The Future Is Not Evenly Distributed—Neither Are We
Introducing Infinite Block
Welcome to Infinite Block, a new email missive from Micromobility Industries exploring the impact of disruptive new technologies and ideas on cities.
Why another newsletter, you ask? Good question.
While continuing to work with some of the biggest and best mobility leaders in the world through our Micromobility Newsletter, Podcast, and global event platform, we also want to shine a light on local policies that are reshaping the way cities move and operate on a global scale.
Infinite Block’s mission is to give you in-depth content about the most interesting challenges facing cities, all from a perspective that is unabashedly optimistic about our collective urban future.
Many of our stories will focus on the outsized impact that scalable solutions and business models can have on urgent issues like climate resilience, transportation, public health, housing, and logistics. Some ideas we highlight will be decidedly high tech (web3, automation, IoT, AI, AR/VR), others will not.
Our first piece, for example, is a historical analysis by Horace Dediu about our species’ millennia-long migration from farms to cities—even in the face of adversities such as pandemics—and what it says about us as individuals and as societies (scroll down to read it).
For now we will be publishing wheneverly but hope to pick up a regular cadence as we go along.
Lastly you may be wondering about our name.
Infinite Block alludes to the unprecedented collision of physical and digital spaces that is unfolding before us today.
A block is the smallest unit of a city, the real-world coordinates we use to identify our place in a community. But a block can also refer to a tiny sequence of data, the kind that is constantly being bounced back and forth across billions of connected devices, systems, and infrastructures around the world every day.
Separately these blocks are small and self-contained, but when brought together with sensors, software, and other technologies, they contain infinite possibilities for creative exploration and innovation.
We’re here to celebrate the people who are driving change by building axons and dendrites between the internet and the city, and in doing so, making life better for us all. We hope you’ll come along for the ride.
Tl;dr We’re radically curious humans who love cities and this is a new place to talk about our passions. Enjoy!
The future is not evenly distributed, neither are we
By Horace Dediu
It’s highly predictable, and in fact indisputable, that we are an urban species.
We began the transition from being peasants, married to the land, to cohabitants of urban agglomerations a long time ago.
Beginning around 1500, coexisting with close neighbors for mutual support started to become the norm for the wealthier denizens of our planet. The graph below shows which countries experienced urbanization first.
This graph shows the percentage of the total population living in cities across several European countries from roughly the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution.
You’ll note that the S curve of urbanization is the S curve of prosperity. The wealth of Northern Italy and the Netherlands in the Renaissance, followed by Portugal and Spain in the Age of Discovery, and then the British, French, and Germans in the Industrial Revolution, is reflected in the number of citizens living in cities. Wealth and urbanization go hand-in-hand.
You could even squint at the data and surmise that the city itself can be framed as an innovation—and that its adoption has been a preoccupation for various societies over many centuries.
Alas, like other technologies, cities are not evenly distributed. Not everyone has equal access to them all at once. There are, as this next graph shows, early, mid, and late adopters.
But things changed at some point in the last hundred years. The global urban population surpassed 50% a few years ago and is on track to reach two-thirds—or potentially even three-quarters—before the end of this century. That’s the fastest adoption of cities we have ever seen.
But this trend has occurred so quickly that we have not yet had an institutional transition to a city-led political structure.
Urban governments have traditionally been relatively less powerful than larger land-defined governments (the mayor is less powerful than the governor and the governor is less powerful than the president). We see governing as a process of authority over land masses. We see the notion of conquest as the conquest of land. We look at red/blue maps showing state or national politics. This framework is based on the idea that land itself is the root of wealth and hence power.
But people voted with their feet a long time ago. They fled the farmland for the paved city street. They prefer the tower block to the country estate. The notion of land as power is a quaint concept in practice. Agrarian, medieval, feudal. At best a 19th-century anachronism.
But our institutions and power structures still treat this concept as a given.
The reason cities are popular is that they are where opportunities lie. And opportunities lie in cities because opportunities today are created through collaboration and specialization. We build things with help from others.
The old adage “a jack of all trades, a master of none” is followed by a second, less well-known line, “though oftentimes better than master of one.”
The second half of this saying represents the agrarian myth. The ethos of independence and not interdependence. The rugged individualist subduing the frontier, prevailing over nature. But it’s a myth because “the master of one” is the city ethos. And the city has won that argument.
Today we specialize, and rely on specialists, to complete whatever we set out to do. Because of increases in productivity in agriculture, mining, and forestry, fewer people need to toil the soil and can instead toil the keyboard.
So opportunities not just for labor, but for education, culture, social connection, and self-realization are found in the city.
It’s also true that cities attract threats. Dense urban areas are vulnerable to natural disasters and pathogens. And the concentration of wealth and power makes them attractive to all types of human attacks, from besieging armies to palace coups. (Banks are robbed because that is where the money is.)
You’d think that these various risks would cause a pull-back in urbanization trends, a balance would be struck between threats and opportunities.
But no. Threats be damned. We rush to cities regardless of all that. In the 1930s the advent of aerial bombardment struck fear in war departments worldwide. Death could rain from above and nobody would be safe. In WWII airstrikes came to be a reality for a lot of cities. Not just earth-shattering 1000lb bombs, but fire storms and nuclear explosions. Did this deter us? No. War-torn cities were rebuilt stronger than ever.
Today it’s the Covid pandemic. Is this going to deter us from making cities our home? Not any more than the 1918 Flu did. Once again, cities will bounce back stronger than ever.
Cities bounce back, time and again, because they are anti-fragile: the more they are attacked, the stronger they get. The more they are stressed, the more stress-resistant they become. Indeed the city does not get stronger by blocking attacks, but by absorbing them and emerging bigger and better.
What makes cities anti-fragile—their superpower—is their ability to adopt innovations. Remember, cities are made up of people, arranged in a meritocracy. Thus cities construct their own remedies to problems and build back after adversity through collaboration and rapid prototyping. Urbanism is agile, so to speak. The essential quality of the city is its ability to change.
We saw this during the pandemic. Cities responded quicker than states, and (small) states responded faster than big governments.
So as we look beyond the current threats facing our societies, we can see new innovations on tap. These innovations are ready to be configured in new ways to organize, allocate, and apply resources. Emerging technologies getting teed up include web3, AR/VR, and AI. These are likely to be adopted early by cities and late by nations. This will tip the balance further in favor of cities as seats of power.
The outcomes are hard to predict but we can say at least that cities will figure out new ways to operate. They will become meta organizations. They will operationalize information. They will be governed by data. They will have what can be best described as an operating system.
This is a call to action: to help build this operating system.
Take a look at the graphic above. Each line is a 2x2km square. For a line to cast a shadow it must be a city. Cities are not a handful. There are tens of thousands of them. They are where we all are, and increasingly, they are where the future is.