Chances are better than even that as you read this, you count yourself among the world's fast-growing urban majority. Since early 2009, according to UN demographers, more than 50 percent of the world's population lives in cities. By mid-century, more than 70 percent will. With this migration into the pulsing metropolis comes an acceleration of the pace of life. It's what makes cities so productive, creative and vibrant. But these changes are taking a heavy toll on our psyche. As we layer the cacophony of an ever-increasing torrent of digital information and communications atop this urban tumult, our anxiety quickly mounts.
Our networked digital devices rightly take much of the blame for this looming crisis. They have enabled a steady stream of alerts, distractions and poorly planned interruptions in our awareness of the people, places and things around us. Yet for most of us, this constant drumbeat of communiques is a dispensable burden.
As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes in his book, The Distraction Addiction, ”Unless you're a reporter, currency speculator, or emergency-department doctor, you'll discover that your world doesn't fall into chaos when you go offline. An amazing amount of e-mail is either fluff or stuff that can wait; we just assume that all messages are urgent.”
A Lifeline In a Connected World
But your smart personal device is about more than communications, it is more than just a wireless telephone—it is, in fact, a digital Swiss Army knife. And knowing how to use that tool effectively is the key to surviving and thriving in a predominantly urban world.
The computational intelligence we’ve deployed to our pockets is a mirror image of the smart technologies being designed and implemented into cities to manage large infrastructure networks. As humanity flocks to cities, the world’s population is also growing wealthier, and demanding more choice and better services in transportation, health care and private consumption. (Pork production in China, for instance, has quadrupled during that nation’s three-decades long urban boom.) The consensus of industry analysts is that 1 to 3 percent of global infrastructure spending over the next decade—more than $100 billion—will go into the embedded chips, cables, antennas and software that control the dumb stuff of concrete, glass, steel and asphalt that makes up our cities. More intelligent operations enabled by these systems will make it possible for designers, urban planners, and government officials to manage the roads, deliver electrical power, and ensure safe and abundant supplies of food and water for cities of unprecedented size—tens of millions of people or more.
But smart cities can’t do it all on their own; behind the scenes—they also need smart citizens. And rather than being a new channel for information overload, the smartphone in your pocket can be a powerful tool for simplifying the stupefying complexity of modern urban life, finding the information we need to choreograph our lives—scattered as they are across an archipelago of places and activities each day.
To get a sense of what I mean, imagine the rest of your day without your smartphone. If you really want to understand deeply, lock your phone in a desk drawer and don’t take it out until tomorrow. You'll quickly see that the information your phone delivers to you isn't just distracting you, it is directing you and assisting you to accomplish the things you want to do. Your calendar reminds you where you need to be. The weather app tells you what to wear outside. Maps guide you to your destination. What are your friends and loved ones doing? Are they okay? Texts, e-mails, and calls keep you in the loop, on time, and on track. Leave your phone behind, and you're left out of life.
The Inside Track To Urban Connectivity
Smart personal devices don't just connect us to our immediate surroundings and our social networks. They allow us to see and interact with urban infrastructure networks of mind-boggling complexity in real-time. These devices are both a new lens on the dynamic life of the city around us—directing us to attractions, people and constantly changing events around us—but also remote controls we can use to activate the world at a distance—hail a taxi, direct a colleague, rendezvous with a friend, or summon a food delivery.
We can see this most clearly in the way smart mobile devices are transforming the way we deal with transportation networks, where new services are fundamentally re-programming urban mobility.
At New York University, where I teach, we have installed a subway clock in a student lounge. Based on real-time data provided openly online by the transit agency and our own measurements of average walking time to the platform, students can work up to the last second before dashing off to meet the arriving train.
I recently found myself trying to escape from midtown Manhattan on a steaming summer day. I swipe to open my phone and consider my options—search for available public bikes at nearby docking stations through the CitiBike app, e-hail a black car with Uber, or see the location of the nearest shuttle bus to the ferry terminal (mapped in real time on the ferry company’s app)? I chose the bike, and a few minutes later buy my ferry ticket while stopped at a red light.
None of this is rocket science, but what’s clear is that the phone has become the long-sought point of convergence for different modes of transportation whose integration has confounded transportation planners for over a century. And this is only the beginning of the smartphone’s potential to make our cities and us smarter, happier and healthier.