The Urban Reboot is underway

We changed how we shop, how we work, how we commute — and we're changing how we power our world. It's time to rethink our cities.

Infrastructure is boring — until it isn’t. Nobody really cares about supply chains, until a pandemic breaks them. Energy supply is abstract, until a war chokes off cheap gas from Russia. Everything is digital, until we remember that it requires a physical infrastructure to keep it running.

Apple’s Vision Pro reminds us of that. While they play it down in the product photography, you’re still using a device with a cable that runs to a battery pack in your pocket. We can use software to create virtual worlds with alternative rules of physics, but the hardware itself is firmly bound by the existing limits. Surprise: digital is physical.

Digital needs energy — which needs to come from somewhere. Digital requires wires and cables because Wi-Fi is great for the home and the office, but doesn’t really cut it at transatlantic distances.

Skeuomorphic physical infrastructure

Ironically, many homes are still connecting to the internet through technology designed for voice calls a century ago. 18 months ago, a cheerful man from the UK’s Openreach turned up at my house, and finally ripped out the copper cables that had connected it to the world since the late 80s, and popped in some fibre optic cable.

Let’s look at another example: electric cars. Many countries are now engaged in a transition away from petrol vehicles and towards EVs. The last new petrol car sales will happen in the UK before the end of the decade. And so, the infrastructure needs to adapt. Currently, we’re just adapting what’s there. My local petrol station is closing for six weeks shortly, to take away half the petrol pumps and replace them with 10 rapid chargers.

But that’s just making what’s there already more modern. It’s the equivalent of sending the internet down copper telephone wires. Driving an EV is different to driving a car. If you have off-road parking, you almost never need to think about charging for much of the year. You drive, you come home, you plug in your car. Job’s a good ‘un.

Rethinking mobility infrastructure

It’s only when you go on long distances — like heading to a campsite several hours’ drive away — that you have to think about refuelling. But you’re not talking about five minutes at a pump. You’re looking at 30 to 40 minutes on a rapid charger. So, in many ways, a traditional petrol station makes little sense. Instead, you want those chargers at a pub, restaurant, or coffee shop. Set the car charging, and grab some lunch, or get some work done. There’s a bank of rapid chargers just off the M4 in the UK, outside a fantastic farm shop and café. Never have I looked forward more to refuelling on a journey to visit relatives.

Some people cling to the hope that hydrogen-powered cars might be the future, rather than EVs. They want to keep driving just as they do now, rather than adapt. This might well be the 21st-century equivalent of the people who had [email protected] as their first email address. They took the “mail” of “email” more literally than intended, and conceived of the email coming to the house, just as the post did. That seems quaint today, when we can read our email almost wherever we are in the world. The idea of regular trips to a refuelling station might seem just as archaic within a decade or so.

Our next frontier of digitalisation is not recreating the world digitally. We don’t have the technology to do that — yet. Until we do so, the metaverse will never be more than a situationally valuable adjunct to our physical lives. No, our next challenge is rethinking how we plan our physical environment around an electricity-powered, sustainable, digital lifestyle.

Digital urbanism

We’ve talked about this on the micro scale before. How do you rethink the office in light of digital-enabled hybrid working? What does this do to retail? But these are just two elements of a much larger and more complex ecosystem.

Sustainable power has rapidly moved from an environmental issue, to an energy security one. Germany, which felt the pain of dependence on Russian gas supplies last year, is rapidly expanding its solar capacity. Even the UK is looking at it — albeit with a summit, rather than more proactive action.

So many of the aspects of how we interact with the physical world are in flux now:

  • how we work
  • how we shop
  • how we travel
  • how we relax
  • how we generate power

This feels like a once-in-a-generation chance to think about how we organise our towns and cities — and probably the biggest since the invention of the car.

Infrastructure debt

Software has the concept of technical debt — you keep building on older code until, eventually, it becomes so unwieldy that a major rewrite is needed. Are we reaching a state of urban infrastructure debt? Are we living in cities whose underlying philosophy is still too deeply rooted in the technology and lifestyles of the past?

We’re already seeing a tension in the workplace between those who want to embrace hybrid work, and those who want people back in the office. The fact that pandemic poster child Zoom is asking its staff to spend more time in the office is certainly giving ammunition to one side. The likely victors, though, are those who rethink their offices to make them more attractive in an age of voluntary office attendance, rather than compulsory commuting.

You can see how easily this thinking could scale to urban and even country levels. The cities that adapt fastest to decarbonised transport, sustainable energy and digital living give themselves a massive competitive edge in attracting people as the global war for talent intensifies. You attract the right people, and you’ll attract the right companies, too. The battle for inward investment might no longer be about the right financial incentives and the right real estate, but the right living environment, the right connectivity and the sustainability of the local energy supply.

Rebooting cities

At an urban infrastructure level, we face the same choice we faced at a corporate level 15 years ago: Do we embrace the new technology, and joyfully reshape what we do around it? Or do we begrudgingly try to hammer it into the existing forms and infrastructure we already have?

We have always been on the side of the former: embrace the change, and see where it takes you. And the last 15 years have proven that to be right with the digital transformation of business. The next 15 years will tell us if it’s the right approach for our physical lives, too.

Photo by Jesper Giortz-Behrens on Unsplash