2020 saw the start of a global pandemic that has created a wave of change that has swept around the world leaving no country untouched.
For several decades we have seen the global population occupation moving toward cities. This global pandemic has made us all painfully aware that living in such close proximity, also increases the exposure to the virus spread, so in turn our physical and mental health is at more risk. City centres have seen a dramatic change and, in many cases, bearing the core economic impact of multiple lockdowns.
The pandemic has caused us to spend more time in our local neighbourhood places with many of us being re-introduced to our local amenities, outdoor public spaces, and community, re-introducing us to our “place”. This has led to a surge of growth for many localised businesses and in fact many have thrived during the pandemic.
This pandemic has created a fire break for the planners of our Smart Cites and caused us to pause and review. From a citizen stance, it has enabled us to re-evaluate our lifestyle. Many have dramatically reduced their travel. Around the world we have seen people walking and using bikes as methods of transportation rather than using public transport or even their own cars. During the lockdowns we have also seen evidence of pollution levels being reduced; the air became cleaner. We have seen a significant increase in people who have had more time to spend with their families because they are no longer commuting. Communities have been rekindled, with “caring for each other” becoming one of the positive outcomes.
The city centre shopping areas in the UK have suffered because of the long periods of lockdown and digital online purchasing becoming the normal. We have seen some ‘non-essential’ retail shopping chains closing their high street shops all together which is creating city high streets with large swathes of empty buildings.
In the UK we have seen some large retail chains going into liquidation and when the UK lockdown restrictions on high street shops opened again in December 2020, the shopper numbers were down by a quarter on the 2019 figure (BBC News, 2020)
This pandemic is leaving us with a long-held memory of the dramatic change that took the lives we had accepted as normal and apparently good; and challenged its validity.
As the global pandemic continues to keep a hold on us all, it is difficult to see exactly what the new city centre normal will look like. What is certain is that what was normal before, will not be again. We were already witnessing the gradual shift from this high density living and working. Digital advances are enabling the shift away from “physical place” to “presence” which has been exponentially forced forward during the pandemic. In the UK the move to online doctor services is believed to have forced forward the digitalisation of the Health Service by 5 years.
We will see major changes to the way we live, work, access healthcare, travel and socialise and that is likely to remain the new normal for some time to come. We know that the move to working from home is likely to continue for some time and again this may become the normal working practice for a very large percentage of the working community.
However, homeworking 100% of the time is not the full answer. We have already seen the impact on mental health and the reduction of innovation and creativity that working remotely has created. Employers need to consider repurposing their current offices to create environments for people to come together with their different thoughts and ideas to create, collaborate, share, and learn. This is human nature at its best and needs to have a place in our cities of the future.
For many this period has increased their deprivation with the lack of digital skills and access leaving so many further behind as their physical access to work, education and health care was shut off and moved online. The lack of connectivity, relevant equipment, or knowledge to utilise these facilities has compounded their already difficult living circumstances.
Household and business premise’s right to the basic utilities of water and power must move to include connectivity. The telecommunications business models do not lend themselves well to the provision of connectivity in our rural or deprived areas. Too often the provision of connectivity is at a premium cost which makes it unaffordable for the very people who can least afford the high cost, but most need the access; to lift themselves out of their cycle of marginalization and or deprivation.
Until we add “people” and basic rights to connectivity into the planning mix, we are not likely to see the current delivery models address the need to provide communications as a utility service to all.
Urban living is more than just the centre of our physical cities, the city plans and designs going forward must include the communities that have been left behind.
Find out more
If you wish to read more about some of the work we undertook in Bristol and so many others from around the world please feel free to download a copy of the Smart City Top Agenda, Smart Global Journal 2021 book which was sponsored by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and Korea Agency for Infrastructure Technology Advancement
About the Author
Julie Snell, Vice President of the Urban Technology Alliance, Chair of Scotland 5G Centre, Non Executive Director Herefordshire & Worcestershire Health & Care NHS Trust, Non-Executive Director Worcester Local Enterprise Partnership.
Julie Snell has 30 + years’ experience as a business leader having successfully established new technology markets and leading technology innovation in telecoms / digital IT.
Julie was part of the leadership team that developed BT’s first public Wifi project, BT Openzone. She spent five years on the board of the global telco group Wireless Broadband Alliance, two years as Chair. In 2017, Julie was appointed as director and CEO of Bristol’s Smart City infrastructure and computer network company Bristol is Open.