The City of Tomorrow Exists Today

NEWS ANALYSIS: Forget those gleaming visions of centrally planned cities. The city of the future already exists: San Francisco.

San Francisco

City planning visionaries have tried again and again to create futuristic cities—gleaming, high-tech hubs where urban problems are solved with advanced systems, materials and technologies.

Think Brasilia, Brazil; Valencia, Spain; Masdar City, United Arab Emirates; or Singapore. And, for that matter, Disney's EPCOT was supposed to be the Mother of All Futuristic Cities, and it was supposed to be twice the size of Manhattan. (EPCOT, by the way, is an acronym that stands for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.") Sadly, most of the plans died with Walt Disney in 1966.

These and other futuristic cities had something in common: radical central planning.

The buildings, public transportation, parks, waterways, homes, shopping areas and more were all planned in advance. Citizens would simply be the recipients of this planning. Their job was to wear their quasi-futuristic clothing and work, shop and live where they were told to—all in one centralized convenient area, or shuttled from one dedicated zone to another on some kind of high-tech rail system of public transportation. Labor meant functioning as a cog in a prefabricated set of economic gears.

These visions all assume that urban disorganization is to be solved by central planning. But in reality, the future is getting fragmented, not collectivized. It turns out that the best way to organize a city is with computers and incentives.

The biggest two trends in organizing urban life is the sharing economy (for optimizing the use of resources—AirBnB is the best example) and what's called on-demand services (for optimizing the provision of services—Uber is the model for this).

The idea is that people are both the consumers and providers of various resources and services. This voluntary economic activity is organized through apps and provided on a freelance basis. Both customers and service providers are rated by the people they interact with, and anyone is free to accept or reject dealing with any other person based on those ratings, so there's a built-in level of trust and reliability.

Everyone is incentivized through the rating system to act as a responsible service provider or customer.

If the sharing economy and on-demand services will organize the city of tomorrow, then the city of tomorrow already exists. It's called San Francisco.

While sharing economy services quickly spread globally (because they're peer-to-peer), on-demand businesses need to be rooted in a single location. And more often than not, that location is San Francisco. (One writer even created a visual guide to on-demand delivery services in San Francisco.)

Why? I believe there are three reasons.

First, on-demand services make the most economic sense in very densely populated urban areas. So the best cities for bootstrapping on-demand services should be New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Boston. Of this list, New York is by far the biggest. However, that city figured out its own systems for transportation (yellow cabs, subways) long ago, and also for delivery. You've been able to get anything delivered in NYC for decades.

The second reason is that San Francisco has something no other city in the world has—inclusion in Silicon Valley, the tech and startup capital of the world. So San Francisco-based on-demand startups test in the city, but so do those headquartered (or incubated) all down the peninsula and around the bay.

And third, San Francisco is and has always been open to new ideas, culturally. And that's why companies based in other cities and other countries often try out new ideas first in San Francisco.

The collective result of all this experimentation is that San Francisco is the closest thing we have to what all cities will look like in the future.