utopia.  Residents who know how to get their way will grow accustomed to having their way.  When they can not get it – when you can not give it to them – they will go to war.  Everything everyone has ever learned about how to fight City Hall is available to every resident of the City.  Dangerous capabilities, that might have been reserved for the most dire conflicts, will begin to pop up in the most ridiculous and ephemeral situations.   The residents of the City will be able to act like five year-olds who have been equipped with thermonuclear weapons.

We are all becoming vastly more capable.  Nothing can stop that.  It is a direct consequence of connection.  If the residents of the City grow too powerful, too quickly, the social fabric of the City will rip apart.  To counter this, the City must grow its capabilities in lockstep with its residents.  The City must connect, share, and learn, not just (or even first) with its residents, but with its employees.  When every City employee has the full knowledge and experiential resources of all of the employees of the City, the City will be able to confront an army of impetuous and empowered residents on its own terms.

That’s where you need to go.  That’s how you need to frame employee development, knowledge sharing, and capacity building.  Everyone who works for the City must become an expert in the whole of the City.  Yes, people will continue to specialize, and those specialties must become the shared elements that form the backbone of the City’s knowledge networks.  Everyone who works for the City must learn how to create and use these networks to increase the City’s capability.  They are the connected city.

CONCLUSION

The year 2030 is just a bit more than half a billion heartbeats away.  Most of the processes I have described are already well developed, and will complete long before 2030.  The future is already here, in bits and pieces that grow more widespread every day.  We have connected, we are sharing and learning, turning what we know into what we can do.

You have the opportunity to foster an urban environment where residents work together in close coordination to make the City an even better place to live.  Or, petty wars could flame up across our neighborhoods, as we fight one another every step of the way.  The City can not just stand by. It must step up and join the fray, using all of the resources at its disposal to shape the sharing and learning going on all around us in a way that benefits the City’s residents.  The City which does that becomes irresistible, not just to its own residents, but to everyone.  A Connected City is the envy of the world.