A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – think mass production – has been the prevailing mindset of the world’s urban planners for the last 100 years. But unprecedented trends that are already revolutionizing the look, feel and function of today’s cities are rapidly rendering this mindset obsolete. Health and well-being are taking center stage among cities looking to create a new and reimagined future for urban life.

The global pandemic’s profound impact has accelerated the pace of emerging changes that today hold unmistakable implications for the decline of the traditional ‘centralized-city’ model and the future of cities. Long-embraced key assumptions of traditional urban planning are being challenged – prompting cities and their leaders to take a hard look at how they will rethink the future.

Cities are now at a historic inflection point as health, sustainability and community well-being gain new prominence among the public eye. And this new environment should demand a new mindset and strategic planning toward smart, sustainable, innovative cities featuring technologies and enabling infrastructures that support exciting new ways of living, working and playing while respecting local conditions and cultural norms.

City life is going to local as never before

With the pandemic-induced shift in work models from city-centered workplaces to residential settings, people everywhere are typically eliminating the time, effort and cost needed for the daily commute to work. As a result, fewer employees are occupying once-busy offices and facilities, public transit use has declined and urban thoroughfares in many cities are experiencing less congestion and in some cases, different types of congestion.

While the decline of the central-business-district model has been underway for some time, the pandemic has sparked a new level of urgency and activity that continues to reshape global workforces as employees enthusiastically adopt work-from-home and hybrid working models. Beyond the rapid transformation of their work lives, people are increasingly embracing a localized approach to life and leisure as more activities shift to local communities and convenient online services, in the wake of the pandemic.

Health and well-being have also gained greater prominence on the public agenda. As a result, there is a dramatic new focus worldwide on open spaces and green infrastructure to enhance local living and community well-being, including more parks, health and fitness amenities and bike paths. While localized lifestyles gain popularity, however, people are not about to abandon city centers and the civic spaces that, beyond being economically productive, contribute to the vibrance and excitement of urban life.

Has the 15-minute city’s time arrived?

French scientist and urban-planning expert Carlos Moreno makes the case for what he calls the 15-minute city – noting that living in cities means “accepting a certain level of dysfunction today: long commutes, noisy streets, underutilized spaces.” The future is about putting people at the center of urban transformation – to provide convenient and reliable access to all of the services needed to live, learn and thrive within their immediate vicinity.

While it’s an innovative aspiration for developing cities, the concept of a 15-minute city has limited potential for today’s megacities, given the prohibitive cost of redesigning current infrastructures in ways that will truly transform city life as prescribed.

At the same time, however, the concept is proving not just feasible but on the horizon for some ambitious cities. Sydney is among those now working hard to implement an innovative 30-minute-city concept via multi-billion-dollar investments in transit, road and rail infrastructure across three urban fronts. Sydney has been developing its ‘three-cities’ model for some time and has two downsized business districts in place – Sydney City and North Sydney.

The Colombian city of Bogotá is also on track to significantly improve local life and reduce travel times and traffic congestion with the development of the first line of the Bogotá Metro rapid-transit service, which is now under construction and slated to be in operation by 2028.1 The US$5.16-billion, 24-kilometer project is seen as a major breakthrough in solving the city’s traffic congestion and lack of sustainable public-transit services, as both local and national governments have been unsuccessful in launching such a project for more than 40 years. Bogotá currently has no rail service and its public-transit system relies on bus service. KPMG in Colombia has collaborated with the city and its partners to structure and launch the initiative. When complete, the new 16-station line will be the main transit line for the public, giving city residents, business and visitors an unprecedented level of mobility and convenience.2

An innovative framework for a better future

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) April 2021 Framework for the Future of Real Estate report urges a future in which buildings and cities “provide comfort, are equipped for the most-unprecedented events, support people’s health and are affordable and accessible for all of society.” The report emphasizes the need for tomorrow’s cities to provide buildings and spaces that are liveable, sustainable, resilient and affordable for all.

The WEF and other global organizations are providing compelling visions and insights for the future. The WEF calls its framework for change “a conceptual infrastructure onto which the whole apparatus of 21st-century development can be grafted, allowing it to flourish in a climate that – literally and figuratively – is changing at an alarming pace.”

Progress toward modern urban living will require a sustained focus on enhancing the quality of life for every citizen. Unfortunately, income inequality, chronic unemployment, a lack of affordable housing, inadequate access to basic necessities and other significant challenges continue to impair progress for many cities and their occupants. Smart, strategic use of technology to address today’s inequity and inclusion challenges will improve the reach of public services and deliver access to citizens in neighborhoods, communities and rural areas that remain largely isolated or under-represented.

Putting problems first, solutions second

While many cities are pursuing strategies and technologies that are improving their responsiveness to public needs, our research shows that cities generally remain far more adept at identifying and understanding public needs than they are at delivering appropriate outcomes. But the future demands innovative services that are timely, efficient and outcome-based.

That needs to begin with a strategic new approach in which cities are dedicating the time, resources and funding needed to accurately identify service gaps and specific public needs prior to acquiring and implementing new technology. An outcome-based approach will require a new problem-first, solution-second mindset – one that ultimately enables the application of powerful modern technologies where they are needed and in ways that provide evidence-based, citizen-customer-centric solutions.

This includes the need for agile thinking and user-centric service design – a fundamental shift in the way people talk about, plan for and design urban outcomes. User-centric service design is a way of thinking that ensures each required outcome is neither prescribed nor over-defined but focused on each user’s specific needs.

London, for example, has established a Smart London digital platform that encourages the public to provide public-service feedback that’s proving instrumental in helping to create the type of experiences needed for the future. London’s stated mission is to become the world’s ‘smartest city’ – using technology, data and valuable public input to meet public needs and enhance future services, growth and prosperity.

Key takeaways

  • Progress toward modern urban living will include a sustained focus on enhancing the well-being and quality of life for each and every citizen-customer, using technology to provide service access that will address economic, social and health inequities. We believe inclusion is the way forward.
  • Cities should use technology to address the full spectrum of problem solving toward a new future: gather evidence, analyze needs and formulate solutions, as opposed to randomly implementing technology for limited gains.
  • City leaders should invest in new digital and data capabilities for modern governance, to build new cultures of innovation, agility and flexibility, while respecting the fact that not all individual people are fully digitally enabled.