Social Networks Today = Cities Tomorrow?

It is almost certain that cities will be very different 20 years from now. But how different? Take a close look at the present day social networks, and you could very well find the answer.

The legendary urban planner Jane Jacobs once wrote that cities are built by people for people . Without the meaning people bring to places around us, buildings, highways and bridges would just be empty stone shells.


A modern metropolis is a complex social network of relationships, conversations and everyday interactions between people1. This network defines the place and explains the city beyond its physical form. As British urban planner and geographer Prof Michael Batty observed: places are important only inasmuch as they enable communication between people. The modern urban science is increasingly shifting its focus from physical locations to the actual social networks they support2.

By 2050, more than 70% of world population will live in cities, up from 3% in 18003. Such rapid urbanisation challenges planners to rethink everything they know about infrastructure, connectivity and social issues. Concurrently, exponential advances in technology make it necessary for planners to keep up with emerging computing, transportation, telecommunications and medical trends.

Notably, advances in telecommunications and computer technology have enabled us to bring practically all of our social activities online, blurring the lines between digital and physical worlds. Modern digital services such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn have become accurate representations of every part of our social networks – from relationships and conversations to events, commerce and idea exchanges.

As a matter of fact, our online social networks share many similarities with our cities. They present an accurate model of the city life that can inform urban design. The News Feed on Facebook could well be the downtown where everyone meets and catches up on the latest news and gossips, amidst the array of giant advertisement billboards, while Personal Profiles are cozy apartments that we return to relax and reflect about the day. As for the Groups, they are akin to neighborhood communities spread across the city – each with its unique vibe, style and supporters.


At this stage, it is anybody’s guess how the city will look like in the future. Considering that physical urban megastructures develop over an extended period of time, it is tough to replicate agile planning and constant experimentation, which are fundamental to the success of digital companies. Luckily, the dynamism and flexibility of online social networks not only mirror urban interactions, but also offer planners an ideal platform for rigorous analysis and research. Convergence between urban development projects and online social networks is already apparent in recent urban development projects. The Urban Attitudes Lab in Tufts is analysing torrents of geotagged social data coming from digital media to contribute to the design patterns of communities and neighbourhoods in Massachusetts, U.S. In another instance, Honolulu, Hawaii, has redesigned some of its districts based entirely on interactions on social media platforms. By enabling hotspots around the area, Honolulu made the digital space indistinguishable from the physical location4.

Interactions on social media have gone beyond exchanges of information, and now influence urban, infrastructure and architectural design in important economic centres around the world. Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative is perhaps the most ambitious urban project by far. Through combining social media information streams with millions of data points from sensors, devices and geospatial analytics, Singapore is set to create a rich information model that guides the planning and design of the city5.

1Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Books, 1961
2 Michael Batty, The new science of cities, MIT Press, 2013
3 Population Reference Bureau,
4 Timothy Schuler, Future of Urban Planning: A Hawaiian Neighborhood Born of Social Media, Autodesk, 2015
5 Peter Quek, Exploit Technology for Smart Urban Planning, Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, 2014

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