Post-Covid cities must be smart cities
In the early months of the Covid pandemic, when so many of us shifted to working from home, there was much discussion about what this might mean for cities. For many years, the dominant narrative was that cities were the engines of our economies, the agglomeration effect bringing together talent and consumers to make cities extremely attractive environments for work, rest and leisure.
Concern spread, however, that the very technologies that allowed us all to work from home would mean we could, in theory, work from anywhere, meaning we wouldn’t need to be tied to cities to work for companies based there. . Would small towns be transformed into “Zoom towns”, with towns hollowed out of their former glory?
Cities have long been seen as the engines of the economy. For example, before Covid, Tokyo alone was estimated to have a GDP of around $1.6 trillion, while Tokyo, London, New York, Shanghai and Los Angeles alone are expected to generate around $8.5 trillion. dollars of GDP by 2035.
These melting pots are as dynamic socially as they are economically, with the exchange of cultures and ideas being a key element of their success. These factors are fundamental to the attractiveness of cities and there is strong evidence to suggest that these factors will remain important even as technology makes working from anywhere possible.
There is also a strong argument that digital investments in our cities will make them even more attractive. For many years, the smart city movement struggle really unite behind a coherent strategy, which has resulted in lukewarm support to the public for technologies of which they saw little interest.
However, as in other areas of life, the pandemic has also impacted the performance of smart cities. For example, Singapore is regularly at the top of the ranking Smart Cities Indexand a common characteristic of those who top these rankings is that they have also been able to effectively manage the pandemic through smart technologies.
A smarter normal
As we contemplate our post-Covid future, there is a strong case that the smart city technologies that have been so essential to combating the pandemic can also be essential to ensuring cities maintain a vibrant future. Indeed, Klaus Kunzmann from the University of Dortmund argue that the pandemic has been a boon to the smart city movement.
“Actors who promote the development of smart cities will benefit from the crisis and use their experience of the temporary shutdown to accelerate the digital transformation of 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 digitized transformation processes in cities.”
At the heart of this will be the fight against the inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated. For example, data reveals that black adults were about three times more likely to experience food insecurity or layoff during the pandemic. Similarly, those without a college education were twice as likely to suffer from these problems as those with a college degree, and those without even a high school education were four times more likely to suffer from it.
“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,” explain the researchers. “This work demonstrates the need for strategically deployed relief efforts and longer-term policy reforms to address the long-lasting 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 advantages, whether in terms of more innovation, higher levels of productivity, better access to private and public services, and even greater preservation of green spaces.
These benefits come at a price, however, as the premium placed on space makes housing expensive, which tends to increase levels of inequality. The data revealed that highly skilled workers benefit from high density with higher wages, but less skilled workers struggle with the high cost of living in the city. A densely populated city can also have obvious problems with congestion and air pollution, which can have a negative impact on the health of citizens.
Many of these inequalities have arisen due to unequal access to essential services. It’s a process that gave 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 bonus was accompanied by housing regulations who are as strict as they have ever been. Historically, when housing regulations were lax, houses were priced quite close to their cost of production, which, in addition to making housing inherently affordable, also meant that it was much easier for people to moving from areas of the country with fewer prospects to those with more prospects.
While the typical narrative is that housing is unaffordable for the poor, as it is the fault of the poor for having insufficient funds, the reality is that corporations have a slew of regulations that strangle supply, harming the whole society.
Imperial College’s Jonathan Haskel and his colleague Stian Westlake explain in their recent book Reboot the future, that both rich and poor often contribute to the stagnation of local planning. While the wealthy want to retain the value of their property and therefore reject any attempt to increase supply, the poor are also concerned about new developments that gentrify the area and put a price on them.
When this is paired with often inadequate transport networks, it is a recipe for the five forces of stagnation (alongside stagnation, fragility, inauthenticity, and dysfunctional competition) which they say drives our generally disappointing economic environment today.
This lack of mobility is particularly important at a time of technological and economic upheaval. Indeed, Carl Benedikt Frey, of the University of Oxford, highlights “mobility vouchers” as a key tool to help people adapt to technological upheaval.
“Historically, migration was the mechanism by which cities adapted to trade and technology shocks,” he says. “Workers have moved to areas where new industries have created an abundance of well-paid, semi-skilled manufacturing jobs.”
However, this migratory flow has slowed down, with the unskilled now less and less likely to move. Frey argues that mobility vouchers could help defray the costs of moving to a new area and effectively subsidize that relocation.
This “new normal” is also likely to require cities to be greener and more sustainable places, as the pandemic has spurred our desire for green spaces and breathable air. In effect, research from the University of the Basque Country argues that there is a growing desire for measures surrounding urban sustainability to be more transparent.
“The last two decades have seen a significant diffusion of tools for classifying and measuring urban performance (ranking, index, etc.) in the public and private institutions that use them, in response to different types of pressure favoring standardization ,say the researchers. “Naturally, all these tools are useful for guiding and evaluating the policies implemented by local authorities in various fields of action, and are particularly prolific in the field of sustainability. Yet there is a lack of knowledge about the actual methodological basis that underlies them and that is supposed to legitimize their use.
The Economist Intelligence Unit Safe Cities Index 2021 reveals that sustainability policies are common in most city authorities today, but the challenge now is to meet citizen expectations. It seems likely that technology will play a crucial role in achieving these ambitious goals.
Sustainability was a key theme at this year’s Mobile World Congress, with Huawei’s Ryan Ding outlining its green strategy to deliver 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 make it easier to compare performance between network facilities.
These technologies underpin Singapore’s efforts 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 for cities to flounder following of the pandemic, but if they are to continue to thrive, it is inevitable that they will have to become smarter and more sustainable.
To make this a reality, smart and digital cities need to do a better job of delivering real and tangible benefits to citizens. There is also a clear need to be transparent about how data is collected and what it is used for, as well as involving citizens in the solutions developed. As in many areas, however, the pandemic has brought about a pretty fundamental shift in how cities approach and use technology.
“Yes, unfortunately it took a pandemic to accelerate the smart city movement, but even without a pandemic, it’s going very fast because the technology is advancing very quickly,” said Edwin Diender, CIO Global Energy Business Unit at Huawei. “It really helps us and enables 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 will likely never become obsolete, but they must change to meet some of the very real challenges presented by the pandemic. There is certainly a great desire for such changes to take place. The challenge now is to make them happen.
There is a strong sense that the “smart city” as a concept has always been somewhat nebulous, not least because of the wide variety of different definitions of the term. What is increasingly clear, however, is that for cities to retain their efficiency and appeal in the post-Covid world, they will need to use technology more effectively to become smarter, while introducing policy innovations. that enable cities to reach their true potential. This transformation seems inevitable, even though much of it can happen behind the scenes.