What future for Scottish cities after the pandemic? The reopening of social life should be the catalyst for new thinking and investment. The answer to a new world of hybrid work, online commerce and much higher transport costs must be a reinvention of our cities. This shouldn’t discount some good work being done on smart cities of the future – but it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that the world has changed.
Many office and commercial spaces will have to be redeveloped. From day to day, fewer people can go to city centers, and they will have to be encouraged to do so. Employers need to make office experience an attractive alternative to working from home; with social interaction, technological support, training and a comfortable environment. Others will come to city centers less for shopping and more for experiences such as cafes, restaurants and events. However, currently, cities are not equipped for this. It may take a few years of transformation.
The challenges of this reorientation of the city are mainly vision and money. Only now are citizens gradually accepting how they want cities to relate to their work-life balance. It may take time for councils to fully understand this and adapt previous planning. Disrupting work and travel patterns took just two years, but planners need to develop a vision for the decades to come. Who would have guessed that a period of installing new bike lanes and pedestrian zones, combined with higher petrol prices, would actually see such strong demand for car ownership. Even if we could predict the longer-term future, progress towards this goal is not always linear.
Adding to the problem of councils is the problem of finances – stores and offices generate revenue that is not easily recouped if the business moves online or out of town. And, in the short term, some of the road redevelopment and traffic restriction projects could dampen downtown activity. Going forward, there is much to be gained from pedestrianization and better air quality, as well as stronger communities in cities beyond cities. But right now, many cities will have to win back their audiences. It will take events, investments and encouragement to revive the activity. Right now, some city centers seem to need some tidying up – sometimes more obvious to visitors than to the locals who see it every day. Tourism is important to Scotland and its cities need to be at their best. Municipal authorities should recognize the need to invest in city centers and resist the temptation to add new burdens to businesses already located there.
Councils have been busy reinventing their cities. In 2013, Glasgow beat 50 other UK cities to win funding from Innovate UK to use technology and data to improve life in the city. It brought work in the fields; such as active travel, smart lighting and reducing energy consumption and emissions. The Glasgow Smart Canal, opening up parts of Glasgow North for regeneration, is perhaps the most notable success. But in other areas, the tangible benefits are harder for citizens to see. Open data that aims to empower communities tends to have less impact on people than a city’s architecture and public spaces. The vision of Glasgow as a future city has been bold but perhaps overemphasized.
The pandemic with its remote work has resulted in many organizations – and not just in the public sector – a pattern of digital deviation. At the same time that work has been done to facilitate citizen action and support community groups, many citizens now find it more difficult to engage with public services or complain. This loss of human contact seems to contrast with the potential for technology to provide greater support. While the lockdown has forced much of this new way of working, this style of working needs to evolve into something that keeps good communication open between residents and service management.
Across Scotland, a collaboration of the seven Scottish towns sought to identify common goals and opportunities for collaboration. This program has benefited from significant investment, supported by the Scottish Government, to expand smart city capabilities and improve community engagement and integrated service delivery. But, again, much has been focused on solving the city’s problems through data-driven decision-making. The global model of this approach – typically involving “top-down” smart city programs – has often failed to engage citizens as hoped.
Technology must be integrated with knowledge derived from human behavior; the pandemic has altered lifestyles in ways that are not yet fully understood. Additionally, the pace of change has resulted in a digital divide, with not everyone sharing empowerment through data. As Scotland’s seven-year municipal program comes to an end this year, a reassessment would be timely. This program started before the pandemic and must now recognize the major changes in society and how emerging inflation is likely to create food and energy poverty.
Understanding how the new ways people want to live should impact the design of the city must imply a greater role for citizens in shaping the future. Physical infrastructure and architecture are a big part of what people actually experience in cities. Academics now suggest that the smart cities project should involve a partnership between policymakers, universities, businesses and citizens. Each party has unique knowledge and potential to contribute that can help avoid policy mistakes. Indeed, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals suggest that a broader contribution is preferable. It can also allow each city to maintain its authenticity rather than imposing more standardized top-down approaches. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t be a trade-off between long-term goals and short-term plans, but in reality, trade-off is inevitable. Achieving sustainable economic development will involve debate.
Part of the planning problem is that city authorities in the UK have less power than many European cities. A debate is needed on the extent to which the level of delegated responsibility within some continental European cities could contribute to the large-scale transformation that is needed here, and recognize the specific characteristics of each city. A balance needs to be struck between sharing ideas across Scottish cities and creating unique bespoke solutions.
Megacities often have diseconomies of scale and can be dysfunctional. But none of the Scottish cities are close to overheating. What our cities offer are efficiencies in transportation, schools and other key services. Scotland is also well endowed with universities in its largest cities, heritage and important infrastructure. There is much to be gained from engaging now with everyone who uses our cities and ensuring they have a healthy future.
Colin McLean is Managing Director of SVM Asset Management