There is no zero-sum between digital platforms and the physical city. Digitalisation simply means cities becoming more hybrid. Too many voices are prophesising “the end of the city” as a result of COVID-19 and the rapid digital acceleration. I don’t see that.
Whenever new technologies have emerged over the past century, people have predicted the death of cities. But on each occasion cities have grown stronger, utilising such technologies to reinforce the value of proximity, physical interactions, and shared systems, services and spaces.
Technologies reinforce the power and efficiency of cities, but they also oblige cities to adjust. We need to recognise that while technology enables us to optimise physical space, it does not replace it.
The “Blended City” describes how the hybrid “physical-digital” world can change our lives. The uptick in digital connectivity will allow more people to choose where and how to live and work, and when and how to travel. At the same time, cities can be made more intelligent and responsive. Cities will become more digitalised in terms of space, mobility, amenities and utilities, and more hybrid in consumption, services, entertainment, education, and gatherings. This “Blended City” is a combination of the “City as a Service” and the “City as a Place”.
We have seen versions of this emerging in recent years, with people working remotely from locations favourable to them. For example, living in Philadelphia while retaining a New York City-based job or business. Similarly, new visa schemes for tech engineers, doctors and start-up entrepreneurs now make it possible for them to work simultaneously in more than one city. By accelerating digitalisation, the pandemic has extended these kinds of opportunities to a wider range of people, across more countries and markets.
Eventually, I think this will mean that many more cities can become “cities by subscription or membership”. These are cities where you don’t have to be permanently based, but you can serve your clients, own a property, start a business, or make investments. If digitalisation allows us to be in two places at once, it enables us to be members of more than one city. Fast-growing cities in countries with smaller populations, such as those in the Gulf, Caribbean, and the Baltics, may adopt these models rapidly.
One important implication is that cities will need to reform their financial systems to capture revenue from the value that is created digitally, as well as physically: they will need to be able to charge their “virtual citizens” in addition to their “physical” ones.