As the world’s cities grow in size, population, and influence, urban centers are beginning to look and operate much like small nations unto themselves. For evidence of this, look no further than New York City, whose GDP equals that of Spain and whose Police Department is larger than many countries’ armies. Despite the positives that have happened alongside this rapid growth, we’ve witness some not so pleasant consequences as well: overcrowded streets, sardine tin-sized apartments, high cost of living and increased levels of environmental pollution –to name a few. In response to this, a small but growing group of urban pioneers are applying a startup mentality to spur innovation around these challenges, leveraging advancements in technology to conceive of new ways to develop our cities, towns, and suburbs.
In collaboration with the minds behind The Curve Report from NBCUniversal, PSFK is investigating the rise of these alternative models of urban development, and how they will affect growth in the coming decades.
Although this shift in attitude is still gaining momentum, according to The Curve Report 73% of Gen Xers and Ys say they’re interested in being part of a startup city based on modern-day ideals and needs. Taking on the entrepreneurial spirit, this new wave of urbanites, or Urban-lites, are finding alternatives to crowded city centers by leveraging the power of tech to redesign, kickstart and crowdsource their cities into modern utopias. Central to this movement is the idea that a happy middle ground exists between megacities and small towns, without the ubiquitous sprawl of suburban life. This reshaping represents a major opportunity for residents to step up and have their voices heard, as well as give brands the chance to respond to this new type of consumer.
One brand leading the way in this space is Zappos, which has launched an initiative called the Downtown Project, aimed at revitalizing the urban core of Las Vegas. CEO Tony Hsieh started the $350 million community revitalization initiative separately from Zappos as a way to fund tech startups, small businesses, the arts, and education. In the Downtown Project, people from other cities are encouraged to ‘subscribe to downtown Vegas’, meaning if they can’t move there permanently, they’ll commit to visiting a certain number of days per month. This increases the number of ‘collisionable hours’ – the time when people are out and about in the community, which is a key metric for the Downtown Project. A higher density of people means that there will be more knowledge exchange and chance interactions that might lead to new collaborations. The end goal is that the knowledge buzzing around the city could help to create new ideas and innovation, that would eventually permeate the Zappos walls and help the company grow, while simultaneously building a stronger and more vibrant city.
Outside of dense urban centers, innovators are spearheading the rise of new culturally forward settlements that deliver the sophistication of big cities with the community of a small town. These developments are backed up by data in The Curve Report, which found that 42% of Gen Xers and Ys say they want a happy medium between city and small-town life, and 56% say they would rather steer clear of city life than keep pace with it. Creatives and entrepreneurs yearning for a more original way of life are leading the development of these micropolitan destinations, in towns such as Boone, North Carolina; Moscow, Idaho; and Camden, Maine. The rise of these semi-urban destinations is drawing in a wide range of creative talent, and helping to give rise to new kinds of regional culture.
Some innovative startups are thinking of ways to shorten the distance between cities across the country. For example, if one is craving a bite of the Chicago deep-dish pizza or some Pacific Coast salmon, the only way to meet that desire is to get on a plane and actually go there. NYC based startup Goldbely is seeking a way around this in order to help consumers get their hands on famous food favorites from all over America by listing them on their website and shipping them straight from the original creators. The mission of Goldbely is plain and simple: to share amazing and delicious food treasures from all over the country and make them available to anyone from anywhere. The service not only helps local producers get nationwide exposure of their goods, but it also lets consumers get a taste of other cities without having to take the trip. Startups such as Goldbely are helping to redefine how people conceive of urban living; the service allows those that live in the suburbs or rural areas the same amount of access to goods and services as those who live in dense urban centers.
These early ventures are paving the way for entirely new models of urban and suburban living to flourish. According to The Curve Report, Gen Xers and Ys are prepared for a new future, with 34% saying they believe entirely new cities will exist in 2050. Whether these models will completely overturn existing cities or evolve alongside them remains to be seen, but either way these entrepreneurs will play a huge role in defining how the cities and towns of tomorrow take shape.