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!

Related links worth clicking:

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

5 thoughts on “Social Media and the City

  1. Mack:

    A great reflection on the change that Social Media can deliver to a urban landscape. In 2006BT (Before Twitter), I was living from day to day within a much smaller group of friends and associates. It was very hard to break outside that group, and there wasn’t enough time to attend all of the Rotary clubs.

    Since then, my network has grown dramatically in real life, and the quality of the topics I discuss, things I care about and the people I have come to know has also improved dramatically.

    Thanks for being such a huge proponent of this technology, and particularly your efforts to make it as mainstream as it is wit our City administration and even council. Because of you, it’s easier for everyone to see the real value in it, and of course open-data.


  2. The fundamental importance of natural capital does not seem appropriately portrayed in the diagram. It is less about nested circles, and more about all forms of capital resting on natural capital (i.e., ecological goods and services)
    If we eat away at the natural capital, the other forms of capital (which depend on nature) will have nothing to rest on (like a layer cake).
    And the “top” should not be social media, but well-being and quality of life.
    I think the challenge may be to see how social media can assist in supporting the foundation layer (sustaining natural capital) and developing the top layer (developing quality of life).
    Check out the following diagram:

  3. Thanks Charlie and Chris!

    Thanks for the comment Pam. I think the diagram you linked to is really interesting, thanks for sharing! I meant to show with the diagram I did that all the layers were atop natural capital, but perhaps that’s not quite clear. I didn’t include well-being or anything like that, because I wanted to focus just on types of capital. Anyway, the challenge you have put forward is indeed a good one!

  4. I love the nest of capital you see in the city, especially Edmonton. There are wonderful interrelationships in there that make our cities what they are – by us and for us.

    Social media and our cities are certainly in a co-creative dance.

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