Cities still have a place in the post-pandemic world—but they have to be different. Here’s how

July 4, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC
cities post-pandemic
Los Angeles on April 15, 2020. Cities will still have a place in the post-coronavirus world, but they have to be different, writes Jason Goodall.
Mario Tama—Getty Images

Over the past few months, coronavirus lockdowns have impacted cities and communities all over the globe in dramatic ways. This has raised the question: Is there still a place for cities? 

The answer is not simple; it requires us to learn from what has happened over the past few months and rethink how we leverage technology to reimagine what cities can be, and the critical role they play in our collective future. 

What has COVID-19 taught us?

  • Reimagining work. The recent shift to work-from-home workforces has major implications for our cities, businesses, and individual health and happiness. At the start of the pandemic, businesses within cities were focused on getting their employees working remotely and securely, with access to the appropriate tools. As the reality of the pandemic as a long-term shift sets in, businesses will need to learn how to sustain a remote working model and manage a hybrid (home- and office-based) workforce. We’ve also seen telehealth and distance learning take giant leaps forward, potentially making health and education more accessible to a wider population. Technology is playing a key role, as the World Economic Forum has observed. While initiatives like the Connected North program, which provided remote learning for far-flung Inuit communities across Northern Canada, were underway before COVID-19, post-pandemic access to remote learning, medicine, and employment will be much broader. 
  • Glocalization: Governments and the private sector are working smarter and more closely together. In cities around the world, COVID-19 has forced renewed attention to health and wellness, and put a premium on connectivity, collaboration, and public health data. While different towns, cities, and states have taken multiple strategies and approaches, the bottom line is that we have worked together as a nation and a world to curb the spread of the virus. Together we are researching vaccines, and innovating in new ways. This teamwork can and should shape how we move forward. We were on our way to a smart, connected future before the pandemic; this has shown us we need to get there faster. 
  • Cleaning up the environment. Data from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), and other sources indicate dramatic reductions in nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants around the world. From China to India to the U.S., the world is experiencing air pollution levels not seen since the first half of the 20th century. That is so far back in history that many have never even seen this level of clean air. Prior to COVID-19, some cities had been using technology to shift traffic patterns, drive down pollution, and improve life for people. But this growth has been slow and unevenly distributed around the globe.
  • The importance of human interaction: Connection with people is an inherent aspect of our human society. We seek out and lean on human interaction when we are experiencing the stress of life’s challenges. This biological programming drives us to gather in groups, usually shielding us from mental and physical harm. Today, we are faced with a community challenge. The new threats of COVID-19 and political unrest challenge us to be creative in how we maintain our social connections and manage our mental and physical health. As we start to open up our cities again, we will all need to adapt our social distancing strategies to ensure we meet our basic human needs of physical, social connection and interaction. 

Redefining our post-pandemic cities

We are now faced with an unprecedented pivot to address what we have learned. And technology is helping us to redefine post-pandemic cities. The challenge is: How do we work together to manage that pivot? Over the past six months, one thing has become clear: Even though this is one of our most trying times as a global community, it also has the possibility to be one of our greatest moments. The progress we’re making as a collective in fighting the virus and rethinking our way of life is something many didn’t think possible at the beginning of 2020. In effect, I see one possible future—a future where people, powered by innovation and technology, pull together to improve our cities and communities. 

Now more than ever, the world needs brave solutions

The fight against COVID-19 is far from over, but there is already a premium placed on “smart” initiatives that leverage innovations such as quantum computing and digital twinning for solutions like smart street lighting and automated water meters. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the climate crisis to the well-being of all life on earth, I believe that technology holds the key to solving some of the world’s greatest problems. 

Lessons for global leaders

Leadership now needs to increasingly focus on long-range targets, as well as on achieving short-term quarterly profits. For example, business leaders looking at achieving the UN Development Program’s 17 goals for sustainable development now have reason to renew their efforts. Those who have previously dismissed such efforts as unrealistic or aspirational have reason to reconsider their objections.

This is a departure from traditional thinking and a challenge for conventional leadership. As we emerge from this pandemic, it’s important that we learn from the bold commitments and brave solutions the world has undertaken over such a short time.

Reimagining our cities of the future

As our cities reopen, we have the chance to reimagine them. I absolutely believe that cities will continue to be our social centers, our cultural hearts; but now we have the chance to make them cleaner, safer, smarter, and more innovative than ever thanks to the promise of technology. Our evolving relationship with cities will require increased computing power as we continue to process exponential amounts of data, and require better connectivity and more advanced networks. 

However, we will also relieve pressure on the environment, as the supply chain linked to the relationship we once had with cities is redirected. We will preserve what we love about cities and build upon the lessons we’ve learned from the coronavirus pandemic. 

COVID-19 has created a significant challenge for all of us, but it has also shown us what we as a human team can accomplish working together—a better world and cities that give more than they take.

Jason Goodall is global CEO of NTT Ltd.

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