The COVID-19 pandemic radically changed our relationship with cities. This shouldn’t be news to anyone but the changes will have long lasting effects on the global economy and, perhaps more importantly, the production of culture. In the West, cities are critical hubs of commerce and intellectual activity. From office space to corner restaurants, cities require a constant stream of workers to function at their full potential. Remote work and the rise of digital nomads changed this equation and now many western cities are struggling to find their raison d’etre in the post-pandemic landscape.
We expect too much of new buildings, the famed American urbanist Jane Jacobs said, and too little of ourselves. In the wake of the pandemic, her observation is poignant. There is no easy infrastructural solution to this crisis of urban identity and the decline of Western cities. Creating new buildings won’t bring workers and intellectuals back in the West. This is all the more pressing given the incredible forecasts for urban growth in other parts of the world. The World Bank says that seven out of 10 people in the world will live in a city by 2050 and most will be located in emerging markets such as Africa and Southeast Asia.
While many companies are working tirelessly to attract employees back to the office, many workers around the world appear to be happy to even exchange pay cuts for more flexibility with remote work. At the same time, digital nomads have carved out a nice corner of the labor market that enables them to live around the world while maintaining full employment on gig contracts. If you can earn an American salary while living in Mexico or Indonesia, why would you ever return to the US? How this will transform labor markets over the next decade is anyone’s guess but it’s clear it will have a major effect.
The rise of digital nomads and decline of the city isn’t solely the fault of COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, Politico noted that “for the first time since the earliest cities emerged in the Fertile Crescent some 6,000 years ago, concentrated urban centers no longer have a monopoly on the economic and cultural connections that make civilizations tick forward.” What is missing in this assessment is which cities have lost their monopoly. The slow decay of cities is apparent in the West but not so in emerging markets. From Lagos to Dubai, there are new centers of economic and cultural capital rapidly taking shape.
The planners and municipal authorities of these news beacons of urban activity understand full well the historic transformation taking shape. That’s why cities like Tallinn, Dubai, Singapore, and Reykjavik have made concrete efforts to attract digital nomads through favorable visas and employment schemes. A savvy digital nomad can register a virtual business in Dubai and bounce between the United Arab Emirates and various megacities in Africa with relative ease.
As the lights dim in the West, they shine brighter in the East. There are several fascinating dynamics at work from the cultural perspective. For one thing, all this new activity is taking place in young cities. Many emerging market cities have established prominence only in the past few decades. If one looks at Abu Dhabi, the transformation has taken place quickly. What was once a sleepy fishing village is now home to powerful cultural institutions such as the Louvre. There are ample state-supported cultural foundations. New cultural districts have been created with unusual speed, which begs the question of how artists and intellectuals will engage with them.
Jane Jacobs, in her masterwork “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” argued that cities need to grow organically through wise urban planning that considered the role of the individual. With the right infrastructure in place, culture would grow like healthy seeds planted in fertile soil. While incredible amounts of money have been invested in cities like Abu Dhabi, it’s unclear how exactly cultural production will flourish, especially given the divergence in perspectives between local cultural attitudes and those of the West. In other words, will previously New York based artists be able to fully express themselves in Abu Dhabi or Lagos?
It’s time to stop bemoaning the decline of cities and what it means for cultural production. Some cities are struggling for myriad reasons including the COVID-19 pandemic but new ones are on the rise. These new urban centers from the Gulf to South America will leave their stamp on the next wave of culture, which will be defined by the unprecedented interconnection between people thanks to the internet and travel. Instead of thinking about what was, it’s time to start planning what will be.
Joseph Dana is the former senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was also the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact. Twitter: @ibnezra.