One of the familiar refrains of the pandemic is that it is the epitaph of the city. No longer are we working from home, we are now living at work. Consequently, people, like salmon, are retreating to the rural utopias from whence they spawned. Equipped with wifi and a Nespresso machine, they have all they need to work remotely.
It is an attractive proposition, this notion of an idyllic existence away from the humdrum of the city with its pollution and crowds and cramped apartments and commutes. Remote working seems a catharsis for the stresses of modern life. But it is a mirage, and like all mirages, it will evaporate as soon as you get close enough.
The lure of technology
For centuries, cities have drawn people towards them with the promise of better jobs, better people and better lives. They have been a hive of innovation and endeavour, conversation and opportunity. Cities, through time, have bestowed myriad advantages upon its denizens; from cultural accomplishment, cosmopolitanism, public transport, expertise, emergency services, material choice to education and social utility. But first and foremost it has provided urban citizens with access to technology.
From roads to radio, printing press to plumbing, electricity to the internet, the inventions that transform our society all come to the city first and in many instances are still most effective in urban areas. The city is always the first kiss of progress and its status as the sandbox of innovation is more acute today than ever before.
Those technologies bestow significant economic and social advantage to those who live within their optimal range. There are still many parts of the developed world where having a video call is difficult and starting an ecommerce business is impossible due to poor internet speeds. Most governments find it difficult to justify significant spending on infrastructure to support small scattered populations of people living in rural areas, especially in the current economic climate. This is the city’s sustainable competitive advantage. It will continue to be far easier to develop and deploy new technologies and services to a large market living in close proximity.
The next decade will see cities transformed
It is, however, the new, not the old technologies that will ensure the city maintains its dominance. We find ourselves on the cusp of the next systemic technology shift. The mainstreaming of massive interconnectivity through IoT, faster Internet through 5G, interoperability through ubiquitous APIs, decision making AIs and immersion through mixed reality technologies will transform urban living utterly.
Cities, in the next decade, are going to be brought to life. These technologies will animate them in a way never seen before. Every city will have its own distinctive virtual canvas, layered on top of the physical infrastructure and designed by the unique users, sensors and observations of the city itself. Sensors will become ubiquitous, recording human, device and atmospheric data, and then storing that data on city clouds. City AIs will analyse this data and spit it back out as a resource for citizens to make their city more competitive and their decisions more effective.
Many of these technologies will not be feasible in rural areas, making those areas altogether less habitable. Rural areas will enjoy diminished access to decision-making assistance, safety tools, economic opportunity and basic service utility. Take, for instance, self-driving vehicles. Autonomous vehicles require a massive infrastructure of live data feeds from cameras, GPRS, smart devices, infrared, Bluetooth and sensors in order to ensure that a car or drone can operate safely. These data feeds are not going to exist on country lanes and byways in rural areas.
Virtual economies will be layered upon urban spaces
The physical infrastructure of cities is unlikely to change significantly over the next decade, restricted as they are by limitations of space, cost and cement, but the technologies we depend on to interact with them will. Enhanced reality technologies will allow wearers of mixed reality eyewear, including contact lenses, to interact with virtual environments layered on top of the analogue environment around them. Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs), a technology protocol that allows for the creation of certifiably singular digital assets to be tied to a unique user, will enable virtual pets, avatars, gaming, sales interactions, environmental customisation, new jobs and income streams will require 5G and IoTas well other users. Cities will become canvases upon which we paint our own realities. To deliberately remove yourself from cities is to deliberately isolate yourself from the professional and social opportunities presented by virtual economies.
There will be challenges as the gap between urban and rural widens. Property prices in advantageous areas where data can be monetised will rise precipitously, resulting in higher levels of income and wealth inequality and impeding social mobility. It is likely that, in some countries, this will lead to greater social division amongst urban and rural dwellers as those in rural communities make a case that the infrastructure that their taxes pay for resides primarily in cities. Those who do live in cities will see a substantial degradation of their privacy rights as surveillance becomes a way of life.
Cities will compete with each other for residents based on proprietary technologies, analytics and data. Which city has the best cloud infrastructure? Or free access to commercialisable data or APIs? These questions will determine where people want to live and businesses want to work. Does your city provide free access to traffic or football data? Standard APIs to draw data from atmospheric sensors or drone routes? Sentiment analysis and premium data markets? Can the city manage massive amounts of data exchange? Big data sophistication will determine city competitiveness and will likely lead to the rise of second and third cities as places like Manchester, Milan and Marseille strive to combine technical sophistication with quality of life.
So despite rising rents, air pollution, income and wealth inequality and stress, the city is not dying. The evolution of the techno-infrastructure of urban landscapes will make cities an economic and socio-cultural necessity for most people in the next decade. IoT, 5G, robotics, cryptoassets and enhanced reality technologies will turn cities into an interactive landscape of information and opportunity that rural living could never hope to compete with.