Mobile communication technology and resilient walkable communities.

While at the health club a few days ago, I ran into a middle-aged acquaintance, a sailor in his working life, busily engrossed in his smart phone applications. I asked him how the device affected his life.

“Well,” he responded, “I don’t go to the movies, they’re free on-line. I don’t read books either. I shop on-line and the stuff is delivered. I live in the city, closer to medical services so I don’t need a car. I kept my motor bike for getting around. I keep in touch with friend’s all over the world, it’s cheaper than going there myself. Mostly it helps me save money for health care.”

A few weeks earlier, I asked my 20-year-old grandson the same question. He recently moved from San Francisco to the small Central Valley town of Reading where he does a modest business selling things on the internet.

“I can do business from anywhere now. Living is cheaper here. I’m nearer the mountains for skiing. I keep in touch with all my old friends. I have time to kick back with friends who live nearby.”

I am sure most people have had or heard similar conversations before.

These type of life-style choices go on around us all the time now. They have consequences; economic, social and on the community and its physical design.

For example, a decision by as little as three percent of potential second car purchasers to delay or permanently do without, could affect the entire automotive industry and those dependent on it resulting in companies like, say, General Motors unable to adequately finance expansion and replacement of assets by sales of equity thereby forcing a greater reliance on debt financing and cost cutting with the costs to be cut coming primarily in the areas of labor and innovation.

Although the two people quoted are definitely not “Main Stream” (e.g., house in the suburbs and particular consumption patterns), nevertheless, in social and economic contexts, those on the margins or edges can and often do have effects far greater than their numbers suggest.

There are many things that can be drawn from these conversations that one can speculate about. Although I may discuss some in later blog posts, my focus here is on the realization by many like my sailor friend and my grandson that mobile communication and the internet can cut down on their living costs in several ways.

For individuals, like the two above, the ability to do more with less and do it cheaper through modern technology transforms their life choices in ways that are only now beginning to be appreciated. Both men imply that modern technology lessens their need for high income to achieve their non-subsistence needs. They seem to view work as only the minimum needed to allow them to enjoy the full benefits of modern technology.

Imagine if you will, before embarking on their life’s work the young Bill Gates and Warren Buffet were offered a billion dollars to spend however they like, but they first must choose between working more than 10 hours a day six days a week in an exciting job as upper management in a large innovative corporation, or 4 hours a day or so working in some burger joint. Now, I cannot guess what Gates or Buffet would choose, but I suspect for most of us having more time to enjoy the billion dollars including using it to improve oneself or to engage in some appropriate life’s work would outweigh the less psychologically rewarding aspects of the burger job.

For many today like my two interviewees, modern technology offers them just that choice. Compared to say seventy years ago, modern relatively low-cost technology conceivably is comparable to the entertainment, informational and interpersonal benefits they could buy with a billion dollars (or the equivalent in today’s dollars) then.

So what does this have to do with smart and connected communities of the future? A lot actually. Both the sailor and the young man, largely because modern communications technologies satisfy so much or their needs relatively inexpensively, have settled comfortably into what has been referred to as “resilient walkable” communities. Older communities, with existing and less expensive housing well served by local urban amenities such as better transportation options. Ironically these resilient walkable communities tend to be denser than the suburbs and foster more interpersonal interactions (coffee houses and the like)

Recent studies seem to indicate that American neighborhoods with better transportation choices have far more discretionary income than the average American family or those who live in the outer, “Auto-dependent” suburbs. An average family earning $40,000 per year can save over $4000 per year by moving into a transit oriented development. They can then use that money to pay off the debts that they incurred to the banks that persuaded them modern economics can violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics and grow forever or they can spend some of it upgrading their personal communication capability.

During my talks with them I got the impression that the nature of their more mobile lifestyles lead them to prefer inexpensive rentals rather than being tied down to a fixed asset and that their living space needs have shrunk also.

I also surmise that they are not searching for expensive upgrades to their homes or neighborhoods such as energy independence or technological displays, preferring to save their money for better and more versatile applications to those devices that remain as close to them as their clothing, go where they go, satisfy their needs and connect them to the world.

They seem to be turning Thorstein Veblen’s observation on its head. We may be changing from a society of Conspicuous Consumption,” to one of “Conspicuous Non-consumption.”

Perhaps we are entering a time where for some, possibly even many, the future of community may be in an application and everything else merely a temporary accommodation.