Urbanisation – Unprecedented demographic shift or another bubble?

The trajectory for urbanisation is set, as we all know. The rapid growth rates of our cities and projections about their future are underpinned by people’s desire to live in urban areas, among other, more existential factors.

In understanding the roots of this desire, the prospect of better jobs, prosperity, and connectivity is often quoted as a key driver. But we cannot assume this to be the sole motivation for a new generation of people who enjoy an unprecedented level of mobility.

What if people are really choosing an urban lifestyle? And if so, what are the qualities that people value and how do they decide where to live?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but strongly feel that they must evolve around the quality of place. As a migrant to Australia, I know first-hand about the importance of having a sense of belonging, an emotional attachment to place. Buildings do not define place, they merely provide the physical setting and rely on the human and environmental fabric to come alive. The best places are unique and authentic, invite interaction and thus facilitate a human experience that allows for meaningful connection with others and our environment. This experience may differ from person to person but we all intuitively feel when we’re in a good place; just what makes it ‘good’ may be different for me than it is for you.

The importance of place
Measuring the economic and commercial impact of place is fairly straightforward and common practice in more progressive cities while the social qualities are often less tangible and more difficult to pinpoint. The Future of London’s program ‘Making the Case for Place’ held in 2017, brought together public, private and community representatives to develop five guiding principles that drive placemaking outcomes which will benefit the city in the long-term. Initiatives like this highlight the importance of place in the broader strategy of cities to remain competitive in attracting and retaining talent, which brings me to my initial point.

The penetration of digital infrastructure into even the most remote areas of the world has given those with suitable skillsets and an open mindset the choice to work wherever they wish. Flexible work arrangements are increasingly popular and I believe that we will soon see a reverse of workplace culture whereby we work out of the office more days than at the office. Already, an increasing number of ‘digital nomads’ are travelling the world, driven by a desire to experience different places, and this trend will continue to grow as the world becomes smaller and the workforce more mobile through more technology. Estonia just launched the first official visa for digital nomads, initiated by a Tallin start-up called ‘Jobbatical’ that will “find a tech, business or creative job anywhere in the world. Because your skills matter more than your passport”. Imagine the possibilities.

We can make our cities smarter through technology but if we fail to lend them the human face David Batchelor wrote about in an earlier article and put people at the centre of our efforts, tomorrow’s cities will lack authenticity and won’t offer a unique character. Those cities will grow, fuelled by the influx of those who come by necessity, not by choice, and those who don’t intend to stay longer term. Those cities will be transient and deprived of a true sense of place, with prominent buildings reduced to selfie opportunities. In a globalised world where the t-shirt you buy in London is the same t-shirt you buy in Singapore or LA, placemaking is more important than ever to strengthen our cities’ identities.

Some say that people will always gravitate towards urban areas because they want to live and work as part of a collective. After all we are social creatures. If this is true, it underlines the need to provide opportunities for social interaction that go beyond the workplace. Cites will increasingly compete for talent to drive innovation and prosperity, and in doing so, will promote themselves as ‘smart’. It is important that technology is embedded in a meaningful way and that it enriches the way we experience our cities. If we do it right, technology can support placemaking efforts to counteract the increasing homogenisation and anonymity of our cities so they are desirable places to live and work. The alternative might just be a gradual exodus by those who choose a simpler life. I am surely not the only one who can picture herself working remotely from a Caribbean island or the heart of Tuscany.

This article was written by Janine Betz (aka Betzie), founding member of the Smart Cities Council Emerging Innovators and architect with a passion for placemaking. The views expressed therein are entirely her own. Feel free to get in touch via LinkedIn.