Ever since the first cities were established some 7,000 years ago, humans have been ineluctably drawn to one another. Whether round fires to keep warm or round town squares to be part of the commercial action, we are a species innately inclined to congregate, thanks to our basic needs and wants.
And when it came to habitation, the majority of us were compelled to set up sticks in urban centers. Over millennia of industriousness and innovation, we gradually transformed these urban hubs into dynamic hives of activity, which kick-started human productivity, innovation and invention.
These human hives of activity came to be known as cities. And they, in turn, became the heartbeat of our economies, the lifeblood of our societies.
Today, 55 percent of the world’s population live in cities. Combined, our cities produce 70 percent of the world’s GDP. By 2050, the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicts that 68 percent of Earth’s population will live in urbanized areas.
In the last nine months, however, the road we were travelling forked unexpectedly and we, as a collective humanity, collided with a major speed bump. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic changed our world and the way we live.
As the new reality dawned, our cities became the front lines and the epicenters of the chaos caused by the virus. And many struggled to cope with the sudden increase of public-health demands placed on them.
Typically, the infrastructure of the city is not designed to deal with a viral pandemic that spreads most effectively in close human contact. Dense living quarters, large gatherings, public transit systems, skyscrapers, shops and restaurants are all designed for the very opposite of social distancing. They are built to bring many, many of us together at the same time, in the same place.
Amid this time of reckoning and a new virtual reality, an urgent question emerged: Have cities become obsolete?
“The city will never be obsolete. We are a social species that does our best work and achieves our best when we are together.” Fahd Abdulmohsan Al-Rasheed
This question has driven the work done by the Urban 20 (U20) Engagement Group’s work for the last nine months. It has informed and infused the hundreds of pages of research and urban analysis conducted by our three special task forces.
And it is being discussed and debated at great length during the 2020 U20 Mayors Summit, where we will officially present our communique to the G20, with policy recommendations to create more sustainable and inclusive urban spaces in the years ahead.
Before we do that, however, let us say this much: The city will never be obsolete. We are a social species that does our best work and achieves our best when we are together. We will always be drawn to the excitement and buzz of the city. But they will have to change and adapt with the times if our socioeconomic development is to continue sustainably.
It was also telling that, in our hour of utmost need, our cities demonstrated an inherent flexibility, agility and resilience. Many were able to transition to a virtual world almost overnight. They supported us when we needed it most.
Despite the momentous shock that we underwent — adapting to working from home, families, friends and colleagues relocated or stuck at home, in some cases in different continents — we have never been better connected. Everything changed, but our productivity did not slow; in fact it increased.
You may think that this returns us to the question: Do we really need cities in 2020? The answer does not change. While we can now seamlessly host summits and forums virtually, cutting travel and commute times, virtual meetings don’t allow us to develop the trust, rapport and chemistry required for us to build highly productive and cooperative relationships.
Virtual events don’t spring the random chance encounters, the ad-hoc ideation, co-inspiration and the spontaneous meeting of the minds that have driven innovation throughout history.
Virtual meetings are planned meetings. But cooperation, ideation and innovation happen, in many cases, when spontaneity is at its unfettered best — through chance, unplanned encounters.
While friends and families can catch up over a virtual dinner through an app, it will never replace the genuine social bond that grows and blooms from sharing that same meal face-to-face across the same table.
And while our kids can learn from home and do their homework on their smart devices, we should remember the reason we have schools is not to just to offer children a structured pedagogical curricula, but to also, and almost as importantly, to provide them with exposure to social situations that equip them psychologically with the skills required for them to succeed in the outside world.
Although this pandemic has forced us into social distancing and to productively digitize many of our daily routines, we yearn for that deep and inherently human connection that comes from physically connecting and congregating. And that will never change.
So, the real question should be: How can we enable cities to adapt to this and future shocks? The answer is: Investment in agility and resilience measures. The importance of investing in the resilience of our cities and our citizens is the headline takeaway from 2020 for urbanites and city planners.
We must find a way for our people to thrive, in business and in private life, regardless of circumstance. We must help people adapt. We must help people become more agile and resilient. We must prepare them for a future shaped by climate change, contagion and connectivity.
Fahd Abdulmohsan Al-Rasheed is the Chair of the Urban 20 (U20) 2020 and the President of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City.