On 19 January 2021, journalist and author Camilla Cavendish chaired the first Urban Age Debate, joined by urbanist and author Richard Florida, AI and technology expert Ayesha Khanna, and HR executive Janina Kugel. Throughout the 75-minute discussion, this Urban Age Debate spanned topics such as how the switch to remote work has affected people across lines of inequality, how the pandemic has accelerated existing trends, and larger macro-disruptions to systems of social security.
Key Takeaway 1: The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated trends in the nature and geography of knowledge work
Before March 2020, only around five percent of knowledge workers worked primarily from home or remotely. Since then, there has been a rapid acceleration in the adoption of remote work, with more than 20 percent of knowledge workers wanting to work remotely three to five days a week, and just 12 percent desiring a return to full-time office work.
Further, the vast majority of the technology that remote workers have relied on existed before the pandemic however, it was “in March 2020, I learned the noun and verb Zoom,” says Richard Florida. Remote workers have had to adapt to increasing digitalisation and new working arrangements; as Ayesha Khanna explained, “Pandemic or no pandemic, we will have to adjust to different ways of working and upskill ourselves to the new demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
While on the individual level, the disruption caused by the shift to remote work has been drastic, not all organisational changes can happen as swiftly. As Janina Kugel puts it, “when it comes to cultural change and changing corporations, you actually need much more disruption.”
Key Takeaway 2: Pre-existing inequality has meant the COVID-19 pandemic and the turn to remote work has disproportionately affected different groups
The events of 2020 have revealed like never before deep-rooted inequities that played out in cities. “What we are seeing now is an incredible socioeconomic disjuncture. If you look at the two major movements we've seen around the world today, the rise of populism and the Black Lives Matter movement, they are both in very different ways a response to people being shut out of the future, we need some new kind of social safety net…[such as] Universal Basic Income” says Richard Florida.
Further, while the shift to remote work has been enthusiastically adopted by some, according to Richard Florida, “we are going to see bigger divides by geography, by gender, by demography, by age, as well as by race and by class.” Janina Kugel shed light on how some groups of women have been particularly negatively affected by the pandemic, “Women were mostly losing their jobs first, and if they didn’t lose their jobs then they were coming to a shortage of work times … I haven’t seen any state launch a financial welfare package that had a gender balancing aspect.”
Some knowledge workers have been able to work through the challenges of remote work relying on their support networks, but access to these networks isn’t universal as Richard Florida cautions, “Coming out of this, I think work is going to be different. Some advantaged group of people, mainly the 1%, can work remotely and have a wonderful support staff in the office and out of the office. But the majority of the workforce risks falling further and further behind, and without strategic and intentional action, those divides are going to widen.”
Key Takeaway 3: Technology and digitalisation can work to ‘remove the elitism of location’
While cities have almost always acted as the sites of agglomeration and collaboration between businesses, according to Ayesha Khanna, the shift towards remote work and digitalisation in knowledge work can “remove the elitism of location if we want to be more inclusive, and these technologies do provide a way for us to do that.”
While the increasing reliance on technology for knowledge workers can open up many new opportunities, digitalisation must be accompanied by governance as Ayesha Khanna emphasises strongly, “No one can never talk about technology or data or AI without the word governance in the same sentence, because one without the other is ridiculous.”
Key Takeaway 4: While central business districts will suffer and office space will be consolidated, cities will survive
Despite the deleterious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on cities, Richard Florida thinks “there’s been far too much conversation about the decline of big urban centres: London, New York, Berlin. Cities have survived far worse than this and come back.”
While cities will come back, how urban residents live and work in cities will become more complex. Over the next decade, the choice to live in a city will not be guided primarily by working opportunities but by amenities. This shift will require urban leaders to think flexibly, as Janina Kugel emphasises, “I do not believe that we will ever work remotely forever, but I definitely hope with the reduction of office space we will come to a combination of more flexibility in inner cities.”
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Camilla Cavendish (@CamCavendish) is an award-winning journalist and Contributing Editor at the Financial Times. She was the former Director of Policy for Prime Minister David Cameron and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of the 2019 book, Extra Time: Ten lessons for an ageing world.
Richard Florida (@Richard_Florida) is a Professor of Economic Analysis and Policy at the University of Toronto School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, a Distinguished Fellow at New York University’s Shack School of Real Estate and the best-selling author of The Rise of The Creative Class and The New Urban Crisis.
Ayesha Khanna (@ayeshakhanna1) is the co-Founder and CEO of ADDO AI, an artificial intelligence solutions firm and serves on the Board of the Infocomm Media Development Authority, the Singaporean government’s technology agency. She is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils, advising on the impact and governance of emerging technologies.
Janina Kugel (@janinakugel) is a non-Executive Board Member of Konecranes Oy and the German Pension Benefit Guarantee Association and the former CHRO and Board Member of Siemens AG. She is also a member of the international Advisory Board of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the IESE Business School in Barcelona.
Note: quotes have been edited for clarity and cohesion.