Art byPaul Sizer

How working from home is changing the future of cities

The pandemic has sped up changes in how we live, work and play. We’re starting to see new trends in how cities are growing and changing.

The pandemic has sped up changes in how we live, work and play. We’re starting to see new trends in how cities are growing and changing.

The switch to working from home that accompanied the pandemic is accelerating underlying trends in urban living and improving quality of life in cities.

The pandemic isn’t over, and no one knows what’s next, but trend-spotters in marketing, research and other disciplines are noting change in how we live. I agree with them: Our environment is changing thanks to the influence of remote work, new technology and interacting physical and virtual worlds. Here are some of the big shifts to watch out for.

How homes will change

Never before have people around the world found themselves living in such similar ways at the same time. For the second year running, we’re seeing remote working en masse. The change has boosted some sectors. E-commerce has thrived as visiting bricks-and-mortar stores became more complicated. We’ve seen higher shipping parcel volumes and evidence of expansion in delivery services.

People are getting used to spending more time at home, so in commerce ‘dark stores’ (local stores being converted into fulfilment houses for online orders,) food delivery and digitalization will keep growing. Contactless payments will be the norm.

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COVID-19 has accelerated intelligent buildings and smart home technologies already being implemented. Keyless entry, voice-activated elevators and digital room service have become more valuable as consumers embrace hands-off technology at home.

For smart homes, essential security includes correctly configuring Wi-Fi networks and protecting devices and control panels with strong, unique passwords. But consumers have a way to come to adopt good security practices widely. Kaspersky’s recent research found only 48 percent protect their Wi-Fi network with a password, and just 58 percent use security software beyond what their devices have as standard with their operating system. There’s encouraging news in emerging ‘cyber immune’ technologies bringing greater security by design to the new fusion of digital and physical worlds.

How the office will change

Millions of employees working from home have felt the need for a virtual office. The hybrid work model is coming to the fore for many businesses, which means heading to the office just two or three days a week.

Workers gain many benefits from hybrid work, like saving on rent – it’s no longer so important to live close to the office – a made-to-order work environment and less commuting. Employers save on office space rents too.

This ‘pop-up’ workspace paradigm means virtual work will become more widely available.

The need to organize IT support adds a burden for employees. Simple advice: Always use a virtual private network (VPN) at home or on public Wi-Fi – it will protect your data, hide your IP address and ensure no one intercepts your online communications.

How urban living will change

Demographers and sociologists have trotted out the ‘death of the suburbs’ narrative many times over the years. COVID-19 caused a return to suburban and country life: Millions changed out downtown apartments for green places with less human contact. “First there were boom towns. Now there are Zoom towns,” said Lilly Smith in Fast Company, describing vacation destinations turning into real estate hot spots.

My study of economic sociology tells me people will find a middle ground between Zoom towns and big cities. The pandemic has blurred the boundaries between suburban living and metropolitan life. Improved rural infrastructure means country living is an option for people who have never considered it before. More than ever, people can choose their lifestyle, mixing and matching living arrangements according to family and seasons. I think Zoom towns are here to stay, but the way people use them will evolve.

But another thing the pandemic has taught us is, we want to meet face to face. It’s human nature to communicate and live together. People want to go to bars and restaurants, and they need eye contact in meetings and to feel connected to teammates to be productive. All this is why we’ll always want to live in cities.

Urban trends triggered in 2020 include 15-minute cities, where citizens can get daily needs within a short walk or fresh air while teleworking. Malls have made way for local grocery stores, and we’re favoring getting around on bicycles rather than driving or by public transport.

In Fast Forward audio series episode Cities of the Future, filmmaker and vice-chair of Women in Architecture Sarah Akigbogun predicts the flight from downtown to suburbia may be good for tackling inequality. It might empower talented people in marginalized communities recently shut out by inner-city gentrification.

These may be long-lasting urban tendencies. Post-pandemic habits will shape the look of future neighborhoods, providing a more family-friendly environment for those who enjoy city living.

We’ll see more mixed-use developments pairing housing and offices, courtyards and playgrounds, restaurants and retail.

When planning a living environment, developers must create opportunities for communication and leisure, enhance sense of community and prioritize health. Technologies that sanitize public spaces, allow contactless entry or enable stay-at-home virtual and augmented reality tourism will bring us closer to a future of smart and secure homes and cities.

In the past, cities grew through planning decisions and municipal visions of the future, but we’re entering a time when technology is giving many the flexibility to choose where and how they live and work. As global challenges like pandemics and climate change demand fast, decisive change, this growing flexibility in our lives could be a valuable asset.

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