Cities, Swarms, Cell Phones: The Birth of Urban Informatics
By Howard Rheingold, Fri Sep 12 08:30:00 GMT 2003

I've wondered about the ways mobile phones might be changing cities ever since I noticed people on the streets of Tokyo and Helsinki (but not New York or San Francisco) looking at their telephones instead of listening to them. When I looked for people who could help me understand the effects cyberurban subcultures on city life, it didn't take long to Google my way to Anthony Townsend, urban informatician and wireless activist.


Between his scholarly publications and the press stories about his wireless community organizing activities, Townsend has situated himself in one of the most crucial social crossroads of the coming era the co-evolution of cities and personal media. In his role as professor of urban planning at NYU, 29-year old Townsend asks whether the use of personal mobile media is reshaping today's cities as profoundly as automobiles, elevators, and wireline telephones shaped the twentieth century metropolis. As co-founder of NYC Wireless, "a grassroots movement to take control of the airwaves in New York City for the purpose of providing distributed, free, always-on mobile Internet..." professor Townsend also actively foments the technosocial revolution he studies.

"Buildings and transportation systems are planned," Townsend contends, "but changes that grow from the use of communication devices emerge." Unlike the centrally designed urban changes ushered in by skyscrapers and subways, the social trends that appear spontaneously when a million people use their mobile phones, PDAs, and wireless laptops are less predictable and happen more quickly. For this reason, Townsend thinks cities could begin to change "far faster than the ability to understand them from a centralized perspective."

Steven Johnson, in his book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, explained how emergent behavior shapes cities: "There are manifest purposes to a city - reasons for being that its citizens are usually aware of: they come for the protection of the walled city, or the open trade of the marketplace. But cities have a latent purpose as well: to function as information storage and retrieval devices... Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots. Cobblers gather near other cobblers, and button makers near other button makers. Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination, ensuring that good ideas don't die out in rural isolation... cities, like ant colonies, possess a kind of emergent intelligence: an ability to store and retrieve information, to recognize and respond to patterns in human behavior. We contribute to that emergent intelligence, but it is almost impossible for us to perceive that contribution, because our lives unfold on the wrong scale."

The mobile telephone, untethered from the home and office, has provoked important changes in the way people use their time in the city or en route to it, says Townsend: "The time-management capabilities of mobile telephones make it possible for each person to fit in more appointments and schedule appointments more fluidly. At the same time, people fill up formerly unscheduled portions of their time with work-related communication while riding on the train or driving a car. That means people are fitting more tasks into the same day." Townsend recalled that urban planners assume that "people devote about an hour each day on average, to travel to and from work."

Two hundred years ago, that meant most urban workers had to live within a half-hour's walk or horseback ride of the city center. The railroad and automobile made it possible to extend the distance covered in an hour, making suburbs and sprawl possible. "While urban planners continue to assume commuting time is non-productive, mobile telephones, voice-mail, text messaging have changed the basis of that assumption."

As a result of the extra telephone-enabled work accomplished while commuting or moving from place to place within a city, Townsend believes the pace of urban life is quickening. "As every person completes more tasks, communicates with more people, coordinates activities among more social networks in the same amount of time, the aggregate effect is an acceleration of the urban metabolism." If Townsend is right, today's New York minute will seem too leisurely for tomorrow's crowds of hypercoordinated and autoscheduled city-dwellers. One key challenge to civic leaders and urban planners is to create more public spaces that attract transient communities of wireless urban nomads who serve as creativity and conviviality magnets, attracting vitality to the social heart of the city.

In Townsend's view, the effects of this metabolic speedup are complex and sometimes contradictory: "Mobile communications technologies reinforce the competitive advantage of central city business districts by making them more efficient, yet at the same time make automobile-based urban sprawl manageable and livable." People get more done in the city core. At the same time that the urban core is heating up and attracting the young, fast-moving, youth thumb-tribes and unwired mobile knowledge workers, it becomes possible to extend sprawl even further. People will be doing email via speech-to-text/text-to-speech intermediaries while crawling through traffic from their suburban homes. "Just as the telegraph and the railroad were symbiotic partners in creating cities of previous centuries, the automobile and the mobile telephone are partnering to create cities of the twenty first century."