[ExI] Are Cities Dead? (was Re: moving bits, not butts)

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Wed Mar 2 10:54:12 UTC 2011

Kelly Anderson wrote:
> If telepresence becomes good enough, and convincing enough, does that
> obviate the need for large cities? Are there other justifications for
> large cities?

I doubt it. There are economies of scale to cities that are pretty 
amazing. Geoffrey West's papers show that not only are they efficient in 
terms of infrastructure (you need less infrastructure per person if they 
live close together), but their economic productivity and patents 
increases per capita as they get bigger.

Cities are also memes. Venice has been completely pointless 
politically/economically since Napoleon defeated it, yet everybody are 
spending lots of money to maintain and save it, while tourists come to 
see it in its decadent glory. Cluster effects make companies of a 
business sector to group together, creating Silicon Valley, Hollywood or 
City of London - there is no strong reason for them to be concentrated 
just there, it is just a historical accident, but now it shapes business 
decisions. Oxford started as a cluster of monasteries doing a bit of 
education on the side and then turned into an education cluster and 
eventually a self-supporting system (going to Oxford is good for your 
career, so a lot of bright and/or rich students apply, really good 
teachers and researchers want to come, and this results in plenty of 
good and rich alumni supporting the system).

More importantly, cities allow people to meet. This is the key point of 
Richard Florida's explanation of why some cities like Austin and SF are 
creative and booming. They attract the right kind of people who mingle, 
find unexpected new ideas or collaborations, and this is productive. One 
reason I live in Oxford these days is that I bump into interesting, 
smart and useful people all day, while in my native Stockholm the kind 
of people I would like to meet are very diluted.

In my RPG book "Cities of the Edge" I actually use these arguments to 
argue against the main setting claim that telepresence will dissolve 
cities into small towns. If it actually were to happen it would be bad 
news environmentally (think sprawl is bad now? plus, low efficiency) and 
perhaps socially (you would just meet people like you all day). 
Telecommuting is not going to threaten cities since it is more likely to 
improve them. Reducing needless commuting makes traffic better, allowing 
people to use the cities on their spare time.

Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute 
James Martin 21st Century School 
Philosophy Faculty 
Oxford University 

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