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Bad predictions are a professional risk for forecasters. And, on that front, the late futurist Alvin Toffler was not immune. Human cloning in the 1980s? Nope. Toffler was a renowned writer who accurately described many forces that would reshape the world. But with its many good predictions, there were many bad ones. And what just a few years ago sounded like another one of his failures – that remote working would kill the office and lead to urban decline – may now seem prophetic.
In his 1980 book The third wave, Toffler argued that humanity was on the verge of a third wave of change that would sweep away the existing industrial order and send many of us surfing to a new way of living and working. The first wave began around 10,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers settled on farms and began to harvest and domesticate animals. Mankind, for the first time, could work from home. The second wave began around 300 years ago, when humanity began to move from their agrarian homes to work in factories and offices, ushering in the industrial age.
The third wave, Toffler said, was sparked by computer and telecommunications technology. Writing in an era when fax machines were sexy and personal computers were still seen as mostly just for geeks, Toffler predicted that computers would create a world where most of humanity would leave factories and offices and return “from where to. they come originally: home. The house, he writes, would become an ‘electronic cottage.’ Skyscrapers and office parks would be reduced to ‘ghostly warehouses or converted into living space.’ The US economy would experience ‘decentralization and de-urbanization. of production. “Hellish journeys would cease to be hellish journeys. Cities would empty like never before.
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Toffler has inspired a cult in places like Silicon Valley, making sense of the technological forces they unleashed. But Harvard economist Ed Glaeser never believed his point. He explains why Toffler has been wrong for decades. And in a new book, co-authored with David Cutler, he’s not backing down. It’s called City Survival: Living and Thriving in the Age of Isolation.
Glaeser is one of the foremost academics in urban economics and has long championed cities. In the early 1990s, when Glaeser began writing about the plight of the metropolis in the post-industrial era, he was playing defense. Cities were in trouble as a result of big technological changes. Container ships and industrial machinery ushered in urban deindustrialisation, and automobiles and the interstate road network ushered in suburbanization.
“Toffler was really a product of the 1970s,” says Glaeser. “Back then, it was natural to ask: If container ships could kill urban manufacturing, why can’t fax machines and computers kill urban information services?
Some cities never really recovered from the deindustrialization of the mid to late 20th century. But, as the millennium approaches, several large cities with large populations of highly educated residents have experienced some kind of renaissance. Far from de-urbanizing, as Toffler predicted, these cities – and the offices therein – have reaffirmed themselves as the undisputed centers of the economic universe. Glaeser built his own sparkling skyscraper from economic research that explained why this was the case.
“What globalization and technological change have done is dramatically increase the returns to intelligence,” says Glaeser. “And we are a social species that becomes intelligent by being surrounded by other intelligent people. We create new ideas by collaborating. And we communicate the most complex ideas by being face to face.” That’s why a globalized market, with an instant digital communications network, has made dense and highly educated cities like New York and San Francisco more valuable than ever.
For a long time, Glaeser was the clear winner of the argument. But then COVID struck. “And all of a sudden, Toffler was right,” Glaeser said. “Everyone says our offices and our cities are going to be empty.”
But while it is undeniable that cities have been devastated by the pandemic, Glaeser continues to believe that “the era of urban miracles is not over.” That’s why he co-wrote City survival. The book offers a fascinating global history of cities struggling with pandemics and a roadmap for cities to recover from the current one.
While Glaeser remains optimistic about the resurgence of cities and offices, he believes the Zoom revolution could yet reshape our urban map. One of the reasons is the cost of living in the so-called superstar cities, which have failed to create sufficient housing supply for their labor demand and have become prohibitive. He predicts that Zoom will open up a world where more entrepreneurs and smart workers can connect with big bosses and investors in Manhattan and Silicon Valley from afar. These professionals will continue to work together most of the time in offices, where they can benefit from one-on-one, but they can now do so in a wider variety of locations. Think of more coders and engineers surfing in Honolulu, skiing in Aspen, and enjoying a barbecue and low taxes in Texas (but still at a local office a few days a week).
The skyscrapers and office parks of pre-2020 era superstar cities may continue to be partially vacant as demand for commercial real estate does not pick up, and Glaeser sees some of them being converted into residences. Much like how the garment factories of Lower Manhattan were converted into chic lofts when clothing production moved overseas. Superstar cities, he says, may get grittier and more affordable, and there may be a painful period of readjustment, but that won’t spell the end for them.
Glaeser says big cities like New York and San Francisco will continue to be attractive, especially to young people. The bars. The musical scenes. Career and consumer opportunities. Density creates a lot of challenging and exciting things to do, and people will continue to flock to places that have them.
We’re not saying Glaeser is necessarily right about the future. It is possible that Alvin Toffler’s “electronic chalets” could ultimately kill offices and decimate cities. And, to Toffler’s credit, his writings had an influence and helped bring that vision closer to reality. His book, The third wave, inspired a generation of innovators and even the Chinese Communist Party. Steve Case, Founder and Former CEO of American Online (AOL), cites explicitly The third wave as inspiring her in college to work in the tech industry and help create an online world.
Toffler was certainly right about one thing today: there is a wave of change that has been created by technology. This wave has been energized by the pandemic, and right now we are all riding it together. We just don’t know where it will take us.
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