Is Digitization Disrupting Urban Development?
~9 min read
Across the world’s developed metropolises, COVID is causing unexpected spatial redistributions of economic activities - and consequently, changing the decisions of the people who perform them. In a word, it’s "deurbanization": more people are leaving cities than before. "Deurbanization," in the context of COVID, refers to the exodus from cities that erstwhile urbanites are making for a variety of reasons ranging from health concerns to the reshuffled deck of work-from-home and life under the pandemic. A huge question for the future of global cities is how significant this shift is - as well as whether and how far its impacts will outlast the lockdowns. Will urban centers in emerging markets - host to the fastest urbanizing populations on the planet - follow the lead of developed markets, and disperse in response to the digital revolution? Or does the future hold growth - end of story?
To Digitize Is To Deurbanize?
Across Europe and the United States, the pandemic’s impacts are creating a noticeable reshuffling of the demographic deck. From New Yorkers flocking to Connecticut and New Jersey to Parisians fleeing the capital (a reported 1.2 million in March), few citadins haven’t had to re-examine earlier decisions made of ‘where to be.’
Immediate impacts are estimated to be significant. The New York Times reports that less than 10% of that metropolis’s workers had returned to the office last month; in addition, only a quarter of major employers expect to bring people back by the end of year, with barely half planning a return by summer 2021. With quality of life indicators and economic incentives tied to commuting times rendered moot, it should perhaps come as no surprise that many urban dwellers are looking for a lifestyle change — and indeed, real estate data points to the conclusion that far more urban dwellers are looking to move than suburban and rural residents during the interminable freeze-frame that 2020 has thrust on the world’s rich and poor, rural and urban.
In such uncertain times, the humble analyst might do well to keep crystal ball prognostications to a minimum. On the other hand, global stay-at-home orders have created a verifiable spike in digital media consumption across channels and countries. Some visionaries have attempted to map the pandemic’s long-term impacts across various sectors of society, describing a post-globalizing world where urbanization trends are structurally altered for as long as crowds retain a toxic association. Others are more sanguine; given the development of widely available and effective vaccines, all will return to normal and 2020 will plot like a blip in human history.
So which might it be? Against the backdrop of an emerging narrative around the recognition of planetary urbanization, how has the pandemic created levers for long-term shifts in demographic patterns of mobility and spatial distribution? How well do we even understand these patterns, and who might benefit from a better understanding of any deviations from the status quo forecast?
Work Is Where The WiFi Is
It would be trite to point out we are in unchartered territory with respect to the magnitude of the intersection between global urbanization trends and a once-in-a-century pandemic. To add to the complexity, our current moment offers never-before-seen technological tools for responding to the current challenge. Geospatial technologies, in particular, have prompted discussion on just how much societies should trust corporations — or their governments — with such private information as our locations.
Geospatial technologies are not the only ones in the spotlight as a result of the pandemic. Co-working, once universally hailed as a liberating force for entrepreneurs and small businesses able to leap-frog high rent and other CAPEX investments through the cost innovations of the sharing economy, cheaper and better computing processing power and internet connectivity, is experiencing a significant reckoning. WeWork, which has risen to become one of the largest tenants in some of the world’s largest cities, is in dire economic straits (though their struggles predated the pandemic); at the same time, if the new normal sees modified co-working resume at more distributed points across a city, it’s peripheries, or even at its more distributed aggregation points for commuters, the model could come rearing back stronger than ever. Similarly - the fates of tomorrow’s resurgent coffeeshops, bookshops, and other purveyors of indoor or outdoor service are being written by new ‘flows of people’, running through new channels unexpectedly carved.
Fundamentally, then, it becomes clear that at the heart of the intersection of urbanization and Corona questions lie the challenges and opportunities of the future of work.
Of course, economic incentives are only one amongst a myriad of variables that determine where people go, work, and live. But for any business managing the impacts of the pandemic, it should be clear that the real estate adage about the three most important variables for success (“Location, Location, Location”) are unavoidable. What does this mean when, for example in the US, 37% of jobs can be performed entirely at home? Indeed, with 5-10% of developed countries’ workforce working remotely before the pandemic (with, interestingly, Sweden an outlier at ~30%) some analysts anticipate a percentage closer to 40-50% post-pandemic.
One obvious implication is that businesses who manage to do remote-work or hybrid-work well will emerge stronger than their competition. After all, you don’t have to outrun the bear — just the next guy or gal. At the risk of seeing opportunity in crisis, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone in the knowledge economy through the pandemic that telework, for all its significant drawbacks, also offer innumerable productivity boosts, from lowered commuting times to the explosion in ‘asychronous workflow.’
It should also be noted that the pandemic’s impacts affect different groups differently; in developed markets, the millennial cohort’s behavioral distinctiveness with respect to urban-migration had raised questions even before the pandemic about the universal appeal of mega-cities for those entering the workforce, while the well-documented collapse of certain urban centers, like Detroit, make it clear that urban primacy was never a monolithic phenomenon to begin with. Indeed, recent research using US census data indicates that the urban growth narrative that most of us have been taking for granted may deserve closer scrutiny; it would appear that the second half of the last decade actually saw declining growth rates in major urban centers, offering even greater question marks for the new decade’s yet-to-be determined demo-spatial distribution.
Given the labor-intensive process of traditional methods of demographic analysis, it may take years to actually understand what the aggregate effect of hundreds of millions of individuals’ collective choices are on a landscape, city, economy or society. One recurring trend, however, quietly pre-dating the pandemic and cutting across economies developed and emerging, is the dynamism of the humbler urban centers growing in the shadows of the world’s megacities.
Small Cities, Grand Potential
The phenomenon of the rise of the small city is perhaps most illuminating in the world’s fastest urbanizing continent: Africa. In contrast to years of humanitarian and aid focus on either urban slums or rural hinterlands, recent research indicates that much of the breadth of Africa’s unfolding demographic transition story takes place not in the Lagoses, Cairos, Johannesburgs or Nairobis, but in thousands of settlements beyond the capital that, collectively, are creating new urban forms. These are urban grey areas that defy the simple rural/urban binary which to this day tend to dominate our imaginations and discourses - and which shape the very statistics that give us a sense of where people are living and how.
Africapolis, a collaboration between the Sahel-West Africa Club within the OECD secretariat, in collaboration with several European space agencies, released a ground-breaking report in February that constitutes the first continent-wide comparable dataset on urbanization in the world. This approach brings novel eyes to the fundamental challenge of comparability among different countries’ urbanization figures. As it turns out, countries define and measure "rural" and "urban" according to drastically different metrics and thresholds that should give pause to any reliance on such data. For example, while most countries historically calculate rural populations as a ‘residual’ of what is not urban, the threshold for defining the urban varies tremendously (for example, 2,000 individuals in a given administrative boundary in Kenya to 20,000 in Nigeria). Ex-French colonies’ history adds a political dimension to what is urban, while countries like Ethiopia and India factor in the presence and proximity to public infrastructure as part of their definitions.
The Africapolis approach, which incorporates satellite imagery of built-up areas visible from space, increasingly sophisticated machine learning techniques, and a deep historical sweep, offers much-needed nuance to any discussion about urbanization in Africa, and helps to fill in the gaps on global questions of migration and mobility.
When speaking of urbanization, we may be too quick to focus on megacities without understanding how or why people get there. For example, while the urban population in Africa increased by more than 1,000% over the 1960-2015 period, the average size of urban agglomerations increased by only 63%, from 46,000 to 74,000 inhabitants. This phenomenon can be explained in large part through the rapid emergence of villages and settlements rapidly surpassing a lower threshold. Setting thresholds at a level more sensitive to the urban characteristics caused by actual densification of humans - like the threshold of 10,000 people that the Africapolis methodology sets - may prove more useful in characterizing demographic shifts across the continent.
Source: Cities Alliance
What this reveals, additionally, is that in the calculus between migrant in-and-out-flows, it is often the absence of migration - otherwise known as endogenous, in-situ growth - that drives new urban formations, moreso than the village-to-urban slum story that occupies so much of the “Africa Urbanizing” narrative. Perhaps counter-intuitively, COVID has a greater chance of accelerating urbanization - or, otherwise framed, decentralizing it. The cost of a square meter of real estate may depend more than ever on the quality of its internet connection rather than the footfall around it.
Viewed from this perspective, a whole new landscape of opportunities and futures emerge for ‘urban development’ that links the well-trodden questions of the rural and remote to the distinct challenges of ‘capital in the capital.’
As African governments flex and relax their internal and international borders in response to the pandemic, players must use the present wisely, the better to read markets rearing to reopen - anticipating the local version of timber demand surge during a pandemic construction frenzy, for instance, requires both insight and intuition. Where roads are built to link rapidly forming small, urban centers, agriculturalists meet agro-processors; a tire and mechanic economy is likely to spring unprompted; and a cash economy begins to supplant traditional transaction modalities. It is in these places that mobile money actors and their ‘digital frontier’ peers may encounter and first develop relationships with tomorrow’s more traditionally understood ‘urbanites.’ As we know, crisis breeds opportunity - with 30% of food produce perishing due to restrictions, where are the COVID-borne agro-entrepreneurs testing their mettle to meet the moment?
Decolonizing The Effort
One thing is clear - whatever spatial redistributions of people and work may be taking place in the developed West, the growing importance of cities shows no real signs of slowing. In fact, it may become necessary to reconceptualize our definition of the city to better define what outcomes may be envisageable or desirable in any given, specific locale. Indeed, grappling with seemingly simple questions of location is fraught by both the magnitudes of analysis required as well as the political and ethical dimensions associated therewith. Maren Larsen, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Basel Switzerland, emphasizes in particular the challenges inherent with generalizing insights about urban formations & migratory patterns, in Africa as elsewhere.
“We’ve talked about African urbanization in a fatalistic way - but if we’re going to generalize, we must not just recognize the horrible - climate change, conflict outcomes. We must also be cognizant of the immense potential of African youth, immense creativity, immense wealth of knowledge about alternative ways to do things. Not just in a survivalist sense, not just in a capitalistic way, but across the board.”
- Maren Larsen, Lecturer & Researcher in Urban Studies, University of Basel Switzerland
For techno-optimists and social entrepreneurs, no further encouragement may be needed. In an increasingly urbanized world, how to solve issues of ‘urban drudgery’ - like the fact that many migrants living in the cheaper outskirts of town spend upwards of 50 percent of their household income on commuting alone?
And when such tools are developed, who owns them? For many justice-oriented observers, therein lay the real challenge in applying new lenses to questions of “access.” In the sense that COVID, or any other exogenous shock, shifts structural dynamics around who gets to be where, there are inevitably winners and losers, with power dynamics determining the spread. The possibilities afforded by the emerging recognition of decentralized urbanization — perhaps a more apt description of what the pandemic has wrought in many parts of the Global South as in the Global North — will become accessible to all only if the enormous power afforded by global observation (and surveillance) technologies manage to be radically democratized as they mature ever-rapidly in precision and predictive power.
Image courtesy of Edouard Tamba
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