The United Kingdom recently attracted global headlines, not because of Brexit, but for their decision to appoint a “minister for loneliness.” The role is designed to address what Prime Minister Theresa May described as a “sad reality of modern life” – individuals’ growing sense of social isolation and the fracturing of community institutions that long played a vital role in strengthening the social fabric.
This phenomenon is especially acute in the world’s cities. Since the Industrial Revolution, poets, novelists, artists, researchers, and social critics have drawn our attention to the seeming paradox that those who live among the huddled masses are often the likeliest to feel lonely and disconnected. In 2019, this counterintuitive reality comes with a twist: Social media – long seen as a tool for reimagining and recreating community in the digital age – is correlated with greater loneliness among its most frequent users, who just so happen to be city dwellers.
“Urban loneliness poses one of the most pressing challenges for smart city planners as they seek to make urban locales not only more wired and efficient, but also more citizen-oriented.”
Technology often reinforces loneliness in the modern city, but it will nevertheless be an essential element of any serious plan to make the smart city a friendlier, more livable place. By designing cities that harness technologies that bridge the gap between virtual and real communities, smart city planners can combat loneliness and infuse cities with a new vibrancy.
Simply put, smart cities must be warm cities.
To envision how smart cities can forge stronger community ties, it’s crucial to understand the dynamics of urban loneliness and the role technology can play in exacerbating – or remedying – the problem.
Lonely in the Crowd
From Tokyo’s cuddle cafes to the rise of rent-a-friend services, social isolation in the modern city is so rampant that curing it has become a business offering. But while these experiences provide a temporary dopamine rush – one more fulfilling than from watching Instagram likes roll in – they’re not durable solutions to a deep-seated social problem.
A 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center illuminates the nature of the problem. While only 24 percent of city dwellers reported knowing all or most of their neighbors, that number rose to 40 percent among those living in rural areas – and the more neighbors one knows, the more likely one is to feel a strong sense of attachment to one’s community. Neighborliness is also closely linked to trust, the glue that holds strong communities together. While more than three-fifths of rural and suburban residents indicated that they had at least one neighbor they’d trust with a set of keys for emergencies, only 48 percent of urban residents said the same.
Urban loneliness strikes young and old alike, making inclusive design in smart cities imperative. Among adults younger than 50, the Pew survey found essentially no difference among urban, suburban, and rural residents in terms of their satisfaction with their social support networks. But among those older than 50, city dwellers were significantly less likely to report satisfaction with their support networks. When it comes to the youngest in society, a U.K. survey found that children in cities are about four times more lonely than their counterparts dwelling in the countryside, and studies in the U.S. have found that Generation Z is the loneliest generation.
From Virtual to Real Communities
Why does technology so often reinforce social isolation? Consider the 2004 documentary “Super Size Me,” which chronicles the physical and mental health woes triggered by director Morgan Spurlock’s 30-day diet of nothing but McDonald’s food.
Food is meant to nourish the body – but as Spurlock vividly demonstrated, too much of the wrong food comes with terrible consequences. Similarly, social media plays into humans’ natural, healthy, and necessary cravings for social connections. But if used to excess – and as a replacement for human contact – social media is nothing more than social junk food.
The huge chasm between the virtual and real worlds makes the problem worse. A scroll through Instagram or Facebook can inspire feelings of FOMO, social isolation, and downright envy, as individuals compare their imperfect lives to the carefully curated images conveyed by their online “friends.” Urbanites’ frequent use of social media and digital platforms reinforces the need to better bridge the virtual and real-life worlds in cities. It also suggests that digital tools that encourage public participation and social connections have a better chance of being adopted in urban places.
How can smart cities help?
Diehard technology skeptics may argue that there’s no social revival without drastically reducing the role tech plays in our day-to-day lives. But through platforms for meaningful social interaction, technology can be a positive force, particularly when platforms connect people with common interests. The University of Melbourne’s Tanzil Shafique highlights the app Puppy Society, which connects pets in a shared facility with multiple owners who can meet with the dogs and get to know one another. Rather than encouraging users to remain in the virtual world, the app is a conveyor from the virtual to the real world.
Public spaces meant to facilitate social interaction – whether they’re community gardens or commuter waiting areas – are part of the answer. The growing popularity of co-living attests to individuals’ appetite for urban living arrangements that spur people to meet, cooperate, and socialize with their neighbors, thereby deepening community ties. An app that connects residents to all the spaces in their neighborhood will increase their ability to make social connections. Vibrant, user-friendly mobility ecosystems, which support a variety of public and private options for traveling from A to B, can also encourage citizens to get out and visit friends and neighbors.
Achieving smart cities where loneliness gives way to sociability and warmth is core to the mission of venn, the company I co-founded. We’re revitalizing urban neighborhoods not only by building and managing community-centered spaces, but also by working with local entrepreneurs and institutions to support businesses and organizations that bring people together — from bakeries to cultural centers to educational organizations. Venn’s app connects community members to shared spaces and local activities. Local musicians who met in a shared rehearsal space wanted to collaborate on a live-music series, so they joined our ‘Neighborhood Creators’ program that provides guidance, funding, and space, resulting in a 3-night event that attracted 1,200 attendees. Elderly residents are easily connected to younger people that volunteer free time to take care of and spend time with older community members. You don’t need a time machine to live in a time and place where neighbors know and care for each other; a vision for citizen-centered neighborhoods, and maybe an app or two, can sometimes do the trick.
“Public spaces meant to facilitate social interaction – whether they’re community gardens or commuter waiting areas”
It’s not complicated: When platforms power participation, they can reduce social isolation and urban loneliness. Smart city planners, then, should always think of their cities as social ecosystems in which a dynamic social life is essential – because it is. Loneliness is linked to a wide range of ailments, and can have the same consequences for longevity as smoking 15 cigarettes a day – making it even riskier than obesity. Treating loneliness as the public health problem that it is – and supporting urban ecosystems that address it – is a moral imperative.