In 1780 97% of the US population worked on some aspect of agriculture. Today only 3% of the US population works in the agriculture. In large part this is because of productivity improvements in agriculture, but it also reflects enormous changes in the last 230 years in what people can get paid for doing and what they in turn will pay money for.
The movement away from agriculture and towards increased urban living began with industrialization and the need for workers with a basic education to operate the new machines in the mills and factories. As industrialization became more developed, new demand appeared for highly skilled workers such as mechanics, technicians, engineers, designers, and researchers. US agricultural employment declined to 50% by 1870.
In parallel with the evolution of work, came the evolution of consumer products. The price of food declined with increasing productivity in agriculture and wages for the new, higher skills rose, creating new disposable income. In 1780 it would have been astonishing to find a clock in the home of a farm labourer or even in the home of a factory worker in 1820. Not only were clocks fragile, expensive objects, but such workers had no great need to know the time with greater precision than the local church clock or the neighbourhood factory klaxon. Yet by the end of the 19th century, clock and watch making were major industries, including here in Brooklyn. Emerging techniques of mass production and Taylorism made cheap, reasonably accurate clocks affordable and urban living created a greater need for accurate knowledge of the time – for catching a train or a bus to work or, increasingly, for getting to entertainment on time. And so began the enormous expansion of the consumer economy in the 20th century.
In the last 10-15 years we have seen another remarkable evolution of this model: a marketplace for information. Many new technical and creative jobs have emerged since 1995 in the development, publication, distribution, aggregation, and analysis of information about goods, services, and opinions on the Internet and the Web. In the last 10 years we have seen an explosion of information on the Web about people and this is now a fertile area for services to analyse and deduce insights about individuals and collections of people and to re-use this information to help these people satisfy their thirsts for even more information. The monster feeds on itself.
I sometimes show students the information that existed about me when I was their age: a paper birth certificate, a paper drivers licence, a paper bank book, and a paper passbook. That – together with my educational record – was the sum total of what the world knew about Colin Harrison in 1965 and hardly anyone was aware of it. Total, no self-respecting student would have less than some tens of Megabytes on the Web and many will have many time more…..and hundreds of millions of people are willing to pay to see it. Who would have thought?
So the generations now entering the workforce – Gen Y and Gen Z – bring a very different perspective on the world to my generation. These people were “born on the Web” and have never known a world that was not rich, incredibly rich, with information. This will have big repercussions for cities.
From economists like Richard Florida and Ed Glaiser, we learn that this generation is seeking out dense urban environments for living and working. The virtual world of the Web strengthens their need for physical proximity, whereas in 1997 we feared that it would cause cities to disappear and be replaced by a global village.
In Dublin two weeks ago I learned that German car manufacturers are worried because these generations have a low level of interest in cars. Cars were important to my generation because they offered us mobility in our low-density environments and because they were one of the leading technologies of those days. But in a high-density environment, cars are inefficient, leading to congestion and the endless search for a parking place. So with a return to high-density living comes a return to walking and to public transportation.
These generations have another challenging expectation: No paper. When did they last write a letter? When did you last even see one of them holding a pen? No, their interface to the non-immediate world is digital and that extends to government services. Replace forms with Web sites, replace tickets with RFID, replace going to the service office of a particular agency with an integrated view of all public services.
But this is transactional. What about content? How does content flow between the citizen and the city? Does the city want to hear from its citizens? Does it know what to do with this information? Can it demonstrate that it has paid attention and responded? How does the city want to express itself to its citizens in real-time – informing them about how things are going, providing the material for analysis and insight development on the best combination of bus, train and walking to get home tonight or the safest way to walk to school tomorrow morning?
This is how the city becomes smart. By integrating itself into the bit streams of its younger citizens and the new enterprises they are developing. By breaking down the fortress wall between how and how well the city is providing services, so that these coming generations can live as Internet natives.
Some cities can do this and others will not. New York City is trying very hard, witness the forthcoming Big Apps competition, sponsored by Mayor Bloomberg. Now cities will compete on the Apps that people use to run their lives. Systems Science tells us that as cities grow in population innovation rises, wages rise, energy consumption per capita declines, and people walk more quickly. But history tells us that growth does not continue for ever. At some point the model collapses, witness New York in 1974 with the collapse of the garment industry, Detroit in 2008 with the collapse of the car industry. The city will survive if it can re-invent itself. Today New York is trying to re-invent itself to become less dependent on the declining financial service industries and to develop a new high-tech economy.
So I have a confident prediction: the future will be different from today. New forms of employment will emerge, new forms of goods and services will emerge. Our lives will be different. I come back to a saying of a retired senior Vice President of Technology at IBM, Nick Donofrio, the son of an immigrant Italian family. When Nick would complain about the world, his father would tell him: “If nothing changes, nothing changes. If nothing changes, nothing changes.” If we want the world to be better in some way, it will also be different.
Society invents technologies. And then technologies re-invent society.