The app of life

Image of Simon Kuper

I am a late adopter of new technology, so I only recently discovered that an age-old urban problem had been solved. I was in a restaurant with friends. Outside it was cold, and on Sundays the bus ran only every 20 minutes. When to go to the bus stop? My friend pulled out his smartphone, and told me when my bus would arrive. It was a little trick – like finding another friend’s house on my smartphone’s GPS with three tired children in tow – but it made urban living easier. Thanks largely to smartphones, this is probably the best time ever to live in a packed city.

As my economics guru Stefan Szymanski explains, when the internet arrived many pundits predicted the decline of cities. After all, why live in a flat in Hackney when you could send emails from an old farmhouse overlooking a sheep meadow? But the prediction was wrong. Overcrowded, overpriced cities only became more popular, which is why Hackney flats have got so expensive. Meanwhile the countryside has turned into something of a desert, inhabited by farmers and old people, and used by the rest of us chiefly for long walks. In 2008, for the first time ever, most humans lived in cities.

They are lured by social networks. To be rural is to be isolated. You live in a village or suburb to have space, not to meet people. But cities create contacts. Someone you run into at a party or your kids’ playground can give you a job or an idea. The perfect one-on-one urban encounter combines mating, education and business development over a cup of good coffee. Mathieu Lefevre, executive director of the New Cities Foundation, says: “In a dense city you have these two-minute chance encounters that make your life richer. You and I have nothing in common, but maybe we meet and start Facebook together.”

For two centuries, technologies damaged cities. Factories brought dirt and noise. Then cars added sprawl: Los Angeles creates fewer encounters than dense Manhattan. Even in the 1990s, the desktop computer swallowed valuable space, and chained each person to his own desk. Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says 20th-century technologies were no use to a dense city such as Venice.

But the internet was perfect for cities. It created new networks that reinforced older urban networks. Patrik Regardh, head of strategic marketing for the mobile-phone operator Ericsson, says urbanites email, phone and use social networks more than people outside cities. After all, they have more contacts, and so they communicate more. In Stockholm, for instance, women use Facebook to team up for safe jogging tours at night.

When laptops arrived, urbanites could use the new networks anywhere – but they often still needed a coffee shop to get online. Starbucks rose thanks to the laptop computer. Now, though, people carry their networks around in a 10-sq-in device. This is transforming city life in countless ways: everything from finding a date to finding a bus in an instant. Greg Clark, the UK’s minister for cities, says the London bus finder app “actually makes the transport system hugely more effective”. Now we just need a good app to find parking spots. Clark sighs: “A lot of congestion comes literally from people driving around looking for a parking space.”

In short, smartphones are helping make the densest cities the best places to live, as witnessed by property prices in Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London. By contrast, sprawling cities that rely heavily on cars – Moscow, Istanbul, Beijing – are becoming dysfunctional as roads clog up. I recently took three hours on a Saturday afternoon to reach a Moscow airport. If you live like that, your networks shrivel because you stop meeting people.

The technological revolution in cities has barely begun. Indian slum-dwellers without electricity will soon use solar-powered phones to find cheap healthcare nearby, says Parag Khanna, who, with his wife Ayesha, just published Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization. (I met all these people at the New Cities Summit in Paris, a conference being another excellent social network.)

The next step is urbanites using technology to help run their cities. Dublin has thrown open its data on everything from water use to transport, hoping that software developers will create apps to improve life. We’re starting to see almost an “open-source design” of cities, says Ratti.

Elisée Reclus, a 19th-century thinker, said the ideal city would combine rural pleasures with urban pleasures. Ratti says, “And I think that has happened.” In post-industrial London, the war on cars has made the air and the river cleaner. In cities everywhere, tiny or invisible technologies are replacing big old industrial technologies. That has created space for bicycles, new parks, piers and summertime beaches, all packed with people on smartphones. Steve Jobs was a lifelong suburbanite, but it turns out he perfected the city.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.