​How the Smartphone Changed Our Cities and Our Lives in the Last Decade

Here's some of the stuff I used to carry around with me before I got that iPhone 4S on the right. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Urban planner Brent Toderian recently tweeted:

QUESTION: As we approach the end of not only the year, but the DECADE, what do you think is the most important change, trend or new thing that has changed our cities, for the better OR the worse (be sure to say which u think it is) this decade?

I responded after some consideration:

Last week I wrote that it was the bicycle, but now I think it is the smartphone. The way we use our cities has changed, the forces that drive them, all around the phone.

Ten years ago, I was still devoted to my Blackberry with its wonderful keyboard. BBM (Blackberry Messaging) was the de facto standard, but I used the phone on it a lot. That's really all even the most sophisticated "smart" phones did at the time.

Two years later I got an iPhone 4s, as did roughly 60 million others. Since then, the world has changed. Many complain that it's not for the better, that people are spending far too much time mindlessly staring at Twitter. On Treehugger we have written that it's like eating junk food or taking drugs and that it's hurting our kids.

Tweet by Taras Grescoe
This tweet changed the way I think about cities. (Photo: Taras Grescoe)

But the positive effects on society far outweigh the negative; by 2014 I was writing that "the smart phone is changing the way we live, the amount of space we need, the way we occupy it, and the way we get around." I was also quoting the tweet above by writer Taras Grescoe, who noted that our real future was going to be a mix of 19th century technologies (subways, streetcars and bikes) and 21st (smartphones and apps).

Which is where we are today. Joanna Stern of The Wall Street Journal writes:

What we got was a device that changed what it means to be human. A gadget that as it gained functionality, fundamentally altered the way we navigate the world, our relationships, ourselves. But it also began to navigate us — in ways we sometimes didn’t even realize and probably shouldn’t have welcomed.

She spent a day trying to get by with her 2010 equipment, using a Blackberry and a camera and a real paper map, and had a lot of trouble. I wouldn't even try getting all my old stuff to work, but I remember at the time trying to get a vest designed that would hold my phone, Lumix camera, Flip Video camera, audio recorder and notepad. Now, of course, it's all in a single phone.

That's convenient, but how did it change our lives, and our cities?

A smartphone can be more important than food

How can you be a refugee and afford that phone?. (Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

In one of my more controversial posts on Treehugger, I wrote about how refugees used their phones to connect and survive. It's their only means of communication, their only tie to family, their only source of news. One noted: "Our phones are more important for our journey than anything, even more important than food."

It's not just for the millennials, either; it's for everyone

But the smartphone became as important as food for almost everyone. For many, it has reduced the need and desire to own a car; according to a UBS report we quoted in an earlier post,

Millennials also appear to prefer living closer to metropolitan areas that offer employment and convenient, on-demand services, as they tend to flourish in metropolitan areas by utilizing the Internet and mobile devices as a means of conveniently providing services and things on demand without any ownership commitment (e.g. Uber, Zipcar)
Bonnie on scooter
Bonnie, my baby boomer big sister, likes scooters. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

I tried to make the case that this has nothing to do with age, that one shouldn't confuse demography with geography. "There are many baby boomers in cities like New York or London or Toronto who don't own cars or if they do, don't use them very much. They have lots of options. Even scooters."

On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia

Inga Saffron, architectural critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently described how the smartphone changed her city in the last decade.

We know that once millennials (and their parents) got those smartphones in their hands, they promptly began moving into cities, buying fixer-uppers in working-class neighborhoods like Point Breeze and Fishtown, and transforming them into upscale enclaves. Facebook and Tinder made it easy for them to socialize, while app-driven services like Uber and Lyft, Peapod and Fresh Direct, ridesharing, and bikesharing allowed more people in greater Center City to ditch their personal cars (and more easily pay for their phones). While our devices aren’t responsible for all the disruptions of the last decade, the changes were often indirectly linked to tech.

All over the world, successful cities' economies are being revived due to jobs in technology. Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs is actually rethinking how cities are designed and built.

It has changed the way we travel

Sign in Porto
If it's Monday, I must be in Porto. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

It's changed the way we travel. I recently gave a speech in Porto, Portugal, and used my phone to find an AirBnB, to find my way around via Google maps (feeding directly into my hearables), to find places to eat through recommendation apps, to find bike and food tours, to take all my photos and to track all my runs, to describe what I was doing to my family and friends. I even tried having my hearables translate on the fly; it's not quite there yet.

It will change the way we age

cycling in Porto
My 12.8-km bike ride in Porto was fun!. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

It's also going to change the way we age. My phone talks to my watch, which monitors my heartbeat. It knows when I fall, and can tell my wife where I am. I use it to track everything I eat and everywhere that I run and bike. I suspect that in the next decade, we will see it become our most important device for health and fitness; Apples knows a big market when it sees one.

It's all in your head

What's hiding in that phone?. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Finally, it's going to change the way we get our information, especially now that more and more people are wearing hearables whether AirPod like devices or smart hearing aids like I do. Ten years ago, e-readers were the next big thing; now, it's audiobooks, going straight from phone to ear. Podcasts have exploded. And just as we predicted here on Treehugger five years ago, hearables essentially break down that border between human and computer. It's all in our heads now.

It certainly has changed the way you get your information from Treehugger; last month, a surprising 80 percent of readers read us on mobile devices, only 15 percent on desktops, and only 3 percent on tablets. This has changed the business; I don't know how you will read or hear or simply absorb the content on Treehugger in 10 years, but I suspect it will be different from today. Watch this space; I'll report back at the end of 2029.