A busy pedestrian crossing. Copyright KingWu.

+ The cities we design should meet the need for physical spaces, as well as virtual ones, where people can meet and interact.

Like many young, second-generation Singapore Chinese, I know little of the lives our forefathers led before they migrated, and hadn’t spent much time in China until June this year. The trip opened my eyes to many things, including the importance of personal connections in a world where we increasingly interact online. 

The lasting impression of my trip was of a country so rich in history and heritage and at the same time, technologically advanced. In fact, as of 2010 China has over 420 million Internet users (according to the China Internet Network Information Centre). That’s a penetration rate of nearly 32% of the population! This reflects the fact that guanxi, the system of personal networks that is central to Chinese culture, has gone tech-savvy.

This is significant because guanxi facilitates all kinds of dealings in businesses and governments, but like any kind of relationship, takes time to establish, cultivate and maintain. Some degree of sensitivity is also required or it can backfire. In my opinion, this sensitivity is harder to achieve online and as a result the growth of virtual networks has caused the country some problems; for example the 2009 ethnic riots which led the Chinese authorities to ban Facebook and Twitter.

While the Internet brings many benefits and can help to connect people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to engage with each other, we should be mindful that online networks also need to be carefully managed. Most of all, face-to-face communication must remain equally important.

The systems and cities we design must take this into consideration – we need physical spaces, as well as virtual ones, where people can meet and interact. Otherwise, we risk looking to the internet as a quick fix for the problems caused by a lack of a personal connection to the world.

Do you think real-world personal connections still matter, or could they be entirely replaced with online communities?