The planning of cities is shaped by stories. What counts as the challenges cities face and how we approach them are shaped by the stories we tell, be it the sustainable city, the entrepreneurial city or the resilient city. One such story that has significant recent traction and widespread support is the smart city.
The smart city provides both a way to understand cities – as complex systems of related elements – while also pointing to a set of solutions, from traffic congestion to crime. Smart can ‘solve’ the problems of cities and do so cheaply. And in many ways smart is making a difference as cities around the globe buy into a digital story, offering information and services online, seeking to create the next knowledge hub to drive prosperity and looking at how citizens can be better empowered and engaged. While there are undoubted benefits to a digitally connected city, there are also many questions and consequences: Who owns the digital city? Where are the data coming from? Who decides what algorithm is used to determine where police resources should be focused?
Such questions aside, there are also other elements of the digital revolution that we need to reflect upon, issues that will have even more significant, longer-term impacts on our cities and, potentially, the future of the planet.
In 2020, the pandemic forced the world to move online, accelerating ongoing trends in work, education and retail, vindicating the investment in digital infrastructure and emphasis on smart. Generation Zoom was born. Cities became devoid of people and the usual hustle and bustle, and we all speculated about the post-COVID-19 world: Would we ever physically return to work? Would bricks-and-mortar shops be a thing of the past? What would the future city look like and how would we plan it? What we do know is that the impacts of the pandemic on cities will not land evenly: some will prosper and some will not. But in many ways, the pandemic is taking the attention off some of the underlying, seismic shifts that smart and digital are bringing to our cities.
Take housing affordability. Prior to the pandemic, many cities around the world were experiencing the Airbnb effect, as residents let out properties for short-term visitors. In the centre of Paris, a quarter of all properties are now no longer homes, but purely short-term rentals for tourists. In 2019, Airbnb’s site listed more than six million rooms, flats and houses in over 80,000 locations across the globe. That year around two million people stayed in an Airbnb-rented property every night. Many cities are reporting that developers and investors are buying up properties solely to rent out through Airbnb. The impact on housing affordability is increasing, and the controls that cities have are limited.
At the same time, the digital economy is having profound impacts on the nature of work and local economies. What some term the ‘gig economy’, and others the ‘platform economy’ is now firmly embedded and disrupting existing business models and services. Over the past 12 months, the activities of companies like Uber, Deliveroo and Task Rabbit have exploded, supporting people during the pandemic. Yet the underlying business model is one that is causing cities anxiety as the impacts of zero contract hours, no sick pay and long working days take their toll on individuals and society. Yet this is not the only digital disruption that cities are concerned about. The OECD estimates that 9 per cent of urban jobs are at risk of automation while a further 25 per cent will be disrupted in some way. Combine this with the effects of globalisation, and one in five jobs in cities could go. Like the impacts of the pandemic more generally, this economic disruption will not fall evenly on or within cities – lower-income jobs are twice as likely to be replaced and these are the roles that are disproportionately held by women.
Finally, the digital revolution has affected the way in which we come together to focus on the challenges that our cities face. A key element in collective responses is information and engagement. While digital has opened up huge amounts of information and opportunities for engagement, the focus of the past few years has also been on fake news and echo bubbles or how digital shapes the news. This is only one part of the issue, however. The impact of the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter on local news has been devastating. Advertisers have shifted their business and the loss of advertising revenue to local and regional newspapers has dropped by more than half over the past decade. Staff numbers in local newspapers have dropped by a third in the US and the UK, with more expensive forms of investigative journalism being hardest hit. In the US, more than 500 newspapers have closed since 2010. In the UK the number is around 200. We now rely far more on social media as a source for news and thereby lose important, local sources of information and analysis. The weakening of the connection with the local brings with it a loss of interest. There is also the added issue of collective decision making. Cities require us to live together and address the challenges that come with that, understanding different viewpoints and needs. Yet rather than bringing us closer together we now live further apart as we are fed news that reinforces our views rather than exposes us to different perspectives.
Why does any of this matter? Cities have faced disruptions before from coal and steam to petrol and reinforced concrete. They have evolved and retained their relevance. But there are two, broad reasons why things are different this time.
The first is that cities are critical to our response to the climate emergency, through collective responses and the ability to shift behaviour. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities and this proportion is growing annually. If we lose control of our cities and our ability to act collectively then we do not stand much of a chance of addressing the biggest existential challenge that humankind faces. Second, smart cities and the digital revolution are partial in their focus and actions. Cities face a myriad of challenges that are endemic, intractable and wicked: in the areas of health, addiction, homelessness, skills and education. These complex and deep-seated problems are not easily addressed through digital or smart technology.
As we all lose ourselves in our digital worlds, the real world becomes less important. It’s time to look up from our smartphones and re-engage with the ‘forgotten city’ – the bits that digital doesn’t touch. So, what can we do to ensure our cities evolve rather than face extinction? The first thing is to give cities the full attention they deserve. The whole city needs our attention, not just the parts that can generate data and price-surging business models. Taking a holistic perspective is one thing, but acting on it is another. Once we have decided what it is we want to achieve, we’ll need to reflect on how it can be delivered. The traditional levers of planning have been diminished, making it difficult to actually control and manage change in the ways we are used to. There are a number of dimensions to this. First, planning traditionally regulates physical space but there is little point in controlling physical uses if the challenges are coming from digital – online retail bypasses planning with its focus on actual shops and services. Second, the digital economy also eschews traditional spaces of planning. While the space of cities is largely bounded and conceived of as work or housing areas, the digital city is something else completely. The connectivity that comes with digital focuses on two main spaces – the individual and the global. We are the market for digital services and give away our data in return for what seem to be ‘free’ services. At the other end of the spatial scale, London increasingly has more in common with San Francisco and Singapore when it comes to the challenges of competing in the digital world. Finally, the traditional, linear model of planning sits uneasily with the non-sequential fleet-of-foot reality that underpins digital. Predicting the future – a mainstay of planning controls – is not only difficult; it is also slow and out of step with the kind of world that is emerging. The temporal challenge to planning isn’t simply one of making quicker decisions. Time is being hollowed out as the focus of digital is two kinds of time: the immediate, one-click culture of now, and the somewhere-in-the-distance kick-it-down-the-road vague promise of a better world enabled by smart. The medium-term five-to-ten-year strategies that are the bread and butter of city planning fall between these two.
Planning isn’t renowned for adapting easily or at all. It is, by its nature, ponderous and measured. Yet the challenges cities and planning face are immediate and pressing. It’s time to re-engage fully with the real world of cities to help ensure they have a future in the post-pandemic world.
Phil Allmendinger is Professor of Land Economy and Fellow of Clare College at the University of Cambridge.
The Forgotten City: Rethinking Digital Living for Our People and the Planet by Phil Allmendinger available to order on the Policy Press website for £15.99.
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