The Challenge of the Digital City


The people we associate with don't necessarily live right next to us. This is more common than ever before, as social media and other communication technologies allow us to stay connected with people across the globe. But as our urban social networks – the ones that define our lives in cities – continue to transcend traditional geographic boundaries, we must strike a balance along this line.

Ultimately this is not about choosing one way or another. We should contribute to the growing digital infrastructure while also staying in touch with society’s innate emotional fabric. The task is not simple, but in order to properly adapt to this modern urban form, it’s up to city leaders, business managers, and the rest of the working class to understand today’s spatial, social, and emotional city contexts.

A Digital Urban Fabric

People from the same city may attend different schools, travel to different often far-off vacation spots, or go to various international business conferences. Knowledge is gained, experiences take place, and relationships are developed across the world that are all brought back to home-cities.

When we experience these institutions and destinations, we typically experience them with others who share similar interests, socio-economic statuses, or career plans. And with social media we can maintain and navigate this social relationship however closely we'd like.

Just recently researchers from MIT published a paper that outlined this idea: that social distance is a greater determinate of city networks than geographic distance. Cities have traditionally been analyzed at the national scale, with social data and activity being compared to other cities around the country. But now the urban environment is being explored at a deeper level, and we're beginning to understand how people form sub-communities within their cities. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Associate Professor Marta González, co-author of the paper explains:

"We found that geography plays only a minor role when forming social networking communities within cities. Unlike the country [as a whole], cities have more dispersed communities.”

The implications of this work is that by understanding how social networks are developed, and how connections are maintained, policy makers can make better informed decisions when working with different social groups. Leaders can examine social data to understand how epidemics are spread, and how new innovations should be applied in cities. Gonzalez even predicts new, progressive uses for social media:

"We are envisioning social media apps for social good - in this case, sustainable adoptions in the city."

These new insights are reaffirming that the way we experience our cities is being affected by our digital connections. The urban network is evolving. Cities are traversing geographic boundaries, and people are networking with those that share common interests, passions, and goals, rather than with their geographic neighbors. Our country is a compilation of different cultures, all of which are found in different geographic locations. Is it not appropriate to say that our cities are sharing these same diverse characteristics?

Maintaining Earthly Ties

This abstract conception of urban life is important to grasp for both scientific and personal reasons, but as we speed along this path of digital connections, physical interaction will play an especially important role in preserving civic relations.

Information from the General Social Survey tells us that neighborly relations have declined significantly since the 1970s, a trend which hampers community planning efforts as well as crime prevention. In fact, a third of Americans have never interacted with their neighbors and neighborhood relations represent less than a quarter of all social ties. A 2010 PEW study also shows that 28% of us know none of our neighbors' names, with young people at the forefront of this somewhat depressing reality. That is, while about 50% of Baby Boomers know all or most of their neighbors, the same is true for only 27% percent of millennials.

The reason for this? Internet use alone has not been directly linked to neighborhood decline, but those who use social networking services are 30% less likely to know their neighbors. Researchers from the University of Toronto conducted an ethnographic study of Canada’s “wired” city, Netville. The authors’ findings complement the MIT study on social distance:

“people are much more likely to associate with those that are more like themselves in terms of lifestyle, stage in the lifecycle, beliefs, and participation in common activities, than what can be easily found through physical proximity.”

Rather than favor one side or the other, new social apps are trying to find that balance between digital and face-to-face interactions, using social media to enhance the physical neighborhood experience. Nextdoor is a Facebook-like app that lets neighbors add each other as friends and discuss community issues. RipeNearMe is also encouraging neighborly exchanges by allowing people to sell left over produce that grows on their lawns. Our cities are so diverse, and people are associating with others based on social proximity, but new technologies like these are fostering friendly engagement and constructive community dialogue throughout both digital and physical networks.

In terms of business, telecommuting has been on the rise- a prime example of business’s growing digital infrastructure. Remote employees maintain corporate ties through the Internet and e-mail, and creative types can access a global platform for artistic demonstration.

Such digital connections let workers create flexible schedules, decrease or eliminate commute times, and strive for a greater work-life balance. The benefits are far and wide, but the downside to what can result in worker isolation can be longer, distracted work hours and stifled creativity. Working at the office can boost creativity and enhance our social network, and even Yahoo and Reddit have gone so far as to shut down telecommuting in efforts to promote physical connectivity.

There are two sides to this personal interaction coin. Both face-to-face communication and telecommuting have their positives, and we should be looking to cater to them both, as each works better for different people. Community hubs such as Wi-Fi connected cafés and retail centers give workers a space to interact with others, stay close to home, and be productive. Rather than shun the workplace or ban telecommuting altogether, a better approach involves investing our energies in local amenities that integrate physical and digital experiences, amenities that are demanded by today’s modern worker.

Living in a Digital City

Meanwhile, cities around the globe are experiencing a cultural homogenization in part as a result of digital advancements. There will always be those nuances that distinguish cities from each other – food, arts, architecture, language, and even politics – but these urban intricacies are getting harder to seek out as corporate chains increasingly dominate local economies and online mega-stores lure shoppers off the streets and into digital shopping malls.

Design, music, culinary and fashion trends are also a function of digital proliferation. The artistic eye in a New York gallery is subject to some of the same inspirations as that in a Parisian loft thanks to YouTube, Tumblr, and Internet libraries. Such a cultural proliferation surely comes with its benefits (creative inspiration, a larger consumer base, and greater cultural access), but the disintegration of local ties has its troubling side effects. Today with online media we have easy access to a greater variety of cultures, but we must consider the cultural dilution that results from globalization. And while we engage with far-off societies whether through business, social, or artistic relations, we sometimes ignore the creative production, or potential, in our own backyards.

There has been some blowback from these trends, as hipsters take up organic, local, and sustainable causes. But even these habits only feed back into the global cloud. Cities thousands of miles away from each other are finding their streets filled and dominated by similar environmental, political, and artistic ideologies. In order to prevent the local from being dictated by the global, or the national for that matter, we should focus our efforts on cultivating the relationships, as well as creative and economic potential at the local level, using progressive technologies and social urban spaces.

Tying together the Digital and the Physical

Cities are now part of a growing, global system and are becoming subject to the same determining factors. But the social ties that are coming to define this urban network are not one-dimensional. They’re also constructed from friendship, love, and the human desire to be with others. They make up our own mental infrastructure- shaping our perceptions of others and everyday experiences. But as these networks are transitioning into the digital realm we need to remember that the physicality of these networks are just as important for our own well-being. 

Public spaces are crucial for fostering this traditional interaction. Parks, shopping districts, co-working spaces, open-universities can serve as social hubs- places where people of different social spheres can come together in a real-life setting. With good design and proper maintenance we can ensure that these spaces offer us a meeting area to explore and strengthen our digital ties at an even greater level.

So while social networks might at times defy geography, they are enhanced and more thoroughly explored when they materialize in 'real-life'. The cities we live in today are not even close to being entirely digital, but they aren't completely physical either. We spend hours online, communicating through airwaves and searching through the 'cloud', but we still act out our daily lives with every muscle in our body. But how can we properly integrate these two dimensions, so that we can lead socially connected, and meaningful lives?

Lying somewhere between the digital and the physical is a potential substrata, which is neither completely digital or physical, conceptual or concrete, yet it ties us all together. We can think of it as a shared human essence, a collective understanding of what it means to be alive, and what it means to be with others. So no matter which physical city we're in or culture we're experiencing, it's from this thread that all of social life stems. It's from this strand that we can explore and derive true meaning behind our actions.

We call this a digital city not just because we're all connected in this new technological age, but because we're intertwined amongst a new social fabric: a modern social system that is both digital and physical, global yet local. This substrata manifests throughout our digital social networks as well as the built urban infrastructure, but the governing body of this modern urban experience remains out of sight- embedded in the depths of our own emotions. 

As we navigate city streets, we'll need to keep our minds open. To be independent citizens, free to explore at our own will and pursue our passions, we'll need to uncover the governing laws - whether we interpret them scientifically, or spiritually - and be critically aware of the people and events that may appear as opportunities or threats.

Highly conceptual, yet surprisingly relevant, this city we all inhabit is an exciting place to learn, play, consume, and create. We can either choose to remain aloof in the digital, or keep stagnant in the physical. Or we can consciously settle on a new frontier that combines digital possibilities with a keen focus on physical space.

Charlie Stephens is a researcher at the Chapman University Center for Demographics and Policy, and an MBA candidate at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. He is also a regular contributor to the creative business site and the founder of, a social awareness site that helps people, businesses, and communities understand their cultural environments and connect in new grounds.