The Cost of Disruption — Loss of Community?

This post was written by Travis Smith ’19

Improving efficiency for consumers through digitization is one of the main sources of disruption and innovation within the marketplace. The goal – reduce the amount of time waiting for something or reduce the need to go somewhere for something. I believe this is rooted in a positive notion of improving the convenience of people’s’ lives so they can go about their day in a fashion they so choose. However, it may be time to look at what we are streamlining in order to make life more convenient – community. Losing those small conversations with strangers at the store might make life more streamlined, but the loss may also have the unintended consequence of chipping away at community.

It’s never been easier to order goods, food/groceries and socialize without ever leaving one’s home. As a society, we are moving more towards a world where we don’t have to do anything or go anywhere that we do not want to. Yet, according to the Washington Post, the US has consistently fallen in world happiness rankings and currently sits at 18th place. Furthermore, Americans are losing touch with their communities. Pew Research found that only 24% of urban residents know all or most of their neighbors; this is alarming as our society becomes more urbanized. Here we find a paradox. We are more connected and life is more convenient than ever, but somehow, we know less people directly around us and our happiness levels are falling.

The question should be asked, are there diminishing returns on efficiency as there are with wealth? What will we do with the extra time gained? Yes, our society went through a similar transition with the rise of big box retailers, but at least we were still going to a physical place to interact with physical people. Now there is no store with people, but a website with a chatbot.

One surprising example of a community oriented disruptive technology is Pokemon Go. The technology of augmented reality has upended the mobile gaming industry. Yet, Pokemon Go uses the augmented reality tech to bring gamers together in a physical space as users must make friends and interact with others in order to advance in the game – thus, building community. The game even has a once a month “community day” where users are encouraged to meet up at public parks for several hours and play together.

There doesn’t need to be a binary choice between technology and community, but As entrepreneurs and future business leaders we should ask ourselves – will my product or service help build community or chip away at it? As consumers, will we replace our time spent at a post office, grocery store, or restaurant with other time spent building community?

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