Photo by Nick Bolton on Unsplash

Will Coronavirus transform our cities?

As we struggle day-to-day with the coronavirus epidemic, people are wondering what it means for the future? Will it trigger profound changes, or will it fade into the background as Swine Flu, SARS and MERS have — nasty, but ultimately not enough to change society?

Richard Miller
Apr 7, 2020 · 10 min read

Specifically, what will it mean for those concentrations of people and economic activity — our cities?

At the moment, everybody is claiming that coronavirus will bring huge change to whatever is their particular interest or hobby horse. In recent days I have seen confident claims that coronavirus will lead to:

  • the end of globalisation;
  • a new isolationism and the end of multilateral structures;
  • a drastic reduction in international air transport;
  • the end of the cruise ship;
  • banning vessels from Venice now that people have seen the lagoon clear;
  • banning the internal combustion engine from cities as people have seen the improvement in air quality;
  • a drastic reduction in private vehicles in cities as people walk and cycle more;
  • collapse of the fossil fuel industry;
  • a renewed focus on the challenge of climate change or taking climate change completely off the table;
  • dramatic conversion of education, particularly tertiary education, to online courses;
  • a large part of the workforce permanently working from home;
  • further damage to high street and shopping centre retail as shopping moves further online;
  • restructuring of food supply chains as food security concerns increase;
  • the end of neoliberalism, since ‘central government action and socialism is the only way to tackle global crises’;
  • the end of centralised government, since ‘it cannot react fast enough, and we must devolve decision-making to the lowest practical level’;
  • the end of Western democracy, as ‘only those countries with strong central leadership and tight social control can deal with pandemics’;
  • and more besides.

Many of the arguments are based on assumptions about how governments will invest for recovery. The argument typically runs “with X in crisis, now is the time to use the money we will put in to rebuild the economy to complete the transition to Y”. These are political decisions and not related to the underlying technologies and systems. What will citizens demand, and what will politicians deliver?

A key question is how long the disruption lasts.

Making temporary changes permanent requires persistence above everything else. That can come from government or business leadership choosing to focus strategically on a specific outcome, or through long duration external factors, such as a permanent shift in the market. It takes time to transform our expectations and to redirect an economy as complex and interconnected as today’s.

As an example, both World Wars had a profound impact on the organisation of society in the UK, whereas the global financial crisis did not. The depth and persistence of the adaptations in war, aligned with existing societal and technological drivers, made the change permanent.

In the First World War, the drastic reduction in the pool of household servants, losing the traditional officer class and the need for the military to promote from within the ranks, led to a creeping egalitarianism. Bringing women into the workforce — and specifically middle-class women (working-class women had always worked) — provided new opportunities and gave an alternative vision for their role. This experience, coupled with long-term pressure from the suffragettes, ultimately led to women winning the vote. There were determined efforts to reverse all these changes when the war ended (particularly women in the workforce) but by that time society had got used to them. The genie could not be put back in the bottle. The pressures could not be resisted forever, and profound change followed.

Spitfire manufacture, Castle Bromwich, Birmingham 1940–46. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust

The Second World War had an equally powerful effect on the UK. To fight the war, the Government became heavily involved in the lives of citizens, even more than in the First World War. Involvement and control to a level unimaginable to the Victorians. This was successful in providing a relatively fair system and creating ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.

Evacuation stirred up the social classes again, as poor and malnourished children from the cities found themselves billeted on wealthier and more rural households, to their mutual consternation. As soldiers and evacuated children returned at the end of the war there was political pressure for government to continue to look after citizens. The Beveridge report signalled the start of the modern welfare state. They nationalised the railways (they were briefly nationalised during the First World War but handed back to the owners in 1921). The coal mines were nationalised. Massive housebuilding programmes were undertaken. These were profound changes for society.

In contrast, it is hard to see what permanent change the global financial crisis of 2008 caused. This was the deepest recession in the UK since the Second World War. The economy is £300 billion smaller today than had been expected and GDP per capita approximately £6,000 lower. Yet concerted efforts by governments in the developed world at the start of the crisis prevented a total economic meltdown. They have largely been able to put things back the way they were. The world has lost ten years of economic growth, but it has not led to riots, revolution or a reconfiguring of the economy. Populations are sullen and frustrated with austerity measures, and inequality becomes more visible and more of an issue, but little has changed. Business is still changing slowly, and society more slowly.

So what kind of disruption will Coronavirus be? A long, drawn-out crisis that forces us to reconfigure the way our society operates, or a short technical crisis that makes a mess of the GDP figures but does not change the lives of ordinary people?

What might our present experience mean for tomorrow’s towns and cities?

Lisbon under lockdown. Photo by Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash

Despite the pressures of the crisis, there are two forces which will act as a brake on change.

First, there will be immense pressure on governments to get the economy going as fast as possible so that people have jobs and income. The quickest way to do that will be to provide strong support to the existing economic models. By making political choices they might accelerate an existing trend, for example the switch to renewable energy, but they won’t have time or resources for big changes.

The second is existing infrastructure. It is there and has been paid for. Someone will use it. If there is a strong move towards permanent working from home for large numbers of people, offices in cities will be empty. They will not stand empty for long. Individual buildings can be empty for years, but not in bulk. It is too much of an opportunity. The price will drop until people return, or alternative uses found.

Where there are existing trends and drivers in place we may see some bigger shifts.

This crisis may accelerate the collapse of the high street, at least in its present form. But high streets were once not all retail. Other services have been driven away by retail dominance and may return. It used to be that doctors, dentists and council offices were all mixed in with the shops in our towns and cities. The high value that retail put on the high street drove them away. If values change, we may see more of the things that people need/want to visit.

One of the big changes everyone is talking about is working from home. As physical isolation has become a key part of the fight against coronavirus, we have shown that with modern technology you can carry out many types of work without being in a specific place. There are a lot of people excited about a future in which offices do not exist. So far, we have demonstrated it is possible to keep things going, not that this is a viable long-term way of operating businesses.

I have argued elsewhere that remote teamworking works well for the coordination of routine tasks amongst a group operating to a clear plan, but is rubbish for creative thinking and problem-solving. The rapid-fire interactions, the springboard of ideas, and let’s be honest, the excitement and shouting are a key part of co-invention. There is not enough bandwidth for more demanding collaborative activities in today’s remote teamworking tools. Once the holodeck is real, perhaps. To be fair, my friends at KnowInnovation claim to have successfully run online idea generation sessions involving hundreds of participants that were as effective as face-to-face workshops. However, even with the best current desktop collaboration and videoconferencing facilities, there will be powerful reasons for people to come together to be creative.

Well, what about the routine work? Certainly, a lot of that does not need an actual physical office. However, as social animals, socialisation with co-workers during the working day is key to the job satisfaction and mental health of many people. We are seeing a lot of stress in those forced to work from home. Perhaps we can overcome this and teach people to be more comfortable, but I think there are some fundamental psychological issues. When recruiting for mobile and remote jobs, I always made clear to applicants the stresses of working alone. Were they comfortable doing that, could they be self-starting and self-sustaining? Just how much would they miss the regular social contact with people working for the same organisation? Even if it was only to have a mutual moan about the boss.

Another problem is how well managers look after remote teams. Presenteeism is a known problem in the UK workforce, where managers mistake activity for progress. There are already signs that businesses are responding to people working from home by using tools like Zoom and keyloggers to create the mother of all panopticons. Can we change that? Can we breed enough managers who trust their workforce and put them in a monitoring and reward structure which encourages them to trust?

Some argue that not only will be no need for central offices, but entire industries will disperse. Manufacturing will be robotic or outsourced, sales and customer service located close to the customer, and all back-office functions will be anywhere we fancy. Essentially, this argues that agglomeration theory is wrong, and there will be no industrial clusters.

I don’t believe it.

Warstone Lane in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Photo by Brian Clift.

Clusters have existed forever, from the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham or Hatton Garden to Bollywood. There are just too many benefits from close proximity for emerging or rapidly changing sectors. Clusters increase productivity, improve innovation, and create new niches that new business rapidly fill. Cities are the natural environment for clusters.

Cities are machines for invention and are likely to remain so.

Cities exist for good reasons to do with the way humans have evolved. The drive to share resources, both food and intellectual resources, and the ability to specialise. The reasons for going to all the trouble of building and operating Uruk or Florence are the same as the reasons for the importance of London or New York. I can’t see that changing.

Cities have a remarkable persistence in the face of great change. You can take a map of the City of London before the Great Fire in 1666 and overlay it on today’s map to find that the main layout is almost identical. The plans by Christopher Wren for a dramatically altered city stood no chance against the combined conservatism and ownership rights of the inhabitants. The transformation of Paris by Hausmann, starting in the mid-19C, is rare. Cities fight infrastructure change.

The streets around St Paul’s Cathedral largely echo those which Londoners walked before the Great Fire. Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

My best guess is that we will see all the trends already changing cities continue. Some will accelerate, and some will be held back, but we don’t know which. Inspired by reduced congestion and cleaner air, many claim that with growth in remote working we will travel a lot less for work. The experience of recent weeks could generate social and political pressure to change the way we work, but that will take time to work through. Once the lockdown is eased there will be immense pressure to get the economy working again. That means using existing business centres and shipping goods and people by road. The existing infrastructure and ways of working will reassert themselves. But the vision of a different future will have seeded itself.

So I do not expect radical change unless the pandemic lasts a lot longer than predicted. There will be no time and no money to do otherwise. For those interested in the future of cities, the best option is to work with the grain of existing trends. Identify the positive signals seen under lockdown and get behind them. But be prepared for the long haul.

What do you think?

This is the first in a series of reports and articles commissioned by the Connected Places Catapult on how the global experience of Coronavirus and social distancing might shape future user behaviours, expectations, and demands of the places in which we live, work and play.

How do you think the experience of pandemic will shape the future of our towns and cities, and how we move people and goods in, around and between them? What trends will it accelerate and what might it arrest? What opportunities will that generate for innovation?

Connected Places

Insights and expert analysis powered by Connected Places Catapult

Connected Places

Connected Places Catapult accelerates smarter living and focusses on growing businesses with innovations in mobility services and the built environment that enable new levels of physical, digital and social connectedness. Visit https://cp.catapult.org.uk to find out more.

Richard Miller

Written by

Associate Director Connected Places Catapult, Founder Miller-Klein Associates Ltd. — Innovation, Sustainability, and the Future of Cities and Urban Living

Connected Places

Connected Places Catapult accelerates smarter living and focusses on growing businesses with innovations in mobility services and the built environment that enable new levels of physical, digital and social connectedness. Visit https://cp.catapult.org.uk to find out more.

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