Spending on technology and digital infrastructure will, therefore, continue to cope with the surprises that COVID-19 may still throw at us in the future. Examples of such technologies include workplace robots for various purposes, smart materials for pathogen control, contactless solutions, etc.An even greater shift of public services and general lifestyle to the digital realm will also call for greater cybersecurity and privacy measures.

Decentralization and Modularization:

Urbanization has typically followed a cyclical pattern with densification of the center, followed by urban sprawl and recent re-densification of the center. The exponential spread of COVID-19 under high-density living and working conditions is now promoting the planning and provisioning of cities in a more decentralized manner. Economic activities are now being dispersed more deliberately, alternate ports are being expanded and modernized, and capacity for quick provisioning of large spaces such as stadiums or common areas in condominiums for COVID-care facilities is being planned among other initiatives.This trend for greater decentralization and modularization will be further supported by the need to build in more redundancy and resilience under stress-test conditions.

Repurposing Physical and Digital Spaces:

While the utilization of certain physical spaces such as museums, libraries, entertainment venues, offices and commercial centers will decline over time, others such as queuing space for healthcare centers, childcare facilities, etc., will need to ramp up. This calls for extensive rethinking and repurposing of several physical and digital spaces. Unused commercial buildings may be demolished to create urban parks, separate lanes for delivery riders may need to be created on our roads, and municipality websites may need to be redesigned to live-stream community meetings. Instead of single-purpose infrastructure, multi-use facilities will become more common. Cyber-defenses may need to be built up even stronger as certain malicious players may target public digital spaces instead of physical property, as has been the case in the past.

Focus on Sustainability:

The pandemic has shown that it is possible to reduce carbon footprints drastically with certain changes in lifestyle and regulations. The general movement around the world to build again better with environmental sustainability as one of the key factors has received an impetus as a result of the pandemic. Many cities such as London and Singapore are regulating certain streets as pedestrian-only. The emphasis on digital and contactless services calls for reduced consumption of materials.

Collaborative Innovation:

Finally, the pandemic has blurred the line between public entities, private institutions, non-profits and individuals in planning, designing and delivering urban services. The private sector and non-profits played a major role in managing the pandemic from testing to vaccination. As such, compared to the conventional “top-down” approach of planning and managing cities, there is now an impetus for a more ground-up approach that can further foster innovation in public services. Ideas for redesigning public spaces are now being sought from individual residents by cities worldwide. Digital platforms such as Community planIT and CivicLab are enabling this transition.

In Conclusion: A Change of Mind-set

The pandemic has brought about a renewed civic-mindedness. The link between personal, private, public and society has never been as clear as now. There is greater awareness of the importance of relatively lower-paid workers such as delivery staff and frontline health workers. There is greater empathy for the underprivileged: the day laborers, the migrant workers, the single working females on a frontline job, etc. Above all, there is a renewed hope and desire to build back things better with a greater focus on environmental sustainability in particular. On the other hand, the pandemic has also perhaps entrenched feelings of provincialism, identity-based group-think, and NIMBY-ness with a heightened sense of alienation for some. Managing the positives of digital and material technologies while mitigating the risks has been a challenge as well. Going forward, the efficacy and effectiveness of planning, design, and governance of cities will be determined by how societies manage to navigate this path through the opportunities and challenges that the pandemic has created or intensified further.