It is becoming increasingly clear that London is at a tipping point. Whilst the centre is struggling, the outskirts are beginning to thrive. Covid, Brexit and the broader effects of automation and Industry 4.0 are driving a new way of working. Home has become the place of work, and online shopping and enjoying the areas we live in, the new norm. For the past 50 years London has been home to a high value economy of financial, professional and creative services, and most recently various start-up clusters. This “cognitive” economy has driven the infrastructure and economic geography of London but, as the working patterns of this economy transform, they will demand a New London.
In a Covid world, feeling “safe” becomes a key deciding factor when choosing where to be and who to be with. The talent-led organisations London needs to attract and retain will look to safety first, so we must create “ultra-safe zones“ that feature things like real-time, digital health passports and body temperature surveillance systems, all assisted by state of the art test-and-trace and public health provision. London has shown great leadership in anti-terrorism and this can be built on to help create a 21st Century Social City with strategic ultra-safe bridges to local, national and international partners.
It is clear that the face-to-face economy is not going to disappear. Rather, it’s going from being the default means of organising, to being the high-value means of organising. Whilst, firms are discovering productivity and cost benefits from remote working, these virtual networks also need, and crave, safe places to “land” to do complex work. Gathering for five days in an easily accessible location, attuned for “deep work“ so teams can live and work intensively and safely together, becomes the gap in the market London can exploit. The glamorous head offices in prestigious, now empty, locations can become the new DeepWork/Live infrastructure. Alongside this we need a transformation in London’s housing offer.
London’s housing was designed to create a place to sleep, shower and store personal effects. Covid has transformed this reality, with the London house now at the centre of work, as well as retail. It is highly likely that a significant portion of the shift we have seen will stick, and that the demands on an evolved London house will be significant. More separated indoor and outdoor spaces with good noise insulation, clean air and great broadband will be essential. And these houses will be located within what we will come to see as a City of Villages.
Londoners, and their spend and time, have been relocated away from Central London retail and consumerism, to Outer London high streets and commuter towns and their communities. We seem to have little choice but to reinforce this transition by making these high streets and parks digitally-assisted, high-quality environments. High streets can and must provide a multi-purpose offer; a hybrid of public services and flexible, experiential retail augmented by food truck infrastructure. Programmable public parks becoming a civic platform for health and wellbeing services. Tree-dense, curb-less streets, that enable easy access for all, as well as shelter from hot weather and flood management, also create the civic-life infrastructure and liveability vital for New London.
Within this “village” life, we will need to embed skills development and retraining – a next generation of 24 hour polytechnics that include a hybrid of online teaching, apprenticeships and weekend and evening hackathons and ultra-safe residentials. They will need to focus on data science, 3D printing and manufacturing, coding, languages, the Internet Of Things (IOT,) business and natural asset management, amongst other skills to keep our talent relevant and challenged.
How large this City of Villages becomes and how it interconnects will be a huge part of the new challenge for Transport for London. As we commute fewer days of the week, there will need to be more of us, to compensate for falling riderships, over the longer commuter routes. The City of Villages may have to both densify and extend well beyond what we see as the natural boundaries of London, and public transport will need to be even more integrated in order to release the economies of scale our new, sporadic, travel needs demand.
At the same time, moving over shorter distances in safety will likely be more of a solo experience. Paris has talked up, and owned, the concept of every Parisian living in a 15 Minute City. London needs its own version. The e-bike and e-scooter revolution can put key parts of our large urban mass within a 20 minute ride. Investing in a “whole of London” e-bike network, with dedicated super-highways, will enable the centre to be accessible to nearly all Londoners and the city’s visitors ultra-safely in under 20 minutes – a 20 minute London.
As well as “new housing standards“ to promote and support the “new house”, we will need significant investment in our logistics infrastructure to support it. The home is now the end point of distribution. We are going to need to upgrade the North Circular road to be a key logistics conduit. Supplemented by the re-zoning of the associated land and assets, along with devising a charter of interoperability protocols (APIs) for logistics providers in order to minimise journeys. And we will need a “sandbox” of experimental trials, with key partners, in order to achieve this effectively.
We are also going to have to embrace the “deep electrification“ of London. It is already clear that our energy demands are shifting to full electrification. Vehicles, bikes, batteries, heat pumps and endless gadgets all require electrical power. This demands an investment in new energy sources, an upgraded grid and large scale distribution of public charging points.
And finally, online work, IOT, Augmented Reality and Spatial Computing are all becoming, or going to become, realities within our homes. So we are also going to need GigaBit Fibre, street-to-computer, for all Londoners if we are going to witness a just transition for all.
These investments sound significant, and they are. However, London needs to step forward to embrace the transition. Singapore is already seen as leading the way in terms of safety and security. Paris is already signalling its future as local and liveable. We need to see ourselves in this context and become the international centre for ultra-safe, deep work. The cities of the world that can demonstrate that they understand the needs of future working, and can claim a clear role within it, will be the ones that the newly distributed and decentralised companies and organisations of all types, and their deep-working teams, will gravitate towards. This transition is going to be painful, as change often is. The question we need to pose ourselves is not can we afford it, nor how do we hold on to what we’ve got, but do we really have a choice?
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