Increased Use of Virtual Spaces

A third global mega-trend is increased use of virtual spaces. The use of ICT has altered lifestyles in many ways. An example is e-commerce, which is growing globally at close to 20 percent annually as consumers no longer rely on stores as their sole means of access to products. E-commerce is providing convenience, variety, and personalized shopping experiences that are changing the retail stores’ business models. Global online retail sales are projected to reach US $4.3 trillion by 2025, an increase from just US $0.55 trillion in 2011. In the US, the increased trend in e-commerce slowed retail foot traffic from 35 billion visits in 2009 to 17 billion in 2013. The increase in ‘clicks’ has meant a reduced footprint of ‘bricks’, and an evolution of ‘concept’ and ‘express’ stores. Companies like IKEA that rely on big showrooms are planning to launch small urban stores and pick-up points. Big-box retailers like Best Buy and Staples in the US are moving to smaller spaces to better serve the digitally savvy consumer. The average retail store size by 2020 is expected to be reduced by 15-20 percent from the 2013 figures.

The growth in internet commerce has been accompanied by a growth in background logistic operations and supporting industries.3 Online transactions combined with the triggered background operations further enable domestic and international freelancing models and offshoring to grow rapidly. A report from Deloitte describes the emergence of a fluid ecosystem with rapid blurring and dissolving of fundamental boundaries that have historically determined the relationships, interactions, and potential of most businesses.

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Increased teleworking-where people can work from ‘third spaces’, including the home, parks, cafes, libraries, or other public spaces-is enabling a life of zero commuting. There is increased interest in these spaces as well as investment from knowledge workers and the office property sector. Such spaces challenge the notion of the traditional office and the associated commute. Hence, the designs of both working spaces and transportation services have been affected.

Online retail and teleworking together still represent a relatively minor share of turnover and labour markets. However, the heft of activities taking place in the virtual space is fast paced and so impacts the real world. Cyberspace has accommodated social and recreational activities to an enormous extent. An example is the recent Pokemon Go game, which took over the world soon after its launch in July 2016. The cellphone-based game had about 25 million active players in the US within a week of its launch, setting a new record in the world of smartphone games. It creates ‘augmented reality’ through GPS and cameras, overlaying physical space with digital images. The original 1996 franchise concept of a nomadic hunt for virtual creatures has been retained. Players interact with virtual elements of the game, like Poke-stops and -gyms, while navigating real, physical spaces. The virtual creatures are hidden around landmarks and other well-known public spaces. Hence, the game compels users to walk and reactivates the public spaces and landmarks, popular or unpopular. The key point to be noted is that Pokemon Go has forced people into the public realm and especially to rarely visited areas, such as memorials and local parks. Survey findings note that the game captures a diverse demography by attracting people of different ages, genders, races, and incomes to explore the local environment.

The gaming interactions are redefining activities in the forgotten public realm and make a case for capturing the potential of urban spaces through augmented experience. Dan LaTorre, of the Project for Public Spaces, acknowledges the interweaving of technology and public realm. According to him, ‘Gamifying gives people a feeling of new permissions to explore the city’.

The appropriation of cyberspace for the everyday activities of shopping, working, recreating, and socializing has led to the development of new relationships and institutions. Increased digital connectivity then has the potential to change societal behaviors, labor markets, retail models, city design, and transportation systems.

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