This year, people across the world will experience for the first time what it is like to live in a smart city. COVID-19 has confined us to our immediate physical environments, dependant on digital tools to maintain access to people and services. Never before have the physical and digital realms been this sharply juxtaposed at such a scale, and our experience could change our approach to urban planning through the rest of the century.
With 20th century mobility infrastructure, we connected ourselves to a point where it is often safer to fly between countries than to walk across a highway between two communities. So far in this century, the implementation of telecommunication infrastructure has further enhanced our world-wide connectivity, building a global economy that makes it easier to buy flour online than to borrow from a neighbour. As a consequence, and in spite of all the physical and digital connections that surround us, urban living has never felt more detached.
Perhaps this pandemic-enforced pause is an opportunity to rethink our relationships with space and technology, to consider an alternative system that favours the near as well as the far. In the local smart city, digital tools are used to establish close connections, such as by enabling an employee to work from the community library, or by helping neighbours share left-over food. In this vision, digital space keeps us productive at a global scale, while physical space keeps us healthy and happy.
Today, with global restrictions on travel and movement, many will experience a sliver of what this reality could be like. Cleaner air, shorter commutes, stronger communities. All while still very much engaged with matters of regional, national, and world-wide importance. I wonder: how do we preserve the benefits, and ensure that a local, digitally connected lifestyle remains a choice, long after the offices re-open and ‘normality’ is restored?