The Vision

Human Cities and Cyber Cities

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2014


Humans will continue to live in cities. They will, in fact, migrate to the bigger, more popular cities so there will be fewer mid-size and small town-size human clusters.

But mid-size and small towns will not disappear. Instead they will be inhabited by cyber creations who benefit from being close to the factories where manufacturing and service work are done. A town next to an iron mine is an example. This town will have close to zero human inhabitants, but many creations that support work in the nearby mine.

These two styles of cities are going to function very differently, and that is what this essay is about.

Human-style cities

Humans have been urbanizing a lot more since the Industrial Revolution made dense-pack humans possible starting in the 1770's. In the last century the pace has accelerated, and this acceleration will continue. In 2005 the world became fifty percent urban and by 2050 it will be ninety percent urban.

There is another trend happening as well. People clustering into just a few cities, creating very large urban metropolises. (This is similar to the Top 40 Jobs phenomenon I talk about in another essay.) These metropolises will be a mix of gentrified urban living mostly in high-rises in the core, with a mix of different-rises suburban clusters surrounding it. These big metropolises will be supplemented with distant vacation complexes. These will be places like Aspen, Hilton Head and Disney World are in the 2010's. These will provide vacation locations for the metropolis residents, and permanent homes for the more recreation-oriented.

What will not thrive are places that humans have given up on. The most spectacular examples in the 2010's are the inner cities of the Midwest and California -- with Detroit and Stockton topping these two lists. These, and many more lower-profile small towns and cities, will lose people. Some will vanish, but many will remain on the map as cyber cities.

The human cities will be mostly about supporting human cultures in various forms. There will be lots of variety as one moves between neighborhoods. And example of this variety is difference in cultures between the various neighborhoods in New York City in the 2010's. This variety means lots of Us versus Them style thinking will be supported, and "Hobbiton"-style building of road networks will be aspired to in the construction of surrounding suburbs. Hobbiton-style means the roads will dodge around structures that are considered culturally important, include lots of cul-de-sacs, lots of walkability, and many historic districts will be established. All-in-all, it is a style that will be fun to walk and bike around, but be killer on getting things done quickly and efficiently when cars and trucks are involved. Delivery drones may make up for some of the inefficiency.

Cyber-style cities

In contrast to human cities, cyber-dominated cities are going to be no-nonsense. They will be organized and reorganized constantly to bring maximum productivity to the cyber endeavors that are being conducted in them. This means street layouts will be logical when viewed from the cost-benefit perspective, and can be dramatically changed as needed. The likely result is a basic Euclidean grid system with a few tweaks where important structures such as ports and airports need them. The traffic on the streets will move swiftly and efficiently.

Likewise, the buildings will be no-nonsense, and they can be built, modified and torn down quickly as demand changes. Compared to human cities the cyber cities are going to be kaleidoscopes of change, but they will have very little ornamentation -- even with all this change going on, they will look deadly monotonous to human eyes.

Cyber will dominate the farmlands as well. The big fields and orchards will be farmed by cyber, controlling cyber equipment. The human farmers will be dilettantes who are farming to create luxury foods and fiber. Their farms will be small, and few in number and productivity compared to cyber establishments. Most will be urban or suburban, some will be in places with mystic powers such as Mt. Shasta.

How much Globalization?

One thing that isn't certain when cyber rules manufacturing and service is how important intricate globe-spanning supply chains will be. These exist today because there are dramatic differences in the cost of production across the regions of the world. These differences exist because of differences in raw material access, infrastructures, cultures and political boundaries.

In 2050 the cultures will make little difference because cyber will be more homogeneous and humans are no longer much involved. Cyber cities can quickly reorganize so infrastructure differences should not be important. Political boundaries will remain, but what they affect will change. Political boundaries are a human artifice. Cyber won't see any use in them. If people are less interested in and less aware of the nitty-gritty of making and servicing things, political boundaries will affect these processes less and less. This leaves resource availability differences as the one remaining dramatic difference.

So, in the cyber-dominated world, can much more be crafted and serviced near the end use point, or the critical resource supply point. Will supply chains get much simpler?

Further Reading

This 13 Dec 14 Economist article, A troubling trajectory Fears are growing that trade’s share of the world’s GDP has peaked. But that is far from certain, wonders if we have hit "Peak Trade"?

From the article, "The rapid spread and subsequent slight retreat of such far-flung supply chains provides one possible explanation to a puzzle that is troubling policymakers: why international trade has been growing no faster than global GDP in the past few years. In the two decades up to the financial crisis, cross-border trade in goods and services grew at a sizzling 7% a year on average, much faster than global GDP. But although trade bounced back fast from its post-crisis plunge, rising by 6.9% in 2011, it has been decidedly sluggish since, growing by only 2.8% in 2012 and 3.2% in 2013 in dollar terms, even as global GDP grew by 3.1% and 3.2%. When measured in terms of volume, trade is still growing faster than the world economy, but by a decreasing margin (see chart). Having soared from 40% of the world’s GDP in 1990 to a peak of 61% in 2011, trade has fallen back slightly to 60%, the same level as in 2008.

As a result, the notion of “peak trade” is being taken increasingly seriously. Cristina Constantinescu and Michele Ruta of the International Monetary Fund and Aaditya Mattoo of the World Bank argue that the slowdown in trade relative to GDP reflects the end of a rapid evolution of supply chains that yielded big gains in productivity."

--The End--