In the early months of the Covid pandemic, when so many of us shifted to working from home, there was considerable discussion around what this might mean for cities. For many years, the prevailing narrative was that cities were the engines of our economies, with the agglomeration effect bringing together talent and consumers to make cities extremely compelling environments for work, rest and play.
Concern propagated, however, that the very technologies that enabled us all to work from home would mean that we could, in theory, work from anywhere, which means we wouldn’t need to be tied to cities in order to work for companies based there. Would small towns be turned into “Zoom towns,” with cities hollowed-out shells of their former glory?
Engines of creation
Cities have long been viewed as the engines of the economy. For instance, pre-Covid, Tokyo alone was estimated to have a GDP of around $1.6 trillion, with Tokyo, London, New York, Shanghai and Los Angeles expected to generate around $8.5 trillion in GDP alone by 2035.
These melting pots are as vibrant socially as they are economically, with the exchange of cultures and ideas a key part of their success. These factors are a fundamental part of the attraction of cities and there is strong evidence to suggest that these factors will remain important, even as technology makes working from anywhere feasible.
There is also a strong argument for digital investments in our cities making them even more attractive. For many years the smart city movement struggled to really coalesce behind a coherent strategy, which resulted in lukewarm support among the public for technologies they could scarcely see the point of.
As in other areas of life, however, the pandemic has also impacted the results achieved by smart cities. For instance, Singapore is regularly at the top of the Smart City Index, and a common feature of those at the top of these rankings is that they were also able to effectively manage the pandemic via smart technologies.
A smarter normal
As we consider our post-Covid future, there is a strong argument that the smart city technologies that have been so vital in tackling the pandemic may also be vital in ensuring that cities retain a vibrant future. Indeed, the University of Dortmund’s Klaus Kunzmann argues that the pandemic has been a boon for the smart city movement.
“The stakeholders promoting smart-city development will benefit from the crisis and use their experience from the temporary shutdown to accelerate digital transformation in their cities,” he writes. “The coronavirus pandemic will not stop the smart transformation of cities. On the contrary, it will support the efforts of the digital economy to accelerate digitalized transformation processes in cities.”
Central to this will be tackling the inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated. For instance, data reveals that Black adults were around three times as likely to suffer from food insecurity or redundancy during the pandemic. Similarly, those with no college education were twice as likely to suffer from these things as those with a college degree, with those without even high school education four times as likely to suffer.
“It is clear that the pandemic has had an extraordinary impact on the economic security of individuals who were already vulnerable and among disadvantaged groups,” the researchers explain. “This work demonstrates the need for strategically deployed relief efforts and longer-term policy reforms to challenge the perennial and unequal impact of disasters.”
Research from the London School of Economics shows that population density tends to exacerbate these inequalities. The study suggests that densely populated cities have a number of benefits, whether in terms of more innovation, higher productivity levels, better access to private and public services, and even a greater preservation of green spaces.
These advantages come at a price, however, because the premium placed on space makes housing expensive, which tends to result in higher levels of inequality. The data found that highly skilled workers benefit from high density with higher wages, but lower-skilled workers struggle with the high cost of living in the city. A densely populated city can also have obvious issues around congestion and air pollution, which can have a negative impact on the health of citizens.
Many of these inequalities have emerged due to unequal access to key services. It’s a process that has given rise to the notion of the “15-minute city,” which aims to put everything people need within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.
This space premium has been accompanied by housing regulations that are as strict as they have ever been. Historically, when housing regulations were lax, the price of houses was pretty close to their cost of production, which apart from making housing inherently affordable also meant that it was much easier for people to move from parts of the country with fewer prospects to those with more prospects.
While the typical narrative is that housing is unaffordable to the poor, as in it is the poor’s fault for having insufficient funds, the reality is that societies have a multitude of regulations that strangle the supply, with this hurting all of society.
Imperial College’s Jonathan Haskel and his colleague Stian Westlake explain in their recent book Restarting the Future, that both rich and poor alike often contribute to the stagnation in local planning. Whereas the wealthy want to retain the value of their property, and therefore reject any attempts to increase supply, the poor are also worried about new developments gentrifying the area and pricing them out.
When this is coupled with often inadequate transportation networks it is a recipe for all of the five forces of stagnation (alongside stagnation, fragility, inauthenticity, and dysfunctional competition) that they believe are resulting in our generally disappointing economic environment today.
This lack of mobility is especially important in a time of technological as well as economic disruption. Indeed, Oxford University’s Carl Benedikt Frey highlights “mobility vouchers” as a key tool to help people adapt to technological disruption.
“Historically, migration was the mechanism by which cities adjusted to trade and technology shocks,” he says. “Workers moved to areas where new industries created an abundance of well-paying, semiskilled manufacturing jobs.”
This migratory flow has become gummed up, however, with the unskilled now increasingly less likely to move. Frey argues that mobility vouchers could help to cover the costs of moving to a new region, and effectively subsidize this relocation.
This “new normal” is also likely to require cities to be greener and more sustainable places, as the pandemic has boosted our desire for green spaces and breathable air. Indeed, research from the University of the Basque Country argues that there is a growing desire for metrics surrounding urban sustainability to be more transparent.
“The last two decades have seen significant growth in the spread of tools to classify and measure urban performance (rankings, indexes, etc.) across both the public and private institutions that use them, in response to different types of pressures encouraging uniformity,” the researchers say. “Naturally, all these tools are useful for guiding and assessing the policies implemented by local authorities in various fields of action, and are particularly prolific in the area of sustainability. Yet there is a lack of knowledge about the actual methodological base underpinning them and which is supposed to legitimize their use.”
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Safe Cities Index 2021 reveals that sustainability policies are common in most city authorities today, but the challenge now is delivering on the expectations of citizens. It seems likely that technology will play a crucial role in achieving these ambitious goals.
Sustainability was a key theme of this year’s Mobile World Congress, with the likes of Huawei’s Ryan Ding outlining their green strategy to provide more bits with fewer watts. Indeed, Ding argued that new technologies could reduce emissions by up to ten times. Such developments underpin the company’s new network carbon intensity index, which they hope will allow easier performance comparisons between network facilities.
Such technologies underpin efforts by the likes of Singapore to become a “Smart Nation“. The country has become a test-bed for smart city technologies, with hundreds of local and international partners working together to improve the lives of citizens. There is no reason why cities have to flounder in the wake of the pandemic, but if they are to continue to thrive it is inevitable that they will need to get smarter and more sustainable.
For this to become the reality, smart and digital cities need to do a better job of providing real and tangible benefits to citizens. There is also clearly a need to be transparent about the way data is collected and what it is used for, as well as engaging citizens in the solutions developed. As in so many areas, however, the pandemic has driven quite a fundamental change in how cities approach and utilize technology.
“Yes, it, unfortunately, took a pandemic to accelerate the smart city movement, but even without a pandemic it goes very fast as technology moves forward very quickly,” Edwin Diender, CIO Global Energy Business Unit at Huawei, says. “It really helps and allows us to do better in all areas of life because that’s ultimately what technology should be there to provide.”
Despite some of the hyperbole written in the early months of the pandemic, cities were never likely to become obsolete, but they do need to change to tackle some of the very real challenges presented by the pandemic. There is certainly ample desire for such changes to take place. The challenge now is to make them happen.
There’s a strong sense that the “smart city” as a concept has always been somewhat nebulous, not least because of the vast variety of different definitions for the term. What is increasingly clear, however, is that for cities to maintain their effectiveness and their appeal in the post-Covid world, they will need to utilize technology more effectively to become more intelligent, while also introducing policy innovations that allow cities to achieve their true potential. This transformation does appear inevitable, even if it’s a transformation that may happen largely behind the scenes.