Urbantech 2020 Year in Review.

December 10, 2020

As we entered a new decade, few of us could have predicted what the following 12 months would have in store. A global pandemic that has reset real-estate, work, and education; far-reaching protests and calls for racial justice; devastating climate events in multiple states and countries; and a tipping point for the EV and AV industries – all amidst one of the most divisive elections in US history.

Against this sobering backdrop, we convened a group of urban technology leaders to help us connect the dots to inform what happens next as we move forward in the new year.

Check out our five key takeaways from the discussion and our outlook on where we go from here. A session recording can be viewed below.


5 Key
Takeaways

Digital Resilience

Digital infrastructure has been a source of resilience for our daily lives during the pandemic in a way in which would have been impossible five to ten years ago: from entertainment to education, food to telemedicine.  While internet connectivity is not a panacea or equally distributed, it’s application for contact-tracing has largely been a failure in many places around the world.

ACCENTUATED RACIAL INEQUALITIES

“One in five Black people have the luxury of staying home to work. This is connected to the disproportionate amount of deaths and racial uprising that we’ve seen,” Andre M. Perry pointed out. On a brighter note, he also highlighted that he had never seen so many non-Black people support and stand behind the BLM movement.

THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY

Having an infrastructure of people, whether you can see them and touch them (safely), or zoom them, has become crucial during isolation. This has made small co-living buildings such as Kin a thriving housing typology. 

It’s Time to Compete

In this reshuffle of people moving to smaller cities and rural areas, or taking advantage of lower rents with vacancies, cities have the opportunity to compete for the best talent. As an example, Austin, Texas, has done a great job at incentivizing tech talent from San Francisco to relocate there. 

RIDE SHARING IS NOT GOING AWAY

While the pandemic endures, ridesharing might be scaled back, but it’s certainly not going away. As Anthony Townsend pointed out, bike-share appeared in China as a result of SARS in 2003. Since then, it’s been spreading around the globe and it’s become a new kind of infrastructure that millions of people rely on.

Kevin Delaney - Co-Founder of Reset Work and Quartz, former New York Times and Wall Street Journal editor


Anthony Townsend - Urbanist in Residence at Cornell Tech, founder of Star City Group, and author of Ghost Roads and Smart Cities


Britt Zaffir - CEO, Kin


Andre M. Perry - Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, a scholar-in-residence at American University, and author of Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities


Miriam Roure:

(music) Hello everyone, and welcome to Urbantech 2020 A Year In Review. My name is Miriam Roure, and I’m the program director at URBAN-X. For those who don’t know us or as you know, URBAN-X is a venture accelerator for startups, reimagining seed life, built by MINI and the venture fund, Urban Us. To frame this event, I wanted you to think back at January 1st, 2020. We were entering a new decade, and I know that at least I could have never predicted the following 12 months and what they would have in store for us.

Miriam Roure:

We are seeing a global pandemic that has reset real estate, work and education. We have seen far reaching protests and calls for racial justice, devastating climate events in multiple states and countries, all amidst one of the most divisive elections in US history. In thinking through our last event of the year at URBAN-X, we wanted to make sense of what has happened, make peace to some degree with this so called new normal, and hopefully shine some light on what might be ahead of us.

Miriam Roure:

The question that we ask ourselves is, how do we connect the dots to give us a better perspective for the year to come? To answer this question, and to lead this discussion, we’re excited to have Kevin Delaney, co-founder of Reset Work and Quartz, and a former New York Times and Wall Street Journal editor. To the audience, we encourage you to join the discussion on your favorite social media channel, tagging @URBAN-XXL. We encourage you to sign up for our newsletter on our website, on urban-x.com where you will also find some fresh new content around the future of our streets. On behalf of the entire team at URBAN-X, we wish you a safe, healthy and bright holiday season and look forward to reconnecting in the new year. But for now, let’s get this discussion started. Kevin, thank you for joining us. The floor is yours.

Kevin Delaney:

Great. Thank you, Miriam. As you mentioned, I’m the co-founder of Reset Work. It’s a new email newsletter that aims to equip people to navigate this current chapter and approach the post pandemic time with purpose in how we approach our work. If anyone is interested, you can sign up for free at resetwork.co. As a journalist, one question I often ask myself is, as I approach a topic, if you squint your eyes and you see what remains of all of the details, the biggest peaks, the most significant events, the most lasting changes, what do you see there? That is often the most important and the most lasting thing.

Kevin Delaney:

Another way to say this is, how will historians write about this time? That’s not easy in a year like this year, those sort of questions answered. But it’s the sort of discussion we’re hoping to embark on today to make sense of this intense year, including the winter ahead, which looks like it will be pretty rough and how we hope to emerge from it.

Kevin Delaney:

We have three excellent thinkers and doers to tackle the key questions with us. I’m joined today by Britt Zaffir, Andre Perry and Anthony Townsend. Brit is the CEO of Kin, which is a unique household brand designing and operating real estate company that’s meeting the changing needs of families. Kin is a joint venture between Common Tishman Speyer, and it’s launching its first ever family focused residential buildings in Long Island City and Williamsburg in addition to other markets. Britt was earlier worked at Common, at Airbnb, Monitor Deloitte and Amcor Holdings.

Kevin Delaney:

Andre is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, and he’s a scholar in residence in American University, and he’s a columnist for The Hechinger Report. Andre is also the author of a new book, Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities. His recent scholarship at Brookings has analyzed black majority cities and institutions in America, focusing on valuable assets worthy of increased investment. He’s also been documenting the underlying policy discrimination that makes black Americans more vulnerable to COVID.

Kevin Delaney:

Third, Anthony who works at the intersection of urbanization, and digital technology, He’s the urbanist in residence at Cornell Tech’s, Jacobs Institute, where his research focuses on scenarios and ethical frameworks for urban tech innovations. Anthony is the author of two books; Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car, and Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. His consultancy, Star City Group works on urban tech foresight, policy and planning studies.

Kevin Delaney:

We’re going to dive in and hit a number of topics, but I wanted first by welcoming you three, and asking you to start with a question that I find is often very helpful. What do you know now that you didn’t know a year ago, in terms of this urban environment that we’re talking about today? What stands out for your most? What’s top of that list? Britt? Maybe we can start with you.

Britt Zaffir:

Sure. I think, in reality, I think what I know now that I didn’t know a year ago, is that we all actually know nothing, and that, we’re really… I think, there could be major, major, exogenous impacts to the system that probably some smart people predicted, but very, very, very few predicted, and most of the smart people that predict lots of things could have never, ever seen this coming.

Britt Zaffir:

I think that is an important takeaway, which is just that, we’re all figuring this out together. But on this, I guess topic of together, I think that’s probably one of the big things that when I look back on 2020, stand out to me, it’s this idea that I think community, ironically, played a bigger role in 2020, than probably in any other year in my own history, personally and professionally.

Britt Zaffir:

That might sound funny, because I’m the CEO of a housing brand that is specifically focused around community and specifically, our main core thesis is around bringing this sense of togetherness, and this sense of community to the specific demographic that we focus on, is young families. Previously, I was at Common, and the specific demographic that Common focuses on is similarly bringing community to the young professional roommate segment, and we’ve been doing this long before 2020.

Britt Zaffir:

But I think what 2020 really showed was that, community, family, the small things are really the big things, and having an infrastructure of people, whether you can see them and touch them and be close to them in real time, or really just a network to rely on and have to navigate this crazy time has been more critical than ever.

Britt Zaffir:

One of my favorite stories, and it’s super micro, it’s super in the weeds, but I love to share it is that, we leased up at Kin, our first building, in March of this year, March 27th, actually. Just contextualize that, it’s in Williamsburg, which is one of the densest sub markets in definitely one of the denser ones in New York and New York being one of the denser ones in the world. So, it’s definitely up there. We bought this building that’s all around community to the market to lease in late March. We actually surpassed our underwritten rents by 10%, which is a massive number. That’s atypical on a good day, let alone on March 27th, world is shutting down peak COVID day.

Britt Zaffir:

I think when I really try and think about why… There’s probably a lot of good reasons that can explain micro shifts in that 10%. But, fundamentally, I think people were scared, and we were selling a sense of community, which is a real thing, and I will admit it’s a smaller building, it’s 20 units. I know the story may have been a little bit different if it was 200 or 300 units, which is actually the typical size of our typical product. But this was our first one, and it was on the smaller size, and it was 20.

Britt Zaffir:

I think, we were able to find 20 families that really, we’re scared, and were looking for this sense of community, and were looking for people to… The story I love to share is, the first person who moved in was like, “Hey, I just moved into a unit, whatever. I know a lot of people… ” We use technology to connect our community. So, the app is a big part of what we do. This person was like, “I know a lot of people are going out of town, but I love plants, and I’d love to water your plants, if anyone’s out of town and needs a helping hand.”

Britt Zaffir:

Then the next day you see someone… Maybe not… Probably a week later, early April, you see someone say, “I know there’s shutdowns, and it’s really hard to get groceries, if anyone needs me to get them groceries. If people are at risk, or vulnerable or susceptible or scared, I’m happy to go out and leave them at your door.” Then in late April, someone else says, “I have a hairdresser coming to the building, and they’re going to do outdoor haircuts on the rooftop. Masks, socially distance, but I know my hair is really long, and it’s not great for Zoom calls. So, if anyone wants a free haircut, come out upstairs to the roof on Sunday at noon.”

Britt Zaffir:

I think it was those little micro stories that really just explained why our building actually did well, and why… I really think when I look back on the year of 2020, that’s the piece among all the noise that really stands out to me as something that I think, as we look forward into 2021, and beyond, the sense of community and human interaction, that touch is really important.

Kevin Delaney:

Yeah, that’s great, and I’m going to come back in a few minutes to this question of density, which you started touching on because of the communal living. Andre, I want to pull you in, and ask you the same starting question, what do you know now that you didn’t know a year ago?

Andre M. Perry:

Well, it’s hard for me to pick one thing. My smart, snippy answer is, I used to not really pay much attention to people wearing mask on planes before the pandemic, and now I’m like, “Oh, I guess a lot of people were right in doing so.” But I think the one thing that really sticks out for me is how few black people can actually stay at home and work. Some estimates are around only one in five, about 20% of black people actually have the luxury of staying home at work. I’m one of the one in five.

Andre M. Perry:

Compared to some estimates; 50%, 60% of our white peers can do so. That’s an amazing stat for me, and it’s connected to the disproportionate amount of deaths related to COVID. It’s connected to the racial uprising that we’ve seen. For me, that… I will say one more, that will always stick out for me, sometime after George Floyd’s killing, I went to a protest with my son, and we were in D.C., and we were along one of the 16th Street underpasses.

Andre M. Perry:

If you live in D.C., or if you’re familiar with it, there’s a tunnel, and people are coming out and we walked around. We at the time, we lived in Dupont Circle, so it’s easy to get to. We stood at the mouth of the tunnel. We heard people chanting, Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. As people came out, it was all white people.

Andre M. Perry:

For me, it was like, whoa, this is new for me because I’ve been to a lot of protests. I’m 50, at an earlier age, I was one of those guys that camped out and was right there. This time, I was a little in the background with a mask and all this other stuff. But that was new for me, absolutely new to see so many non-black people supporting black people, and my son lives with me. I remember thinking, oh, man, what is he thinking? Because all of my life, I only saw black people saying, essentially, Black Lives Matter. Not those words, but seeing those actions.

Andre M. Perry:

That really stuck out for me, having my son witness the support from a very diverse set of people. Now, clearly the election, we saw half of America supporting Donald Trump. But I always go back to that moment that, hey, we have a new or we see new coalitions being formed that we’ve never seen before. For me, that really stuck out.

Kevin Delaney:

Yeah, and out of a dark year, that’s a hopeful note.

Andre M. Perry:

Yeah.

Kevin Delaney:

Anthony, can I pull you in and ask you the same starting question, what do you know now that you didn’t know a year ago?

Anthony Townsend:

I think with the exception of the great inequality in access to both technology and opportunities to work from home that Andre just pointed out, I think that the resilience that we’ve seen in terms of people being able to participate in the economy, in education and culture, even when they weren’t able to travel has been quite surprising.

Anthony Townsend:

A lot of organizations have managed to keep chugging along. A lot of even the retail economy has managed to keep chugging along, and that I think, would not have happened five years ago, or 10 years ago. On the other hand, we’ve seen some real big technology failures as well like contact tracing apps. I think the big lesson from all of that is that no single city can fight a pandemic on its own, no matter how much technology it has access to. It’s an urban system’s problem, and unless you’re coordinating those urban systems at a national level, you’re not going to succeed, and that’s really where we’ve seen the difference between countries that have managed the public health crisis and those that have failed to manage it.

Anthony Townsend:

All that makes me wonder that, whether the US is on a different trajectory coming out of this, where, if you look at places like Seoul or Taipei or Singapore, people are going to offices and riding mass transit and eating indoors. In Wu Han people are eating in restaurants without masks right now, and that’s because they have managed the crisis, and they’ve used a lot of technology successfully to do it. Whereas in the US, we’re looking at potentially a lot of these adaptive behaviors sticking, and all of the inequities and the consequences of this technology sticking. I think, we really need to ask ourselves whether we want to be on that separate track from the rest of the world.

Kevin Delaney:

When you say that it was more resilient than it might have been five or 10 years ago because of technology, is that the sort of obvious things like people were able to use their phones to order delivery from restaurants, and therefore the restaurants are able to stay open? Or what did you have in mind-

Anthony Townsend:

I think that’s just a comfort thing. I’m thinking about senior citizens getting access to prescription medications and children being able to access schoolwork, those things would have been extremely difficult to coordinate on the scale that they had to be coordinated on in order to lock down several hundred million people for the amount of time we’ve done it for.

Kevin Delaney:

Great.

Andre M. Perry:

Anthony is so right on this because if you look back at some of the predictions that were being made in March, the sky was going to fall, there were going to be more than a million deaths by this time… It was horrific. I do think in people’s minds, they did not understand the technological capacity. Now, I’m going to be clear that there are clear gaps that impact people of color, people in rural places. There are clear technological gaps, but can you imagine if we did not have these capacities, I do think those predictions would be true.

Andre M. Perry:

If there was a lapse in the thinking, if there was something… It was really… Anthony, I think, is absolutely right, they did not really internalize the technological strength that we have. I do think we’re going to come out on the other side of this even stronger realizing the technological capacities that can get us through different emergencies.

Kevin Delaney:

Yeah, well, I agree with you both, but have to say it’s probably everyone would acknowledge it’s also been a band aid too. If you think about Zoom school, compared to a normal school experience for five, six, seven year old, they’re falling behind, even as we try and patch things together. Andre, I want to stay with you for a second. You talked about some of this before about the ability to do your job from home and other factors. But what about cities? You study cities a lot, how do you feel like cities and our systems for navigating them and inhabiting them have fared during the pandemic? Maybe there are multiple answers for that, depending on where someone falls on the spectrum of income and race and other factors.

Andre M. Perry:

Yeah, in terms of cities, I think what sticks out is that I’ll start with the PPP loan, what I’ll call fiasco. The PPP program out of the CARES Act was set up, essentially to reward employer businesses. Because 95% of black businesses are sole proprietorships, it really did not help black communities in general, compared to 78% of white businesses are sole proprietorship. I always got to remind people, most businesses are sole proprietorships.

Andre M. Perry:

But structurally, that represented what was going on in so many different areas in cities, that structurally, black people generally live in homes inter-generationally at a higher rate than their white and Asian peers, that structurally, black people get less pay, have less benefits. What we saw over the last six, seven months, was a really exposure of those structural differences that really led to a disproportionate amount of deaths among black people. The death rate is about two to three times that of their white peers. It’s not because COVID discriminates, it’s because our past policies had.

Andre M. Perry:

A lot of this is highlighted in our cities, not just our cities, other places, but because 60% of the black population lives in our larger metros, you really saw this play out, and still we have to go to work. So, folks go to their grocery store job, they go to their bus driver job, because those are essential worker occupations, and they get higher exposure, they come back home where grandma is, and you see this death. In March and April, you had cities like Detroit, New Orleans, Atlanta, you saw these explosive amounts of deaths in black cities, and it really just took you back.

Andre M. Perry:

I now worry, I think looking ahead, because of the past use of black bodies to experiment with particular vaccines and medicines, there’s a reticence for this forthcoming COVID vaccine. So, I’m worried again that that you might still see this disproportionate amount of death in black cities because of that resistance to receive a vaccine.

Andre M. Perry:

For me, cities are a microcosm of what’s happening in our policies, instance of there are past harms that have been done that comes out of the wash in the research in form of death, unemployment. Remember, the unemployment rate is going in a different direction for black people than white people. For me, what really sticks out about cities is the structural inequality that puts us in position for greater likelihood of death and unemployment.

Kevin Delaney:

I’m going to want to come back in a few minutes to ask that question, but also in the frame of where the evolution of cities coming out of this pandemic, if we think that businesses and residential patterns are actually going to change and how we can think about black and other communities in that context. Britt, I’m going to come back to you first about this question of density, which you introduced before with the idea that the housing is dense.

Kevin Delaney:

I think in the beginning of the pandemic, it was easy for people to point fingers at cities like New York and say, these dense cities are the ones where this is raging out of control. But at the same time, I think we all know that density is important to our future, and it should be a goal in some ways, because of the health and economic outcomes that are actually better in denser locations. Britt, I want to take that question to you, what did we learn about density, its drawbacks, and its advantages coming out of this era? Is there greater reticence to live in dense environments, maybe, as a result of this experience?

Britt Zaffir:

Sorry, I had muted myself, I’m back.

Kevin Delaney:

We can hear you.

Britt Zaffir:

Right. I think cities have, I guess, Kevin, to the point you were just making, seen an interesting shift over the last nine, 10 months. I think, back in March, April, May, there was a huge shock to our system. The shutdowns were a net negative for everyone, and I think they were worse for cities. You saw, in that timeframe, a real negative consequence or impact to cities. I think it was proportional to the size of the city. So, the bigger the city, the bigger the impact.

Britt Zaffir:

But I think what you also saw in that time was that cities figured it out pretty quickly. Hospitals figured out how to add capacity, New York being a really, really good example of that. Subways did continue to run despite reduced, or very little ridership they have continued to operate. There was at no point, really any real food or supply shortage. There might have been a small run in the earlier weeks of March, but I think the supply chain held up pretty well.

Britt Zaffir:

Density was a negative because you have to be six feet apart. In a city like New York, that’s pretty impossible. But even in New York’s worst days, I think… I was here March, I was here throughout. I think even in New York’s worst days, even though density was a net negative, you still had access to some of the benefits of what being in a city has always provided and has continued to provide. I think that that’s only increasing as cities get back to normal.

Britt Zaffir:

I think, if you fast forward the clock, or the calendar, I guess, nine months, December 2020, cities are faring badly, again, the country is faring fairly badly again. However, I would say, I don’t think there’s been a direct correlation between the density of a city and how badly it’s fared. I have actually been really impressed with how New York has come out of what was seemingly the biggest crisis and potentially, the breaker for a city that seemed unbreakable. I do think the city of New York has managed to turn it around.

Britt Zaffir:

I’m in New York right now, and it feels like a pretty decent place to be all things considered in 2020. I think that there’s a role that cities themselves have to play about getting back to normal, and making sure that they come out on the winning side of this. I think you’ve seen some cities that have been proactive in rolling out incentives, or making investments or encouraging people to want to be in their cities. Examples of that, I think Austin has done… Actually, there was a big article this morning in the Wall Street Journal, all about Austin, and $7 billion investment in mass transit and local tax incentives and business friendly policies and really just making themselves be a city that people want to be in.

Britt Zaffir:

They’re not sitting on their laurels, they’re being proactive in making Austin a good place that people want to be. Tulsa, they’re paying remote workers $10,000 each to relocate to Tulsa, Oklahoma. In a world where people can work remotely, that’s actually a really compelling value proposition, and that’s something that Tulsa is proactively doing and getting ahead of.

Britt Zaffir:

I personally think that density continues to be a net positive to a point. I don’t necessarily think that denser always equals better. But I do think that there’s a minimum amount of density combined with good amenities and in some cases, amenities as things, like New York has the benefit of culture being an amenity, while a city like Miami has the benefit of weather being an amenity. Different cities have different amenities, but I think density combined with amenities and affordability is going to win.

Britt Zaffir:

I’m actually still fairly bullish on New York, despite the lack of affordability, and I think it’s a real contrast to a city like San Francisco actually, where there’s also density amenities, and a lack of affordability, but I’m not bullish on that city. I’m partially, for some of the reasons that I spoke about, which is, I think the city itself is not doing things to proactively retain its top talent, and its people. But I do think over the long term, cities as a whole, as an asset class, continues to succeed and lead the country.

Kevin Delaney:

I’m going to come back in a minute to this question, and we’re going to move on to some other topics, but this question of what the population spread looks like coming out of the pandemic, with remote work and other things. But, Anthony, I want to come to you first, just on a question of infrastructure. Through this year, how has the infrastructure of cities fared broadly looking at it?

Anthony Townsend:

I think the big story there is transit. We’ve heard a little bit about it. In the United States, we’re looking at a potential catastrophic unwinding of 20 or 30 years stretching back to the iced tea legislation in the ’90s, out of increasing reinvestment, increasing ridership and transit. People have abandoned transit during the pandemic, mostly because of perception. I think it’s only really in the last month or so that the risk of being on public transit is anywhere close to what the perception has been, because of the infection levels in the population.

Anthony Townsend:

Throughout the year, again, of course, with the exception of March, when there was community spread, it’s really just been fear, even in cities like New York, where there’s a high dependence on transit. What you’ve seen is, the only people riding transit are ones that don’t have any alternatives. Anyone that could get out of the city or find another mode has taken that. It’s not clear when or if those people are going to be coming back. So, those networks are looking at permanently suppressed ridership, in addition to the fact that they’re not getting the fiscal support that they need from the federal government.

Anthony Townsend:

That has the potential to start unwinding so many of the things that have been good for cities. Transit oriented development and all of the benefits that that’s created. Really, undoing a generation or two worth of urban revitalization. It can still be stopped, but I don’t think we’re going to ad hoc our way around that with Uber cabs or scooters are some kind of urban tech shot that comes out of the woodwork. This is something that really needs to be invested in over generations. It needs to be done with close alignment of the public and private sector.

Kevin Delaney:

Yep, that’s great. I want to come back to transportation in a minute. I want to ask each of you just quickly, what your feeling is about the net impact of this crisis on the population landscape of cities, and effectively, the country. There are lots of people at different stages of the crisis, who have forecast that people who can afford to will be leaving cities, that because of remote work, businesses will abandon a lot of the square footage that they’ve had in city centers, and a number of spillover effects like that. The services they’re dependent on, the density of daytime work or foot traffic will then be impacted, and so forth.

Kevin Delaney:

Before we move to other topics, I’m interested in where each of your feeling is about how we emerge from this crisis, and how the population landscape looks different or doesn’t. Andre, do you want to take this question first?

Andre M. Perry:

Yeah, I actually see some upsides. There was some recent reporting on the uptick in millennial home ownership, black millennial home ownership during the pandemic. A lot of millennials, those with the spending power, are leaving the cities, leaving their apartments and buying homes in inner and outer ring suburbs in black neighborhoods. I do a lot of work on devaluation of property. Millennials are saying, hey… Black millennials, let me move to a black neighborhood where I can get a home for relatively cheaper than their white counterparts. I’m living in a black neighborhood, culturally affirming.

Andre M. Perry:

It’s because of some basic economics. You’re bringing in income, at least for those who can, and you are spending less, you’re saving more. You can’t go to the mall, you can’t go to the fancy restaurants as much. So, folks are saying, “Let me buy a home, let me get more space.” That’s happening. But you’re also seeing many companies ending their leases in these big high rises and buildings in downtown areas. It does suggest that a part of remote work will continue.

Andre M. Perry:

But trust me, those buildings will not go unused. There will be new, either residences, types of businesses entering those spaces, those buildings will not go empty, trust me. But there will be an adaptation that you’re going to see like we’ve been seeing over this last period of businesses are adapting, and people are adapting moving. So, you’re just going to see new arrangements. But it won’t be… Again, we won’t see these radical, life will be completely different, but we are already seeing people moving to the suburbs, folks deciding they don’t necessarily have to have office space downtown. But again, pump your breaks with these wild predictions. Life will go on relatively normal, but there will be some changes.

Kevin Delaney:

Britt, do you agree? How do you see this netting out?

Britt Zaffir:

Yeah, I totally agree. I think there will be changes. It would be impossible to come out of this without some things… We’re all dialing in, I think right now from home. I assume that if this had been December 2019, we all would have dialed in from some form of an office, or at least, probably 80% of us would have. There’s undoubtedly going to be an increase in remote work. Do I think it’s going to be 100% of the population or 100% of the information economy workers at 100% of the time? No, but do I think at a minimum, even if companies do come back in person full time, there will be an increase in remote work, which will result in a decrease in net square foot per office worker in central office cores like Midtown Manhattan or downtown San Francisco as a result? Yes.

Britt Zaffir:

Do I think things change? Yes. I’m less sure… I know, Andre mentioned people moving to the suburbs, I think that was a big headline in March, April, May. We haven’t seen, in our own business that actually play out, we’ve actually seen a huge spike of, in our case, obviously, it’s a lot of families, that’s who we primarily target and market, but a huge spike of people who went to second homes or parents’ homes or rented out in the suburbs, in the height of the pandemic, and now they’re bored, and they’re wanting to get back to cities.

Britt Zaffir:

I think cities remain, in some way, shape or form. I don’t know whether… I do think, as I said, the office space market changes pretty significantly. I actually don’t know, maybe Midtown Manhattan becomes more valuable because every company keeps one office, one marquee like shiny glass tower in Midtown Manhattan, and they have their employees working from home most of the time, but coming in, say once a quarter to their Midtown Manhattan office space for a one week off site, or maybe it’s their downtown Miami office space for some kind of retreat, corporate retreat.

Britt Zaffir:

I don’t exactly… I think office changes, but it’s unclear to me yet, I don’t think we know how it changes, there’s actually, in my mind, a world where Class A office space does better than ever. Whereas Class B suburban office space suffers because no one ever really wanted to go to the office building in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. So, they probably want to go there now, even less, and they don’t need to.

Britt Zaffir:

I do think that things change, but I think at our core cities remain the center. I do think, I touched on this a little bit before, but I do think some of the power shifts from the primary cities like New York, and definitely San Francisco, to secondary cities, I think this is really a shining moment for secondary cities, and also tertiary cities or cities that are traditionally considered maybe more like vacation type cities to really shine as remote work, I think undoubtedly increases.

Britt Zaffir:

I think that really depends on how remote work sticks post pandemic. I don’t think we know enough about that yet to make a phone call. I think some things shift, but I think at our core, we’re social people that want human interaction, and cities are where that happens. So, I’m along on cities.

Kevin Delaney:

Anthony, where do you see things netting out?

Anthony Townsend:

Yeah, this is a fascinating discussion. I think everyone’s trying to figure out, are we still going to need offices, and if so, how much? There was an interesting report that was put out by one of the big commercial brokerages over the summer, that basically was saying, okay, we’re going to need 15% less square footage because of all the remote work. But that will be made up because we’ll need more social distancing in the workplace, and that’ll be about 15%. So, everybody be cool, the sky isn’t falling.

Anthony Townsend:

Well, now with the arrival of the vaccine, that 15% boost from the social distancing is gone, and what we’re left with is the 15% less demand. Imagine Midtown Manhattan suddenly with 15% less demand, what is that going to look like? Probably like a third of the retail businesses are already gone or will be gone by the spring. We have a natural experiment in New York City in Manhattan, and that’s lower Manhattan, which went through this transition starting in the ’80s and ’90s, and has come out of it on the other side as a much richer, live work district, despite being blown up in the middle of that transition.

Anthony Townsend:

There were 21,000… There was basically no one living in lower Manhattan with a handful of couple public housing projects in 1990. By 911, there were 21,000 people living there, as of 2019, there were 65,000 people living there. It’s had cultural facilities built, it’s had libraries, schools, all kinds of things happen. It’s a much richer and more vibrant neighborhood. It’s a tourist destination. I think thinking about how a central business district like Midtown might go through transformation, like what Lower Manhattan went through is really fascinating, and I think potentially a great opportunity of clearing out all of that commuting, boring stuff, and rethinking the opportunities there.

Anthony Townsend:

Technology is a huge part of that story. It was the shift to online trading that gutted the heart of the financial district. Stock exchange now is really just a landmark. All the real action is in the data centers out in the suburbs, and all the banks have left and gone to Midtown. The business improvement district there made a lot of smart investments in apps, in mapping retail and putting Wi-Fi out in all the public plazas 20 years ago, before anybody thought that was important thing to do. I think, urban tech may play a role in these transitions as well.

Kevin Delaney:

You’re saying that-

Andre M. Perry:

Can I add one thing to-

Kevin Delaney:

Yeah.

Andre M. Perry:

… I always forget, and it’s not an X Factor, because it’s in the back of our minds, that will impact where we work in the future, is schools. We still don’t know what’s going on with schools at all. But just like in business, we see not an overwhelming percentage, but a significant percentage of parents, and students who actually like online learning, who like virtual school. That’s going to impact the workforce. There’s always this relationship between the workforce and schooling. We don’t make that clear enough. But where you send your kid to school will impact where you work.

Andre M. Perry:

That’s another factor among other things, but education is still so fuzzy, you don’t know where we’re headed. We don’t necessarily know where people are going to work. It’s concretely because of that as well.

Kevin Delaney:

Let alone higher education as well.

Andre M. Perry:

Oh, yeah.

Kevin Delaney:

I want to hit a few topics before we run out of time. Anthony, I want to come back to you just for a minute on the transportation question that you raised earlier. Among the things that we’re seeing probably anecdotally, but there’s some data on some of these things, right now are increased ridership of bicycles in cities, transportation, increased purchases of vehicles, I think in some areas, because people want their hermetically sealed vehicle that they can be in and the bigger and more gas guzzling, the better apparently, from what I can tell.

Kevin Delaney:

That last part is in contrast with one of the other trends, which is the idea of transportation as a service. Among the dreams of urbanists for years, if not decades has been the realization that we have something like a quarter or a third of the land in our cities is devoted to parking cars and moving them around very slowly. If we could actually take that land back, you could have a very different lived experience for people. In looking at these different things, it seems like we’ve moved forward in some ways. The idea of cycling, but probably moved back in some others, particularly around car ownership. Maybe, if you could talk about how you see that including with the dimension of electric vehicles and the intense focus in production of that by car makers?

Anthony Townsend:

Look, people’s number one priority in transportation is personal health and safety. They’re going to choose the mode that is safe. If mass transit, public transit or even ride hail vehicles are not safe because people are scared of getting sick, they will not use them, they’ll find private modes of transport. If the only thing that’s available is an automobile, they will go to that and that’s what we’ve seen. On the other hand, if we tame the pandemic, or we find ways to make mass transit be not a place where infection spreads, even with high levels of community transmission, people will use it.

Anthony Townsend:

I think the problem is that once you start the ball rolling on these other options, it doesn’t really stop because people build businesses around it, consumers build habits around it. It’s very little known fact, but the reason we have a global e-bike industry right now is because of SARS. When SARS hit China, like 2004, 2005, a lot of Chinese, working class Chinese were living in these remote suburbs, dormitory suburbs, and commuting by bus to their factory jobs. When SARS hit, they did not want to be on those buses, and they were looking for an alternative.

Anthony Townsend:

They couldn’t afford cars, and the Chinese bicycle industry very cleverly shifted gears and said, “Hey, we have these new batteries that we can make small enough to power a one way commute from a suburb to a factory job, and they can charge them at work and charge them overnight.” That was really the birth of the e-bike industry, and it’s the reason why we can make tens, hundreds of millions of these things a year, because a pandemic hit China 15 years ago.

Anthony Townsend:

I think the same thing is happening now. Whether that becomes something that’s like a positive force, like the increase in cycling, that we’ve seen in New York, and a lot of other cities that we’re already heading that way, or it becomes a shift back away from transit in places like Atlanta and Los Angeles and Denver to private automobiles, and undoes 10 or 20 years of work, that remains to be seen. But I think we’re going to start to dig out from that in the spring or the summer, as we bring the pandemic under control.

Kevin Delaney:

Yeah. I want to ask you all, just in a final section here, how hopeful you are that our country and our cities seize this moment, this opportunity for change? First of all, how optimistic you are, and then secondly, what you would like to see most, what’s on top of your list for fairer, more resilient, more future equipped cities? Britt, maybe we start with you.

Britt Zaffir:

Yeah, sure. I am optimistic. I am optimistic, I think to the point that Anthony made earlier, I think you’ve seen resilience in a really real way, in 2020, and I think that individual cities have each done a lot to move the needle. I would like to see a more coordinated federal plan, and I do think that’s one of the things, particularly being Canadian, and seeing how our friends north of the border have fared a very similar, very similar situation in a much, much different way. I really do think that… I’ve been incredibly impressed with the resilience of cities and the creativity and the imagination, and the willing to break things to make things better in 2020. I think we’ve seen a lot of really cool things come out of 2020, that I hope are here to stay.

Britt Zaffir:

I hope outdoor dining in New York City, or the increased bike lanes in New York City, all those seemingly small design or urban infrastructure changes, they’re actually really, really quite fundamental and quite critical to, I think, living in these cities. I think you’ve seen they’ve been short term solutions to make living in these cities, during the pandemic better, but I think you’ve seen that, they are also just better for us and for cities and for people.

Britt Zaffir:

I’m quite optimistic that cities recognize the good things that have come out of the pandemic and make longer term changes. I would like to see a more coordinated federal oversight, and really coming together at the national level to combat this thing, but also to just set the country up for continued success that it’s seen in the last few decades, and I don’t think the country is set up for that level of… I don’t think we’re well poised on the international scale at this point. I do think that’s my hope going into 2021, and I think, not to get too political, but I do think we’re on the way there. But that’s something for me that I think is a major X factor in 2021, and beyond, our ability to come together nationally to do that.

Kevin Delaney:

Great. Andre, how hopeful are you that America seizes the moment around how we inhabit move around cities? And what’s on top of your list for things you’d like to see?

Andre M. Perry:

Well, I’m very optimistic, actually. By the way, the pun that Anthony offered about the transportation or biking industry, switching gears was not lost, we need to applaud that. We need to applaud that, that was very good. Well played. But I’m very optimistic, and I’ll explain it this way. I do think cities are getting smarter on a whole number of fronts. People might think I’m speaking technological, but when you look at the infrastructure for information in cities, cities are places where the myths and the disinformation it’s constantly busted up.

Andre M. Perry:

When I listen to urban radio, and a caller will say some conspiracy theory, the DJ comes right back and say, “No, that’s not true. Here’s the information. Here are the facts.” I think politically speaking, you are seeing that played out between rural communities where the infrastructure allows for some disinformation. This is very macro, and very obtuse, but I think cities are smarter. They’re doing more to embrace fact, to embrace technology, to see our interconnectedness, to see opportunity in growth. I see many rural counterparts are still digging in and say, “I still resist this change.”

Andre M. Perry:

For me, when you’re talking about cities, I’m very optimistic, very optimistic. We can talk about the pushback from those rural communities, from all those other places, politically speaking, but I saw, during this election, cities going, hey, we need to make a smart choice, not just politically, but medically, economically, in terms of business, in terms of transportation, in terms of education, cities are just getting smarter, and that’s why I’m optimistic.

Kevin Delaney:

Great. All right, Anthony, maybe you can close this out here, how hopeful are you that America seizes this moment to make the changes we need in terms of how we inhabit and get around cities, and what do you think is the top of the list?

Anthony Townsend:

Yeah, I just want to build on what Andre said. I think cities are really… The successes that they’re having are built on faith in science and technology, as a way of working towards a better future. It’s not perfect by any means, they still have a lot of problems, and sometimes science and technology get misused. But in general, they believe that that’s a foundation for building a better future. My hope is that we’re going to come out of this seeing that the worlds and particularly the US capability in bio science, and life science is really almost the pinnacle of what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years with computing and information technology, and that is a really good thing for cities. Because to do that, well, you need big hospitals and big teaching hospitals and universities, you need large populations to present the problems and to work on them and work on the cures, and it’s an inherently urban activity, and it could power the growth of cities like New York for a couple of generations to come.

Kevin Delaney:

Great. Okay. Well, we’re going to end on that. You all are actually relatively optimistic about cities, and I think what history has shown us, what all the research has shown us is that cities are engines of opportunity, of change, of forward movement. Actually, Anthony, as you’re saying of health, despite the obvious issues of density around this pandemic, and that it’s in all of our interest to make them better, essentially.

Kevin Delaney:

I hope that we have an opportunity to revisit this discussion, it was great. I feel like I have a better sense of what we’ve just went through there. It was pretty head spinning, and what’s coming ahead from hearing you all talk. So, thank you. We’ve had Britt Zaffir, She’s the CEO of Kin. We have Andre Perry, and Anthony Townsend, they both have books, which everyone should buy and read, which I’m sure are available any place that you want to find books. I want to thank Urban-X for teeing up this discussion, Miriam and Micah and their colleagues, and thank you all for joining us today as we wade through the future of urban tech, and all of us. Thank you.