If you thought cities would return to normal after the pandemic, prepare to be disappointed. Too much has changed. Hybrid and remote work models are here to stay. Retail patterns have changed indelibly. Citizen expectations and needs have rapidly evolved. And the way people interact with their infrastructure has been transformed.
Even before the pandemic struck, city leaders knew they were in tight competition for resources, investment and talent. They recognized that the 'magnetism' of cities had changed polarity. Rather than drawing in the best and brightest, some cities had become synonymous with urban blight, decay and broken dreams. The pandemic made it clear that cities could no longer rely on their network effect alone.
In established cities, we are seeing new technologies and concepts radically disrupt the character of the CBD. The most obvious have been the shift to remote work (which moved commercial workers out of office buildings and into suburbs) and the rapid adoption of e-commerce (which shifted retail workers out of stores and into distribution centers). But new ideas and technologies are rapidly taking shape. Some cities are considering building underground distribution systems to get delivery trucks off local roads. Others are already in pilots to see if drones can do the same thing. Less futuristic ideas are also taking hold - such as the `space-time shifting' of city activities to balance out resource usage and congestion.
Here, the developing and emerging markets have the upper hand. With less legacy and fewer sunk costs to worry about, we are seeing a range of new concepts floated (and occasionally financed) that could radically reshape the city as we know it. From Saudi Arabia's proposed mega-city, The Line, through to Hong Kong's new metropolis, we are seeing new cities being designed and developed as role models of the shared economy where work, play and live agendas overlap. Existing cities have to sprint to keep up. Some will, some won't.
Every city and every population is unique. And so each government will need to create a vision for their city that is consistent with the norms and customs of their own society. Radically different concepts will likely emerge, thrive and peacefully coexist. Policy makers will need to be able to translate these expectations and demands into the design of their cities - particularly when it comes to housing, transport and commercial infrastructure. Each city and society will evolve in line with their unique attributes. One size doesn't fit all and there will be an infinite number of adaptation pathways. There may be massive opportunities for the private sector to play a key role in driving the economic engines that cities represent.
This year, expect to see city, regional and national governments start to engage in real and collaborative debates on what value cities can deliver. And, with that, expect to see a much greater focus on bringing together the essential ingredients to drive the work, play and live agenda.