In 2018 the United Kingdom was the first country to ever appoint a minister of loneliness – an initiative founded on the self-evident basis that loneliness is one of the greatest public challenges of our current times. Or perhaps as a retaliation to the unsettling finding from the Office for National Statistics that places Britain as the “loneliness capital of Europe.” Loneliness, in some ways is similar to a silent invisible deadly train. It has been found to be as toxic as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; rivals with obesity; catalyses the risk of premature death by 50%; correlates with depression and anxiety, with all these health issues having an impact on health services and budgets. The current share of people living alone is unprecedented in history, with one-person households in the UK projected to rise to 10.7 million by 2039. It would be easier to attribute loneliness levels to these sorts of societal changes, yet a soaring amount of research relates it to urbanisation, with consolidating links showing how the design of cities hinders social connections.
Where is urbanisation going and why is it being talked about in relation to loneliness? Urbanisation is nowhere near stabilising. Globally, a 13% increase in urban living is expected by 2050, implying that nearly 7 in 10 people will be living in cities. The face of cities is also changing. They are becoming smarter, optimising for lower cost, inducing faster travel, improving use of spaces, and arguably providing greater comfort. At the heart of a smart city is the notion of technological automation. The middleman is being removed from a good many services, as a way of reducing the costs of service provision. This, however, comes at the expense of reducing human interactions and exacerbating a city’s solitary living. Taxis and deliveries are losing their drivers, shops and restaurants are robotising their cashiers and waiters, facial recognition is conquering ID checkpoints, and bricks and mortar stores are being annihilated by the convenience of online shopping; all of which hurt the vibrancy of a community – further aggravating the loneliness epidemic of the 21st century.
While the development of such technologies is indisputably vital for humanity to sustain itself, it is important to remain conscious that this technological prosperity and a society’s well-being are not inherently correlated. We ought, as smart city designers, to revamp cities while designing them for human flourishing, and be hyper aware that technology is a means rather than an end. The vision of cities – smart or not – must be to shape and purpose spaces that encourage people to spend more time outdoors, together. To build a community and a sense of belonging should always reign as the overarching priority; and for that, technologists have the duty to work in harmony with urban designers, placing human centricity as the ultimate design objective in everything they do. Kudos to Sidewalk Labs for attempting to fulfil such a philosophy – one which also stands as a core pillar of DG Cities’ values.