Out-Law Analysis | 16 Mar 2022 | 9:53 am | 3 min. read
Cities are vital building blocks of national economies and are playing a leading role in addressing some of the biggest challenges the world faces, including post-pandemic economic recovery and tackling the climate crisis.
However, the combination of new ways of working, new technology, the transition to ‘net zero’, changes in shopping habits and pressures on housing capacity, threatens to disrupt the way cities have always operated.
Collaboration, better use of data, upskilling of workers, and the reimagining of communities and the high street will be important to cities if they are to remain key hubs that serve businesses and people in a sustainable way.
The role of the city was widely discussed during 2021 in relation to COP26 and how cities can help in delivering on net zero. It is important that this discussion continues with purpose throughout 2022 and beyond. The climate crisis is the biggest challenge that we face, and cities globally have the power to impact this. They house governments, businesses – from multinationals to start-ups – and billions of brilliant minds. This is a winning combination when it comes to tackling something of such complexity. Cities must find ways to bring these groups together and share ideas and innovations so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Vital to innovation and collaboration is infrastructure that enables organisations across the public, private and third sector to safely share data. With the right safeguards in place, data can be pooled and used to tackle the climate crisis and other challenges. Data is a valuable but under-used asset. If crucial stakeholders can safely share their data they can unlock its power, enabling collaborative solutions to be found.
We have seen this in London with the launch of the London Data Charter – a statement of intent adopted by businesses to put data at the heart of solving London’s biggest challenges. It guides organisations in how they can safely share data to enable them to work together and find solutions to issues such as meeting the mayor’s net zero goals and tackling digital exclusion. Organisations are already collaborating under the Charter: Uber, UK Power Networks and others are exploring the most effective places for electric vehicle charging points for drivers on the Uber app.
People are the lifeblood of cities. However, providing affordable, sustainable and quality housing, whilst also ensuring people have access to the services they need, is a major challenge. Cities need to tackle this and there are great models they can draw upon.
For example, across the UK we have seen the development of garden communities – which are bespoke new settlements made up of a mix of housing, transport and community infrastructure, such as roads, rail links, schools and health centres, as well as outdoor areas for the public to enjoy. Garden communities focus on sustainable living, green spaces, high quality design and vibrant neighbourhoods. Cities should consider how they can create similar communities as they look to tackle housing issues.
High street businesses were among the most impacted by the pandemic, and the subsequent changes in working patterns and number of commuters coming into city centres will continue to have implications for them. With home-working, communities gravitated towards their local high streets and, with hybrid working this looks set to stay. This means that the high streets in city centres need to consider the type of experience they are offering to customers and what they can do to ensure they are meeting new demands.
Rapid changes in technology and the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) systems and automation in particular will continue to affect the job market and the types of jobs that are available. It is important that people living and working in cities have the skillsets to work in jobs where technology can be expected to play a bigger role.
As some functions become automated, people should have the opportunity to upskill, enabling them to find alternative roles. Governments need to understand the types of skills gaps that are emerging and what can be done to help – whether this be through the education system or employer-led schemes. They must also look to break down barriers to accessing jobs, and support organisations in putting diversity and inclusion at the top of their agendas.
Cities are well-versed in adapting to change, remaining important economic, social and cultural hubs through the centuries despite significant changes in industry and technology in prior generations. Cities will be central to overcoming future challenges too. The focus must be on what they can do in practice. As JFK said, “we will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them, we neglect the nation”.
Carolyn Saunders is head of Pinsent Masons’ London office and leads on City for Good – a campaign that explores the role the firm plays as a business operating across multiple cities and the opportunities this provides to embed meaningful change in the communities it is based in.