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."