Virtualisation is bringing us back together


(Image by Chris Drumm)

Back in 1953, Isaac Asimov’s “The Caves of Steel” was published, depicting a world of avatars, virtual collaboration and video-conferencing. It took the real world half a century to catch up with him. Asimov was a smart guy.

But he got one thing wrong. Asimov predicted that reliance on these forms of communication would make us terrified of meeting each other in person. Instead, research has shown that social media is often used to identify new and interesting people to meet in real life (see this article from the American Public Broadcasting Service, for example). In fact, this is exactly how I met my wife. More recently, I’ve enjoyed meeting @Sanfire_IA and @NewOptimists, amongst others, firstly on Twitter (go look them up), and then in real life. (In coffee shops, to be precise).

Tim Stonor and Dan Holowack have both written very interesting blog posts recently about the important role cities play in bringing people together, face-to-face, to create and share ideas. It’s the very lifeblood of the economy. (Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City” discusses this topic in great and fascinating length).

The technologies that connect us virtually have a very important role to play in that aspects of our cities. I’ve met recently with people in cities including Birmingham, London and Sunderland who are involved in stimulating innovation and entrepreneurial activity in city economies. They are all passionate about the value that is created when creative people with disparate skills are brought together.

But they were also unanimous in voicing a concern that it’s tremendously difficult to persuade such people to take time away from the businesses they’re spending 60, 80 or 100 hours a week starting and running to meet people they don’t know; on the off-chance that a valuable new business idea will somehow spring into existence.

All of us face that challenge to some degree today. With the explosive growth in the flow of information we’ve experienced over the last 20 years or so, competition for our time and attention is intense. Social media is a significant part of that explosion of course; but it’s also a significant part of the answer.

Within a few minutes, on Freecycle I can find people near me who need what I no longer want; on LandShare I can find people whose untended land can be used to grow food, and on StumbleUpon I can find moments of genius in every domain from places I’d never in a million years have thought to look, but which StumbleUpon’s fuzzy search engine has ensured are nevertheless relevant to me. And then I can get in touch, arrange to meet, and find out more.

(I have deliberately chosen some of these examples, by the way, for their relevance to the efficiency with which natural resources are used to support economic activity. The recent “People and the Planet” report written by an incredible array of international experts on behalf of the Royal Society should leave us in no doubt at all of the importance of that topic).

This morning, I’ll be attending Birmingham’s Social Media cafe following a discussion about innovation in Birmingham in a Linked-In group, to discuss ideas for social business with people who I haven’t met before, but who I will probably soon be following on Twitter. That’s a great example of the interplay between virtual and physical interactions that’s speeding up the process of collaborative innovation and value-creation in cities today.

But it doesn’t stop there. Digitisation and mass customisation are long-standing trends in manufacturing, but technologies such as 3D printing are going to transform custom-manufacturing in the same way that global-sourcing and production line automation relatively recently transformed commodity manufacturing. And as this brilliant article in The Economist argues, the result will probably be to bring manufacturing activity back to be more local to the consumers of the goods being manufactured.

I turned 40 recently; traditionally a landmark that brings a certain degree of questioning of one’s direction in life. I have no such questions. The family that I now have after meeting my wife through social media is the most important part of that; and the privilege of living through these incredibly exciting and transformational times is the icing on the cake. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go next.

About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Smart Places for Jacobs, the global engineering company. Previously, I was the UK, Middle East and Africa leader of the Digital Cities and Property business for Arup, Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK’s largest engineering and infrastructure services companies and part of the international Ferrovial Group, and before that IBM UK’s Executive Architect for Smarter Cities.

9 Responses to Virtualisation is bringing us back together

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  8. Couldn’t agree more. I have met several people abroad, after having met them on Twitter first. In each case it was amazing how well we got on, and indication that social media contacts are not in any way inferior to ‘real life’ encounters.


  9. Pingback: How to build a Smarter City: 23 design principles for digital urbanism | The Urban Technologist

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