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Physical freedom and digital convenience; life in the city

Jos Hesselink • 24/02/2022
Cities today breathe the promise of freedom and self-determination. Cities are more popular than ever as a living, working and living environment.

The urban fabric functions as a warm coat around the individualistic society, in which people choose their own social connections instead of being imposed from above. In particular, the diversity of a diverse urban population provides great freedom of choice.
Until the start of the Industrial Revolution, the harsh conditions in the countryside encouraged close collectivist (family) structures in which the joint food supply was a joint responsibility for everyone. As a result, there was limited room for acting according to one's own insight. Social ties were imposed on each other instead of self-chosen.

Because it was more difficult to control another in the city – an individual could literally blend in with the crowd – there was literally much more physical and intellectual freedom of movement than in the countryside. It is therefore not surprising that cities exert a great attraction on people who want to live independently, free and independent, who want to be accepted for who they are with a tolerant and open view of society.

The use of digital tools has made life in cities many times more fun, easier and more efficient in recent decades. People's lives do not just take place in the physical environment. The digital environment is used to determine which people they are going to meet, through which route or what they want to eat. Life in the densely populated city benefits from efficiency and smart solutions have been devised and applied for this. Cities with a developed social and digital infrastructure offer an attractive business climate and have a low barrier to entry for talented newcomers. Successful cities are thus developing into “plug and play societies”. From the Zoku shortstay loft, to the riding of the Swap bike to the implementation of social activities via being up and running within a week is perfectly possible.

As traditional location factors of cities lose relevance (i.e. proximity to raw materials or strategically located on a river or estuary) and cities develop into 'marketplaces' for creativity and innovation, connecting quickly becomes of great importance. Not least for organizations that are looking for mostly creative employees.

As the online environment blends into our daily lives, people's physical worlds are beginning to resemble an online environment, with each step somehow recorded as data for convenience, efficiency and effectiveness. And although the majority of people on the internet unquestioningly agree to various privacy conditions, there is – in theory – always the choice not to agree. In the physical world, opting out is a lot more difficult.

Cities have become large(s) in economic and social terms and have become successful because people can be free and independent and thus get the best out of themselves. However, physical privacy is increasingly under pressure due to a lack of digital privacy. While we are nowadays monitored online by countless trackers, these control and registration mechanisms are also becoming commonplace in the physical urban environment for reasons of efficiency, convenience and effectiveness.

For centuries, the city was the refuge for anyone who wanted to get rid of collectivist societies in the countryside. The city offered anonymity in which people could make their own choices. Now that the digital environment is increasingly intertwined with the physical world, we should additionally safeguard this freedom. But how? Creative work is no longer location-specific and a community plugs in with the greatest of ease in another city and life continues there. As a result, a city such as Amsterdam faces direct competition from cities such as Barcelona, Berlin or Vilnius.

A column by Jos Hesselink is published every month on a topic related to the value of the city. In this he gives his vision on the social relevance of cities, urban development and therefore also real estate. This vision is the result of internal research and dialogue with internal and external stakeholders, in close collaboration with consultants and analysts from our Real Estate Strategy & Innovation team. More background can be found in the white paper: Ethics; how to stay free in a smart city (in Dutch).

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