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by Jonathan Reades and Martin Crookston
18th March 2021

City economies have looked very vulnerable to the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. But this is exaggerated. Cities’ crucial offer – of central place, access and face-to-face contact – is what will mean their recovery and continued growth. 

The pandemic has been running a full-strength test of what an ’e-only’ work world could be like for many people and firms. It has raised all sorts of questions about the future of cities.

Now that we have the prospect of the pandemic’s grip eventually loosening, it seems worth asking what might its impact on urban life in the long term actually turn out to be?  Working from home (instantly rebranded as WFH) … the role of IT … impact on commuting … the future of central-city offices … Forecasts have ranged from ‘things will never be the same again’ to ‘things will be remarkably like they were before’.

But after over a year of COVID-19, and combined with the seeming vulnerability of urban economies to the impacts of IT and, in particular, artificial intelligence (AI), the end of the city’s dominance could seem imminent.

Why cities will still matter

Mark Twain famously telegraphed that ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’.  So too for cities. Cities were the future at the start of 2020. And they’re still the future in 2021. Why is this? Crucially, because modern high-added-value businesses will still need high-intensity central places: busy, well-connected, hyper-convenient. They are engaged in what are called ‘opaque’ markets, uncertain settings with a heavy reliance on judgement rather than calculation. They need to reduce risk, to understand clients and be understood by them, and to make their business decisions on a basis of confidence, not certainty. Face-to-face contact (F2F) is a core component of those judgements.

Interviews in Central London – conducted both before and after the virus hit – show that there’s a constant whirl of quick contacts, and despite the availability of many digital alternatives, there seem to be more, not fewer, such interactions, particularly in the early evening (‘lunch is dead’ in many sectors). In this matrix, F2F is more important, not less. The range of contact ‘channels’ is undoubtedly wider and deeper than at any time in the past, but face-to-face contact provides extra ‘bandwidth’ that other channels cannot, especially for tacit, understood and inferred information and knowledge transfer. Transactional exchanges can rely on ICT, but for insight and knowledge, F2F will always have the edge.

So what will change?

Now we are not saying ‘it’ll be all be back to as-before’. But it’s important to think about what changes, and what doesn’t – both because of IT and AI, and post-COVID-19.

The experience will strengthen tendencies that already existed; but it will not create fundamentally new ones. Change will have been accelerated by COVID-19 and the greater use of ICT and AI. But they won’t have caused it. They are making the same adjustments that ‘new tech’ has been making for 200 years, since coal and steam and capital launched the first Industrial Revolution.

And so in the urban-space economy, more businesses will ask ‘why are we here?’  In this world of change for cities, who’s going, and who’s staying? We know the greatest benefits of central-city proximity will continue to be to firms in uncertain markets with complex outputs, short product cycles and constantly changing transaction patterns: high finance, consultancies and creative/cultural organisations are the likely ‘stayers’. At the ‘going’ end of the scale are sectors such as technical R&D, logistics and many of the back-office functions of banks and other large employers. It is the type of input or output – and associated search and experience costs – that determines whether it’s actually worth the investment in a city location. This is a continuing process, not a new one.

And what won’t? The ‘place’ dimension

But lots won’t change, or not in such striking ways. Cities and towns will fall back into recognisable and long-established patterns. World city dominance will continue. Central London, Lower Manhattan and Paris-Ville will hold on to, and continue to attract, businesses and markets with a high degree of customisation, quality-sensitive clients, collaboration for complex outputs and advice to decision makers.

For many of the major regional cities, too, there’s much promise: the task is to cement their long-established role as their catchment area’s attractive market and social centre in a world of online shopping and offshored office jobs. Smaller places – despite excitable prognoses of a flood of businesses relocating to pleasant market towns – will need to work at it. There is potential, because of their convenience and lower cost base; but also menace, because sometimes those apparent advantages will be undercut by the fact that ever more businesses can locate anywhere.

Bouncing back

The pandemic has been a grim and chilling experience, and it has hit the big cities hard. Yet if we stand back and look at the battering they took in the 20th century – particularly in the Second World War – their resilience and longevity is all the more striking. At the end of that desperate period, the insufferably bouncy ‘Chips’ Channon confided to his diary (10th January 1946):

At the fashionable, carefree Carcano-Ednam wedding reception I remarked to Emerald [Cunard] how quickly London had recovered from the war and how quickly normal life had resumed. “After all”, I said, pointing to the crowded room, “this is what we have been fighting for”. “What?”, said Emerald, “are they all Poles?”

Chips and Emerald were two of the 20th century’s great airheads, no doubt: but London did recover, and from a fearsome pounding.

‘Being there’ is still at the core of the urban experience. Even in a world of instant digital access and unparalleled connectivity, central places matter, and face-to-face contact is what they do for a living. That is their story, and it will be their future.

Dr Jonathan Reades is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL. Martin Crookston is a strategic planning consultant, with experience ranging from London and Abu Dhabi to Prague and the Paris region.

Why Face-to-Face Still Matters coverWhy Face-to-Face Still Matters by Jonathan Reades and Martin Crookston is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £15.99.

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