The world after the corona crisis - the future of our cities

Calum Brewster is Head UK Regions for Julius Baer International Limited

The cultural shift towards remote working has taken a giant leap forward thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a process that could otherwise have taken years – or perhaps even decades. Few spaces have felt the impact of this more than our inner-city environments. The sudden exit of millions of workers from these spaces has left local economies reeling and calls the sustainability of intensive inner city working into question in the long term. What does this mean – globally but also for our cities in Scotland?

Let’s start by discussing the idea of the workplace. I find it hard to say with much confidence that we’re going to see the end of the office. While there are many positives that the flexibility of working from home affords, it’s not without its drawbacks. When I think back to the start of the year, what I miss most is human interaction. Bumping into colleagues in the hallway and having a quick chat about nothing in particular. Sometimes, these physical social connections are the source of inspiration that drive new projects and improve client outcomes. Subsequently, some of our best opportunities for creative thinking, are very difficult to retain in the virtual world we rely on when working from home. Arguably, established bonds with our colleagues and clients helped us to remain productive and enabled us to work effectively from home during this period. However, I don’t believe this can be sustained over the long term – building bonds with new colleagues or prospective clients is very difficult in the virtual world – plus of course, the opportunities for younger colleagues to learn by osmosis is basically impossible without being physically present.

In my opinion, therefore, the ‘new normal’ will likely be a blend of both home and office working. The future office will transform from simply being the building in which we work to a place that fosters connections, learning and creativity.

What does this mean for our cities which have in recent decades been the typical hub for office work and the beneficiaries of the huge trend towards urbanisation? Whilst work is of course important, people find cities appealing to live in for multiple reasons, including social and cultural opportunities. Already, more than half (55%) of the global population live in cities, with that proportion expected to increase to more than two thirds (68%) by 2050, according to the UN World Urbanization Prospects report. It’s therefore no surprise that Edinburgh has seen population increases of 17.6% since 1998, compared with a 7.6% increase in the overall Scottish population over the same period. Cities are key drivers of growth and, if offices achieve the goal of becoming places of inspiration and innovation, it’s likely that humanity’s biggest challenges over the coming decades will be tackled in cities.

This is not to say that cities themselves don’t need to change. In order to succeed, cities need long-term strategies as well as specific, actionable solutions in areas as varied as affordable housing, waste management, air pollution, high-value employment creation, crime prevention, energy and mobility. Projects like the Scottish Cities Alliance’s ‘Scotland’s 8th City - the Smart City’ are doing just that, looking to make cities more sustainable and efficient through data and technology. However, the continuous enhancement of cities’ livability standards will require substantial funding. Already, £60 million is being invested to make Scotland’s cities smarter but The Global Infrastructure Hub estimates that annual investments into the world’s cities will need to reach USD $4.6 trillion (3.3% of the world economy) by 2040.

Despite COVID-19 turning the world’s cities into sleeping giants, history has shown how resilient cities are and how likely they are to bounce back. As lockdowns around Europe lift and regulations ease, it is important that we closely monitor how our relationship with cities moves forward. Going back to the old status quo isn’t the right outcome. Our willingness to adapt to change and invest in the future of our cities is therefore more important than ever.

Published 22 July 2020