Are smart cities the answer to Britain’s post-Covid future?

Coronavirus is probably the biggest challenge many of us have faced in our lifetime, with sweeping draconian measures imposed by national governments to keep us safe. But it also presents an opportunity to deal with the most severe threat that we may ever face: climate change. One proposal to achieving a sustainable post-Covid future has been smart cities. So will they work?

The British Standards Institute defines a smart city as the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens. This means that a smart city is an urban area that delivers for its citizens today and for the future by making optimal use of its resources.  

Since the Prime Minister instructed everyone to Stay at Home, businesses throughout the UK have embraced home working, which increased productivity and eliminated the commute. Many organisations have seen this cultural shift as a long-term solution.

For instance, the Darlington branch of the PR and Communications company Harvey and Hugo committed to this change after they gave up the lease on their office back in August. 

PR and Marketing Agency Director Charlotte Nichols said: “Before the pandemic I would have never considered not having an office, but we got the chance to trial it during lockdown and haven’t looked back since. Productivity was up, teams were happier not commuting and as a result got to spend more time with family, clients were happier that we were more contactable rather than often travelling to and from meetings.”

They are not alone. A survey conducted by the Office of National Statistics found that 46.6% of all employees worked from home in April 2020 and over 60% of managerial and senior officials, professional occupations and technical occupations worked from home. 

However, this has required a huge upscaling of IT systems and many organisations lacked a comprehensive IT self-help system prior to the pandemic thus compromising their ability to work from home.

One of the leading IT companies, Richmond Systems, has been in high demand. They provide first-class technical support courtesy of their IT support package, Richdesk.

Wil Johnson, CEO of Richmond Systems said: “It shows that the traditional method of being in the office as a way of demonstrating that people are working is outdated and needing to monitor people working is simply one of management.”

But not all aspects of remote working have been quite so positive.  A white paper by workspace specialist Jorg Bakschas found that digitalisation increases emotional exhaustion by 15%, meaning that working online is more likely to cause mental health problems.

Despite this, and a feeling by some employees and businesses that they have lost the social connection with their colleagues, the positives borne out by digital working mean that this shift is an inevitable long-term consequence of the pandemic.

And as environmental issues become more prominent, could changes to employment mean that businesses reduce their carbon footprint?

On smart cities, Ms Nichols said: “I think anything that’s ultimately cutting our carbon emissions is a good thing and I love the idea of communities where people live and work in the same space which will reduce transport and create a lovely buzz in the area. However I think the pandemic may cause a trend of people spreading further out of cities and into the countryside. If businesses adopt more remote working policies, people won’t need to be in their tiny overpriced flat in a crowded, polluted city. Instead they may move to green, spacious areas where they can get much more for their money.”

While many businesses have worked from home, that has not been possible for those working in industries such as retail, construction, manufacturing, and the care sector. For them, their work life has barely changed. They must still go to work every day despite the risks. 

While coronavirus does present an opportunity for more people to work from home, we need to be careful not to create a two-tier economy. 

Head of Milton Keynes Council, Labour Councillor Peter Marland told me: “The challenge comes in making sure we do not have a two-staged economy. Working from home has been for those higher paid with higher-skilled jobs. But for those who do not, things have not changed a lot for low-paid, low-skilled jobs. People need to see the conversation of a work from home society. Low-skilled jobs need to be valued while a lot of high-skilled jobs are mainly from home.”

According to data from the ONS published in August 2020, 48.6% of employees account for employment in these so-called low-skilled production and service industries: agriculture, mining and water supply, manufacturing, transport, construction, health and social care. In all these sectors, less than 20% worked from home at the height of the epidemic in April.   

Therefore, while there is a role for work from home in a post-COVID smart city economy, the role of people working in these vital sectors who cannot work from home needs to be carefully considered. 

One key aspect to a smart city economy is utilising data. For instance, the Milton Keynes Smart Cities project has data at the heart of the initiative to improve the lives of people in the city. 

The Milton Keynes Smart Data Hub has been used to reduce energy consumption. The council has alleviated congestion by motion-sensitive lights and monitored residents’ water meters, thus reducing water consumption.

With that in mind, The Times reported that a new system developed by the Surrey-based company New Wireless is being trialled to give priority to cyclists at traffic lights to encourage people to cycle rather than drive.  

Electric vehicles also have a role to play in smart city projects as Avinash Rugoobur, President of Arrival, developer of zero carbon transportation said: “For cities, electrification is the clear way forward for outdated transportation networks in terms of efficiency, lowering costs and sustainability.”

Overall, businesses opting to work from home presents a unique opportunity to massively reduce the carbon footprint of urban areas. But effective communication will be critical in order to achieve a sustainable post-Covid future in order to prevent a two-tiered society. It is important to say that smart cities are just one way to help reduce energy consumption in the years to come, and it must be done as part of a coherent plan. Ultimately, through a balanced approach and with the backing of business, government, and local communities, smart cities should help Britain achieve net carbon zero by 2050 as we start to rebuild for the future.

Words by Nathan Hine

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