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.
The City of Tomorrow Exists Today
The centrally planned vision of tomorrow often includes monolithic (or monorail) public transportation. But shared and on-demand transportation services are far more likely to make transportation efficient in the future.
I’m personally aware of three valet driving services, for example, that use an Uber-like app to pick up your car wherever you are, then they’ll return it to you wherever you want it returned. And all three of them operate either exclusively or primarily in San Francisco: Luxe, Carbon and Zirx.
A startup called Scoot is renting electric four-wheel quad cars. You find a nearby Scoot Quad car on the free app, then reserve and pay for it (it costs $8 per half-hour or $80 per day). Then you use the same app to start the vehicle, and it’s authenticated by the phone. You also plug the phone into the car, and the phone acts as a dashboard. You don’t have to return the quad to the same spot. You can leave it on the other side of the city, or you can return it to one of the charging garages.
Even renting a car in San Francisco is cool (and app-driven). Audi earlier this year launched a rental service called Audi On Demand. And even though Audi is a German company, the On Demand service is for San Francisco only. The program offers short-term car rentals: Customers use an iPhone app to rent a car for anywhere between one and 28 days. The car is delivered to you anywhere in the city, and the app unlocks the doors and starts the car. When you’re done, you can leave it anywhere and they’ll pick it up.
BMW has a similar program called DriveNow (although BMW won’t deliver the car to you). While it operates in five European countries, San Francisco is the only city where DriveNow operates in the U.S.
(When it comes to the most futuristic transportation system, there is nothing more futuristic than Elon Musk’s idea for a Hyperloop, which involves pressurized capsules being shot through a tube at super high speed—around 600 miles per hour. The current proposal under consideration is to link San Francisco with Los Angeles.)
San Francisco’s food scene is living in the future as well. With the sharing economy, food-oriented services are exploding in all major cities, but nowhere like in San Francisco.
People want fast food—as fast as possible—but they don’t want junk food. So a plethora of services have emerged that deliver high-quality meals very fast. A food delivery startup called Gobble delivers what they call one-pan meals that take 10 minutes to prepare. It’s a subscription service that delivers pre-chopped ingredients, which can then be dropped into a pan and cooked.
And if you get a craving for sweets, a startup called Doughbies will deliver freshly baked chocolate chip cookies to you in 20 minutes. But only in San Francisco.
An L.A.-based dog-walking startup called Wag has opened its second location: San Francisco. Dog walkers are screened with background checks, and then the company insures them. Dog owners use the app to schedule walks, which cost $20 for a half-hour.
And if your computer breaks? There’s an “Uber” for that, too. An on-demand tech support startup called Eden will send someone to your house to fix whatever problem you’re having with your computers, printers, Internet connection and TV. It operates only in the San Francisco Bay Area.
An app-based on-demand service called Lugg lets you call for someone with a truck to schlep your sofa home from IKEA—or move anything that will fit into a pickup or box truck from anywhere to anywhere, as long as both anywheres are in San Francisco or Berkeley, Calif. The charge is a $35 base fare, plus $2.50 per mile, and $0.50 per minute of travel time. The company insures your goods. Drivers keep 80 percent of the fee.
These are just a tiny number of the many startups and innovations happening in San Francisco’s on-demand and sharing economy.
Some of these new kinds of startups are tested first in San Francisco. Some roll out nationwide later, and some fail. Other new-economy startups are testing in a handful of cities, and San Francisco is usually one of them.
The bottom line is that San Francisco has by far more on-demand and sharing economy services than any city of the world—other cities don’t even come close.
Futurists and visionaries keep trying to invent the city of tomorrow. But that idea is based on a false assumption—that a city’s services should or even can be planned in advance. In fact, the city of tomorrow will be convenient and efficient not because of central planning, but because of the on-demand and sharing economy, which in San Francisco is happening organically.
If you want to experience the city of tomorrow, just visit San Francisco. And don’t forget your phone.