The Future: Incredible Shrinking Cities
|incredible shrinking city|
Since the dawn of the Industrial Age those seeking wealth, fame, and success have felt the magnetic pull: Head for the big cities. But a new study (PDF, summary) from Michigan State University indicates that fundamental changes in technology are altering that paradigm and starting to affect how the industrial world lives. This study is not the first to spot these trends, but it provides an unusually clear look at the reasons why.
The giant urban magnet
With the rise of industry came the pull of big cities: Big cities allowed businesses and industry to thrive from their close proximity to one another. The retailer could meet with the manufacturer, the manufacturer with the supplier, and all of them needed lots of workers living nearby. Supply lines were short, communication much easier and quicker, and the pooling of urban labor attracted both industry and workers.
The lure of the riches of industrialization drew the masses from the farms and towns to the big cities and fostered the growth of mega-cities like London, New York, and Tokyo -- cities the likes of which had never before existed. Teeming millions lived in packed proximity, pulling in vast rivers of food, water, raw materials and people and generating vast quantities of products, wealth, and innovation. (Along with pollution, crime, and blight -- big cities have never been all sweetness and light.)
Whereas for millenia people lived a mostly rural and small-village existence, in industrialized countries the city dweller became the norm and huge cities became the cauldrons of progress and invention, the places where innovation and hard work could be turned into great riches and fame.
With their great wealth and population huge cities also became the centers of culture, learning, and political power. And it was all because packing lots of people and commerce into close proximity created a synergy that could not happen any other way.
A paradigm change
But in the 21st century a new paradigm of industrial success is taking hold. In fact it really started in the latter half of the 20th century with the rise of air travel, which made physical location less important.
Before the popularization (and subsequent great drop in price) of air travel, to have quick access to suppliers, manufacturers, and partner businesses in a mega-city like, say, Los Angeles, meant that one had to be located in or very near Los Angeles. But the ready availability of cheap air travel meant that people and businesses in Phoenix, Sacramento, Las Vegas and other cities all over the American West also had quick and easy access to the vast industrial and commercial resources of Los Angeles. And that meant that it was no longer so important to be located in a big city like Los Angeles (or New York, Chicago, or other mega-city industrial centers).
What was important was to be in a city, perhaps a substantially smaller city, that had ready air connections to those big industrial centers.
So cities like Phoenix and Miami grew, becoming several times larger in the 1980s than they were before the time of mass air travel in the 1950s. But while goods and people could now travel back and forth when needed, the business of everyday communication, the informal-but-essential "grease" that keeps the wheels of business turning smoothly, was still much easier with those across the street than those across the country.
The came the Web
That all changed with the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, which ushered in the modern era of the ubiquitous Internet. Today, only a few years later, it's often much easier to have good person-to-person and business-to-business releationships with someone around the world than someone across the street. Easy, friendly relationships between busnesses and business people is no longer a major reason to locate a business in a an industrial megacity.
What the future holds
So what does the future hold? What does the business landscape look like?
According to the Michigan State study and other trend info, we're seeing and we'll continue to see a reversal of the trends of the early Industrial Revolution:
- The cities most favored by current trends are not the huge industrial centers, but smaller cities that are very networked -- they offer easy air travel to many destinations, they have the computing and data-network infrastructure to allow its business and residents to have fast, low-cost, ubiquitous connectivity to the rest of the world.
- These highly networked cities, businesses, and workers look outward for their relationships, easily building links with the rest of the world for even their most basic needs. This is the opposite of the earlier industrial mega-cities where they looked toward others in the same city for their needs, and pulled what they needed into the city.
- Many of the former industrial centers will steadily lose population, a trend already underway in former industrial power centers such as Detroit and Cleveland. Indeed, one of the challenges to the nation will be how to deal with the decline of such former industrial centers. These are often cities whose long reign as power centers have resulted in core institutions -- strong governments, strong unions, strong traditions that may date back centuries -- that make them slower to change than the Sun-belt cities to which the jobs have migrated.
Looking forward 20, 50, or 100 years from now -- a very risky thing to do, but worth considering -- these trends point to a world where the mega-cities dwindle in importance and population as well-connected smaller cities become distributed centers of inter-connected innovation and enterprise. At the same time, the networks that connect them -- physical transportation networks as well as digital communications networks -- will become ever more important. It's a relatively new vision that few foresaw even 50 years ago, but it's already happening and those will do best who anticipate it most.