Social Media and the City

We’ve all heard the stat: more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities and towns. Wellington E. Webb, former mayor of Denver, is credited as saying “The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.” Urban areas are extremely important, for the allocation of resources (such as education and health care) and the creation of social and economic opportunity, among other things. As the UNFPA says: “The challenge for the next few decades is learning how to exploit the possibilities urbanization offers. The future of humanity depends on it.”

I believe that technology is vital for this challenge. It was technology that made the city possible, after all, by enabling and encouraging increased population densities. Urban settlements expose incredible network efficiencies because of this density, whether for trade, communication, or service delivery. It is these network efficiencies that, as strategy consultant and fellow Canadian Jeb Brugmann said, “make cities the world’s strategic centres of social innovation.”

Technology will be used in an endless number of ways to exploit the possibilities and to address the challenges of urbanization, but I think creating a sense of place will be key. Resilient cities, those that are sustainable, eco-efficient, and place-based, are one of the four possible outcomes for cities in a world of significant challenges like climate change, according to Dr. Peter Newman (PDF). Telling the story of a place is necessary for a city to become resilient, because creating a stronger sense of place increases the viability of the local economy and facilitates innovation. Social media is driving transparency in cities and is enabling citizens to tell the story of their place like never before.

One definition for social media comes from JD Lasica and Chris Heuer, and it goes like this: “Any online technology or practice that lets us share (content, opinions, insights, experiences, media) and have a conversation about the ideas we care about.” Put another way, you could say that social media tools and technologies are strengthening democracy.

Social media is becoming the best amplifier of a city that we’ve ever seen. True, social media makes it easy to spread the word beyond a single city and there’s definitely value in that, but it’s at the local level where social media truly shines, by taking the network efficiencies created by cities to the next level. Social media is helping to facilitate a new relationship between government and citizens, is enabling creatives inside cities to better connect with one another, and is empowering citizens like never before. In short, it improves a city’s social capital.

Natural capital is made up of the natural environment, such as the river valley here in Edmonton. On top of that we build infrastructure capital – roads, houses, buildings, lights, etc. Human capital and organizational capital refer to the individuals and organizations that use the natural and infrastructure capital to start and grow families, to build companies, and to otherwise create economic value. Social capital represents trust, social engagement, civic participation, reciprocity, and networks.

Social capital is critical for enabling innovation, making it possible to tackle tough problems. Within a city, social capital is vitally important because as Cameron Sinclair pointed out in his TED Wish, “all problems are local and all solutions are local.” Or as you’ve probably heard in the past, “think global, act local.” I think that applies quite broadly; for instance, to climate change. It’s a global problem, but it’s one that we need to approach locally. If we don’t succeed at reducing our impact on the environment at the local level, there’s no hope for solving the problem globally.

For these reasons, I’m extremely passionate about social media and the city. I’ve written a lot in the past about the impact social media is having on Edmonton and other cities, and I’ll continue to do so. Cities are increasingly important, and social media is making them stronger. I think that’s very exciting!

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Thanks to Ted Gartside for the Creative Commons-licensed globe photo of New York.