What's New in Cities ... and What's Truly New

Some of the changes we are seeing just make the old more efficient. But some will have a much deeper impact, and governments that apply old ways of thinking to them will be making a big mistake.
by | October 16, 2013

Cities have been around for thousands of years, and most of their biggest issues are nearly as old: safety, sanitation, transportation, education, commercial development, regulation and so on. We think of new and better ways of doing things, but for the most part we are, as technology critics so often put it, "paving the cow paths." That is, we are merely making the old more efficient.

Every now and then, though, something truly new comes along. And if we apply old ways of thinking to truly new issues, we are going to make a mess. For the past three years, I've been trying to see what's truly new in cities, and I've done it with some 19th-century technology: a filing system. Every time I run across a newspaper article, nonprofit report or academic study that describes something that seems new, I place it in the file. (I do it on my computer, but you could do it with paper if you're so inclined.)

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I decided recently to take a look at the file, starting with its first year, March 2011 to March 2012. (A little distance helps in spotting the new.) There were 77 items in the first year's file. The vast majority, 62, were the result of changes in technology, four were economic changes and 11 reflected some new way of thinking or living.

It didn't surprise me that technology took up more than 80 percent of the new. We've long known that technology is a major driver of change. And, sure enough, some were of the "paving the cow paths" variety -- the rise of public-safety cameras, apps that help people report service problems, the growth of electronic tolling. If you're not a toll-taker, these aren't technologies that will radically change your life. They just make old systems work better.

But some of the technological changes in the file will have a much deeper impact. There are apps, for instance, that make it easy for small groups to map every public asset in a neighborhood, dramatically shifting accountability. There is a whole new category of "sharing" activities made possible by smartphones, from bike sharing and car sharing to apartment sharing and even parking-space sharing. And then there are e-books.

The biggest mistake governments make is when they think of these things as business as usual. E-books are not just paper books in a new form. They will dramatically change the nature of libraries. And the "sharing" technologies will demand that local governments think in new ways about transportation and regulation.

But maybe the most intriguing items in my file were changes in beliefs, practices and lifestyles. One was the rapid rise in people living alone in cities (that is, with no spouse or roommate). Is this just a very small family, or will solo living cause new demands on cities? I'd bet on the latter. One prediction: It will fuel the demand for safe public spaces.

There were others: Philanthropy's rise in urban leadership, as well as new understandings about childhood development that may take us far beyond pre-K programs, back to the first two years of life. And, of course, there were the food trucks.

Worth repeating: Some of these new technologies and changes in lifestyle and belief will require governments to think anew. If you try to regulate food trucks as bricks-and-mortar restaurants, you'll soon be in tears. It won't work. You have to treat food trucks as a whole new category.

You won't do that, though, if you haven't developed the habit of seeing what's new. I recommend a file. Just toss in everything that seems new to you and, after some time has elapsed, go through it and ask: Is this truly new, or is it just more asphalt on the cow path? If it's truly new, then ask: How do we think about this new thing?

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