Cities in the Third Industrial Revolution

The Great Recession may well represent the start of what the economist, Jeremy Rifkin, has called "The Third Industrial Revolution." If the first industrial revolution of the 19th century ushered in the mechanization of hand labor, with the steam engine as its iconic technology, and the second industrial revolution of the 20th century arose with the mass production and consumption of goods, with the assembly line as its icon, the third industrial revolution has emerged with computer-controlled fabrication technology, like 3D printing, that promises to overturn its predecessors. Now that we can 3D print automobiles, for example, what future does the automobile assembly line have?

Unfortunately, too many of our economic development strategies and public policies seem to assume that the economy of the last century will continue. Why vie to attract large companies to a community when they remain the most vulnerable in the new economy, while doing little to foster the creative start-ups that represent the greatest potential for growth? Why continue to build infrastructure as if people will still commute between where they live and work when the new economy will see increasing numbers of people living, working, and making things in the same location? And why zone districts based on single uses when the third industrial revolution will require a much more flexible and interactive mix of activities?

Some cities have recognized and begun to respond to these changes. Philadelphia has created new industrial-commercial and industrial-residential mixed-use zoning aimed at attracting new economic activity. Minneapolis is working on an innovation district with technology hubs intended to serve new third-industrial entrepreneurs. And one or two have begun to prepare for a post-automotive age, planning parking garages, for example, with flat floors and higher ceilings so that they can easily convert to other purposes when that time comes.

These activities will have environmental and social benefits. It will lower our dependence on fossil fuels, and decrease the public health threats that commuting long distances create. But the economic benefits will force these changes. Dependent upon rapid innovation, the new economy will increasingly require that we maximize the interactions among diverse people and enterprises, in more walkable communities and denser, mixed-use, and mixed-income neighborhoods.

Similarly with higher-ed, while universities have begun to recognize the value of interdisciplinary, collaborative education and have embraced ideas like empathy and inclusivity, most academic departments still represent disciplinary monocultures, and most curriculums still remain a mass-production way of educating students. Rifkin rightly argues that schools must create a more "distributed and collaborative educational experience," in which students acquire not only disciplinary depth, but also interdisciplinary breadth in how to apply knowledge to the grand challenges we face.

But the world will need to go beyond such small steps. The third industrial revolution represents a shift from mass production to mass customization, and the ability to create products tailored to individual needs and services adaptable to particular situations will demand that the public sector do the same. This does not mean that everything is negotiable or that no rules apply. But it does mean that mass-produced policies that get applied to places without regard to their social, environmental, or aesthetic consequences will no longer stand. Cities that remain stuck in the last century, tied to the old economy, will stay there.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design, at the University of Minnesota.