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Opinion

Why the Web may unleash the largest construction boom in history

The rise of ships, trains, and cars transformed cities and the way we live. Now it’s the Web’s turn.

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There are many business processes that can be made more efficient and can be engineered to take up less space. Fewer clerks are needed for order entry. Purchasing functions can be streamlined. Using information systems to manage the supply chain and factory floor reduces the need for manufacturing and warehouse space.

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The implication of all of this is quite clear. If we can move information cheaply and quickly in the Internet Age, then less retail, factory, and office space will be required on a per capita basis.

Much of the existing space will eventually be repurposed. Office buildings and shopping centers will be torn down and become locations for apartment buildings – a repurposing construction boom. This is already happening in edge cities like Tysons Corner, Va. But I suspect that is only a minor portion of the construction boom.

Many of our homes and neighborhoods were built to take advantage of a car-centered economy. They're simply ill-suited to take full advantage of a Web-based economy, so a major migration of American workers – along with the construction it entails – is coming.

On a modest scale, as more of us spend more time working from our homes, we will want better home-office space to accommodate computers, desks, and other office equipment – a fairly basic renovation.

Since there will be less need to travel, public transportation will become both more valued and more practical, especially if it allows people to give up an expensive car. If I only go to the office twice a week, why not trade in my car and ride the train with a good wireless connection? This will increase the demand for public transportation and will lead to more construction.

Walking-friendly cities

On a major scale, there is a good chance that the Internet Age will compel many of us to live in walking-friendly cities. This migration will motivate us to rebuild our cities in the image of the late urban theorist Jane Jacobs, with mixed neighborhoods where people can live, work, shop for the essentials, eat out, and entertain themselves all within walking distance of their homes and apartments. With the Internet supplying us with so many work, shopping, and entertainment options, this type of city structure becomes very appealing. So our cities will be repurposed for the Internet Age just as the railroads repurposed cities in the Industrial Age.

It is safe to assume that virtual travel will become less expensive and more effective, and that physical travel will cost more and be less convenient. Also, since it is so easy and inexpensive to move information, there will be less need for physical travel. Why get on an airplane when you can videoconference from your home?

Just as Henry Ford may not have predicted the rise of drive-in movie theaters when he invented the Model T, the Internet Age will produce changes to our physical landscape that we can't now envision. And other changes that we do expect might never happen, or might happen in a different way. But what I am certain will happen is that the Internet will drive the physical restructuring of society. The sooner we begin building society with a physical infrastructure attuned to the Internet Age, the sooner our economy will revive and jobs begin to appear.

Bill Davidow has been a high-technology industry executive and a venture investor for more than 30 years. This essay is based on his latest book, "Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet."

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