As the world moves into the recovery phase, we must innovate to build smarter and more affordable cities.

The global pandemic has amplified the shortcomings of modern cities, from the failure to provide enough outdoor space to inadequate local services. While resourceful solutions have emerged as communities are forced to adapt to the new reality, in the long-term, Covid-19 has shown us we need to invest in cities that are more intelligent and responsive to citizens’ needs.

As the world moves into the recovery phase, smart cities need reimagining – as luxuries, but necessities. Instead of the exclusive reserve of the 1%, the smart city of the future must be affordable and inclusive, integrating solutions that make a meaningful difference to quality of life and community cohesion.

From a business perspective, there is a strong case for affordable housing development. Upsizing or upgrading can wait, but for the 1.6 billion people living in inadequate, unsafe and overcrowded housing, affordable homes are essential. This demand means affordable housing is more resistant to cyclical pressures than other markets, so as companies deliver a crucial service to local people, they also build resilience within their business to the kind of crisis we are currently experiencing.

However, the affordable housing market should not just be seen as a safe harbour. The opportunities it offers for disruption are vast. In the first instance, cities should be adapting to disturbances elsewhere in our lives. Covid-19 has shown both individuals and businesses the merits of home working. According to a survey conducted last month by McKinsey, 69% of people felt that they had become either more productive or maintained productivity levels since moving from the office to home working during the pandemic. 

Little wonder that, in a separate survey, McKinsey found office space decision-makers expect home working to increase to 27% of work time from 20%. We are already seeing this happen with major firms such as Fujitsu committing to permanent work from home plans.

To accommodate changing work patterns, developers need to embrace modern technologies. They should be integrating fibre optic networks and free public Wi-Fi hot spots as a minimum. Moreover, as people invest more time at home, they will come to expect more from their local area. For developers, this means improving services and enhancing community life. The first of these is simple: build parks, leisure facilities, and spaces for educational courses and local events.

For the latter, our communities are due a digital revolution. Planet Smart City found integrating a mobile platform, the Planet App, into the way local people interact with their homes, services and fellow residents, enabled a sea change in community engagement. A platform like the Planet App allows residents to book shared spaces, start local groups and communicate directly with a Community Manager employed by Planet to help them connect with each other and establish their own community projects. This has not only increased quality of life for residents but, through rich levels of feedback and data, helps direct investment more efficiently to projects that align most to residents’ needs.

With people looking to reduce their environmental footprint in response to the climate crisis while also aiming to cut their bills in the face of a recession, efficiency savings are another natural area of focus for developers hoping to distinguish themselves post-Covid. 

As with local engagement, a digital revolution in the way we design and build our communities can offer considerable benefits. Smart meters for heating and electricity can give residents control over their energy usage, while smart irrigation devices designed to react to climatic conditions have a considerable effect on water bills. 

Deploying these solutions in one of Planet’s Brazilian projects, Smart City Laguna, is saving 197 tons of CO2eq emissions and enough water to fill 64 Olympic-sized swimming pools every year.

For years, we have come to expect less from affordable housing, ingraining the assumption that smart solutions and affordability are mutually exclusive. However, Planet’s experience in diverse markets such as Italy, Brazil and India has shown that integrating these innovative features adds just 2-3% to the cost of construction.

These neighbourhoods offer residents a wealth of services, strong community cohesion, low utility bills and, in general, a lifestyle aligned to post-Covid priorities. As such, they can require considerably less marketing effort, the cost savings from which easily cover the extra investment at the construction phase. Moreover, the integration of smart solutions enables the collection of hyper localised data, which can be used collaboratively with residents to align improvements in infrastructure and services to their priorities. This not only means happy communities but helps developers make more effective judgements about where to invest.

The digital revolution in cities around the world can sweep away the old dichotomy of quality and affordability. As we emerge from this difficult period, a new generation of developments can set a new standard that disrupts the market, distinguishes their projects and delivers the lifestyle residents have come to expect.

Alan Marcus
Chief Digital Strategy Officer