“Aristotle said that people come together in cities in order to live, and they remain together in order to live a good life. Cities are at the epicenter of human life. Over 70% of the global population will live in cities by 2050. For many, it is not a choice but a necessity. Our world becomes more urbanized by the minute. It is in cities then, where the elements of good life either flourish or impoverish.
For Aristotle only by actively contributing to common good one could reach full potential as human beings. Cities’ greatest asset is that they are communities of people. Mayors and city leaders are tasked to provide systems, allocate resources, infrastructure, governance – the best possible platform for people to reach their potential.
In 2017 Helsinki’s new city strategy aimed at raising up to this challenge with the vision of “the most functional city in the world”. Back then it was not the sexiest mission. But we believed that functionality lays in the core of good urban life. Now, almost four years later, I believe we were right.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic.
By now we can see, that the Covid crisis actually revealed more than it changed. In many cases already successful cities were also more successful in their Covid response. In areas where there were already multiple on-going crisis the ability to manage a pandemic is understandably poorer. Structural and systemic weaknesses made areas specifically vulnerable. In cities where trust between people and between people and their city governance is low it is much harder to create efficiency in crisis response.
Cities now have a better understanding of the winning attributes of a successful city. High level of trust between people and city administration is at the top end of this list. Functional infrastructure – especially in health care and public transportation is essential. Investment to well-being in housing, education and care contribute to the overall sense of security. Digital capabilities especially in data collection and analysis offer pathways to a more reliable, fact-based decision-making that promotes trust.
In short – many attributes of a functional city have now become attractive.
If all this is true, how can we build successful communities in the future? Holistic leadership is one answer. City leaders must favor wide-reaching, often slow-moving systemic changes instead of individual programs or projects, no matter how sexy they might seem from a political perspective. Instead of focusing on quick wins or high-profile targets holistic leadership should concentrate on improving all targets simultaneously and based on understanding of the big picture.
Decision-making – in crisis management and in normal times – is also a newly hot topic. Calls for transparency, and facts and evidence-based decision-making grow stronger. Digital capabilities to support this need to be improved. Not just to foster evidence-based decision-making, but to create efficiency to our ability to proactive problem-solving. Covid crisis has showed us that crisis management is – in part – also expectation management. Data can point us to the right direction, but people are entitled to know what parts of crisis response is based on facts and science, and what part on political preference.
This is especially true when even global pandemics become essentially a local issue. National governments can do – and should do – a lot, but local decision-making and implementation is what in the end will make the difference between success and failure. This is true in global pandemics, but also in global commitments, like the Agenda2030 targets. We must find the right – and by right I mean new – balance between local and national leadership. Local leadership must be able to concentrate on the best solutions for their community, but national level must keep drawing the big lines. The Covid crisis has once and for all revealed this new division of power.
In Helsinki the commitment to functionality has served us well. People experience a high level of trust and this makes decision-making and implementation work much more efficient. Our commitment to high level of accessible education and healthcare to all, high quality of basic education, high investment to social safety net and functional urban infrastructure has produced a community that follows the rules, adapts to new technologies quickly, trust their decision-makers and are able to prioritize common good.
In the Scandinavian countries a strong public sector is certainly a factor in building resilience. Cities are responsible for health care, child- and elderly care, basic infrastructure, zoning, etc. Strong public sector ensures systemic approach to local crisis management. Still it is not, by far, a silver bullet.
If Covid crisis revealed more than it changed, one of the big revelations was, that societal trust makes city management more efficient. Efficiency in turn gives people more time to do what they love. Predictable and stable environment creates a good base for business and innovations. In turn, these make the city more successful. I believe, that this cycle makes cities develop better, more attractive, resilient and positively efficient.
What will the future then hold for cities?
I would argue that renewal – not recovery – will be a key to our success. Many city leaders are now tempted to view everything in their cities through the Covid-19 lens. However, we have in recent years experienced much more profound changes that will keep impacting our cities long into the future. The climate crisis, digitalization and urbanization will impact our cities more than the Covid crisis. Most likely the pandemic will accelerate changes that were already taking place. For sure it will force us to face truths that we were unable or unwilling to address before.
Growing segregation is a huge issue in cities and an example of a wicked problem where renewal, not recovery, is the right direction. The Covid crisis revealed that we must be able to address inequality in a way that makes sense from the perspective of the people and the system. We must make a serious commitment to changing the rules of community-building and not just assume that adding resources to the existing system will make a difference.
Another huge issue is our cities’ centers. Remote work and changes in consumption patterns have accelerated to a point that finally makes us face the reality of what our city centers have become. In order to attract people and businesses back to downtown areas and revitalize urban culture we must be able to create conditions for the new transitional economies and consumptions patterns. Layered urban culture can exist, if cities provide more opportunities for new, innovative use of urban space and encourage also temporary and short-term use. Renewal, not recovery.
The climate crisis will keep pushing forward and in doing so it creates many other wicked problems on its way. Like Bill Gates, I am an optimist that technology will in the end provide us with the solutions essential to our survival. But technology cannot do it alone. We must make every city decision a climate decision and prioritize decarbonizing heating, buildings and transport. And try to predict how changing patterns of consumption impact our ability to do just that. The World Economic Forum predicts, that by 2030, there will be 36% more delivery vehicles in cities, which would add 11 minutes to daily commutes and increase emissions by 30%. Root cause for most changes is in the change of our behavioral patterns. Renewal, not recovery.
Covid crisis did not create any of these major transformations but it did open our eyes to the fact that waiting is not an option. It is up to our generations to create the political will and the practical tools to succeed in turning urbanization, climate crisis and many other global transformations from threats to opportunities.
In short – going backwards is not an option. In Winston Churchill’s words to improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”