In Tuesday’s New York Times, there was an article explaining “Why Big Cities Thrive, and Smaller Ones Are Being Left Behind” as the headline put it. The article was filled sad stories about small cities and small metro areas facing “dismal performance”. It was said that, in the face of a global technological revolution, these cities “may be too small to [adapt and to] survive.”
The accompanying graphic is a vivid demonstration of the point that the economic war is over and big cities have won – with their huge urban concentrations of people. And so, the author of the article ends it with advice that
“the future for the residents of small-city America looks dim. Perhaps the best policy would be to help them move to a big city nearby.”
There is no doubt that the graphic image is correct and that many small cities, towns and rural areas have suffered economically over the last couple of decades.
How could this have happened when the Internet and technology was supposed, instead, to “kill distance” and diminish the importance of big cities?
I have argued that we are not really in the Internet age, despite – or because – of all the chatting, social media and email. A virtual version of the kind of casual conversations and interactions that happen in cities is still missing. The way Internet technology is used today limits our interactions. But that situation won’t last forever as more people, including those outside of the big metro areas, finally do get and use ubiquitous, easy and transparent videoconferencing.
This reminds me of my experience with the impact of the web on newspapers. When the web was first becoming popular, I was with a company working on software that was intended in part to help newspapers make the transition to a digital world. Although we weren’t successful in getting most newspapers to respond to the challenge (and opportunity), I was witness to the online discussions of newspaper employees as they struggled with the web phenomenon.
Through most of the 1990s, they were mildly concerned about the threat. When the dot-com bubble burst during 2000, these folks reassured each other that this web thing was indeed a passing fad. Shortly after that widespread agreement that the predictions of the impact of technology were mistaken, newspapers starting to decline and shed staff.
Bill Gates has provided another way of looking at this:
“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”
A hint that there is more to the story could be found the same day in another New York Times article by their long-time technology reporter Steve Lohr. The story, “Start-Up Bets on Tech Talent Pipeline From Africa”, reported about a pool of tech talent in Lagos, Nairobi and Kampala. While Lagos and Nairobi are fairly large cities, none of these three cities is what people normally think about when talking about the metro areas that are the flagships of the global economy. They are not New York or London or San Francisco.
Yesterday (10/11/17) another NY Times story, “As ‘Unicorns’ Emerge, Utah Makes a Case for Tech Entrepreneurs”, appeared about the
“thriving technology hub in the roughly 80-mile swath from Provo to Ogden, with Salt Lake City in between. The region has given rise to at least five companies valued at more than $1 billion.”
Among those featured was Domo, an analytics company based in American Fork, Utah.
At ICF, we’ve seen a number of small cities and other non-metro areas that have flourished by taking advantage of the Internet and using broadband to connect their residents to anyone in the world.
While the wealth and advantages large metros have inherited from the industrial age are still being reflected in their role today, as we continue into this century, the intelligent use of technology to build thriving communities and quality of life will help cities of any size. So perhaps the obituary of small towns is not just premature, but misleading.
© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved