Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, several workers have left their offices and residents have fled from city center homes, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of large employment hubs and mega-cities. The rise of remote working and the digital economy has lime lighted questions regarding the death and life of small and enormous cities. An analysis that uses US Postal Service data shows that the pandemic prompted an unusually large flow of urban residents out of New York and San Francisco, two regions with a high share of jobs that can be done remotely. However, some smaller regional metropolitan areas and vacation hubs have benefited from this in-migration.
Will cities be different post-pandemic? Will mega-cities still attract residents and businesses? How will small cities evolve and what will they do differently? Is being a smart city a reasonable solution for better shaping the city with the challenge of the post-pandemic paradigm? In this week’s ANBOUND & ESI Q&A blog post, we get together to rethink what post-pandemic cities will look like.
Q1: What permanent effects can we expect once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror? Will cities decline, simply “return to normal,” or chart a path to something else entirely?
Chia Siang Kim, Chief Editor, ANBOUND Malaysia: An unexpected result of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has given cities the opportunity to change. To contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, countries have been, and are expected to continuously impose lockdown measures from time to time. This effectively has forced busy urban life to pause, allowing it to alter either passively or actively. With such changes, urban planning should be contemplated on the aspects of adaptation and innovation, in which sustainable development concepts should gradually make their way into the urban living environment.
The impositions of movement restrictions to larger areas have now become a norm in many places. Even after the subside of the spread of COVID-19, the world will not be the same again; it is not probable to return to the old normal, and this can very well create a catalyst for urban renewals. Urban development is a dynamic process，and the fluidity of cities should be re-considered in the post-pandemic world. It is projected that in the next stage of development, cities will witness a prominent increase in pedestrian access to commercial and residential areas. This is particularly true when considering the work-from-home practice and online education, which has become normalized during the pandemic time, will be likely to retain in some degree or another, even after the pandemic is brought under control. It is expected that more and more commercial, educational, recreational, dining amenities will be accessible through pedestrian walkways or within short-distance transit in urban and suburban designs in the future.
Dick Voith, Founding Principal, ESI: Cities are always changing, even cities that have been around for 1000 years. They won’t return to “normal” because normal for cities is adapting to something new. The forces that drive the growth of cities are the need for social interaction and the resultant happenstance that leads to innovation. The forces affecting cities, however, do change, and successful cities will adapt to the changing forces. One of the forces that everyone talks about is the demonstrated ability to work remotely. Whether remote work can generate the productivity growth and innovation associated with the density of interactions in the cities is an open question—I think it is very unlikely but only time will tell. However, the working remote phenomenon will likely have two crucial implications that successful cities and, indeed countries, will have to adapt to.
First, since work opportunities will increasingly span the globe regardless of where people live, successful cities will have to focus on providing a high quality of life to succeed. Cities will continue to fulfill their traditional role if they deliver an attractive quality of life. Second, some types of firms that are not innovation-focused will seek very low-cost locations—which are where people will want to live. Thus it will be difficult for cities to retain some sorts of business and the tax revenues they may generate. On the other hand, the concentration of innovation-oriented businesses in cities is likely to continue. Moreover, businesses located in cities may have even larger impacts from their urban location as they are connected to a larger workforce.
Sidney Wong, Senior Advisor, ESI: A one-time crisis such as an earthquake seldom alters urban development. More permanent urban changes are the result of either structural trends such as long-term demographic shift or persistent investment that reshapes urban form, the building of the Interstate Highway being one notable example. Thus, whether the COVID-19 pandemic alters our urban future largely depends on how post-pandemic era life will be. Yet, hopes on herd immunity through complete vaccination to return to normalcy seem not probable. The resistance to vaccination is substantial, and the world is facing extreme disparity in access to vaccines. In this regard, the post-pandemic era free of local outbreaks, partial lockdown, and restrictions on international travels will take a while to arrive. In the medium term, we see decentralization at work. Yet, over time, centrality will regain its importance. Vibrant and healthy city neighborhoods will bounce back. Changes in the workplace arrangements are likely to stay. Telecommuting, office hoteling, and online conferencing that have reduced office demand in cities could remain as a long-lasting cost measure.
Q2: The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the global adoption of new technology. From the beginning of the outbreak, smart city solutions helped governments all over the world to facilitate quick responses to healthcare emergencies by utilizing their innovative digital approaches. Do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a chance for smart city development to be accelerated in the US and China? If so, what are some of the prioritized areas that smart city technologies can be used for the recovery and rebirth of the post-pandemic cities?
Wang Yi, Head of Global Development Program, ANBOUND: Digital transformation has picked up its pace in China. In the 14th Five-Year Plan and 2035 vision, China has set goals that leverage technology innovation in urban and rural governance and livability. Digital solutions will be incorporated into municipal planning, public spaces, and building. In April 2020, there were 13 provinces that committed to investing 34 trillion yuan in “new infrastructure”, namely, high-tech projects related to 5G, intercity rail transit, Big Data platforms, artificial intelligence, and industrial networks. In facing unprecedented challenges especially in mobility, public health service and resource allocation. Megacities are now exploring the tailored model of smart management by using technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and AI. Megacity leaders too are improving their accountability in smart cities. The digital opportunities presented would allow the citizens’ e-participation in policy initiatives at the early stage, which is conducive for appropriate actions to be taken when the needs arise.
Dick Voith: It is certainly true that the pandemic accelerated the global adoption of new technology. It also helped expose the vexing problem that technology has enabled the world, countries, and communities to segment into groups that simply do not communicate with one another. It has also enabled the creation of alternative realities that are not based on kinds of knowledge that have allowed more than a billion people to escape subsistence living in the last 30 years. If we fail to achieve a sufficient degree of common understanding among diverse peoples, it will be difficult to fully benefit from the tremendous technological advances in information technology, medicine, and energy. The challenge is to use smart city technologies, create and ensure inclusive governance that balances individual freedom and common goods. To date, we seem to have used technology to separate from one another or worse for oppression, but we haven’t been able to harness the power of technology to bring diverse people together. We need to use smart technology smarter.
Q3: One of the major challenges that many countries including China and the US face is the declining and aging population. A number of countries in the world are projected to become aging societies in the next few decades if they have not already become so. In this regard, how can urban renovation and smart cities cater to the need of the graying population?
Wang Yi: Foreseeably, digital welfare needs to be functional to reassure the elderly’s requirements regardless if it is in a city district, or in a rural village. The equality of access to the internet and mobile gadgets will become crucial for older people during an emergency or in a time of uncertainty. Therefore, cities and their stakeholders can offer more assistance to those who are most vulnerable in adapting to the digital era, by aiding the greying population to access the resources so as to learn and improve their living skills. In establishing a better living environment, no one should be left behind.
There are multiple technological aspects in the digital solutions that help to tackle issues faced by the population of older age. This would include technological collaboration, develop aging products integrated with VR, AI, cloud, IoT, 5G/6G, robotics, biometrics, and measures in anti-digital crime. Age-friendly cities will be well protected with advanced care services, i.e., remote health monitoring, online diagnosis, daily care robots, and mental comfort. New forms of businesses will also emerge, providing the aging population with more desirable health care, Medicare as well as leisure and entertainment for the older adults to live the best of their life. Through the combination of capital initiatives with industry and finance, urban investment can be directed into public services and welfare enhancement, which will, in turn, benefit all walks of society.
Sidney Wong: To better take care of the graying population, traditional housing design needs to change to accommodate safe living standards. We will see the development of Apps that monitor residents’ health conditions, take care of shopping and social needs, and arrange transportation trips and home deliveries. In this regard, the home-care industry needs to be transformed to better integrate with big data and smart city technology.
ESI and ANBOUND formed a strategic partnership in 2019, and are committed to providing research and consulting services to clients, expanding their horizons through in-depth international collaboration, and jointly proposing public policy recommendations and solutions for promoting high-quality economic development. ANBOUND is a multinational independent think tank based in China and Malaysia, which specializes in public policy research covering geopolitics and international relations, urban and social development, industrial issues, and macro-economy.