What is the future of cities? This is something I’ve been thinking about off and on for many years, but Covid 19 has brought it to the fore and so it’s something I’d like to talk about today.
Many are already describing 2020 as one of those “turning point” years, perhaps like 1066, 1815, or 1945 – years after which the way we operate really did change.
Ever since cities have existed people have been migrating to them. Could Covid mark the beginning of the great de-urbanisation – the point at which people start leaving them?
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So much will hinge on how we cope with the virus, of course. Will a cure or a vaccine be found? Will that cure or vaccine be enough to satisfy people’s concerns about infection and safety?
If not, we are going into a very different world.
If we need to avoid other people, then cities are in trouble
People won’t want to sit or stand on crowded trains, eat in crowded restaurants or laugh in crowded comedy clubs. If social distancing, even by only one metre, becomes the norm, then fewer people will be allowed into restaurants, bars, comedy clubs, theatres, concert halls, sports arenas and so on.
With fewer people attending, the price will go up – and the quality of the experience will come down. Crowds are essential to most entertainment – whether sport or theatre or comedy. They intensify the experience. Sparsely populated rooms have nothing like the same atmosphere.
But crowds are an essential feature of a city. We might moan about them – I can’t stand them to be honest (unless they’re paying to see me) – but they are part and parcel of living in a vibrant city, whether it’s on public transport, on the streets or in places where people gather.
In a Covid-19 world, however, the one thing you don’t want is crowds.
It still amazes me just how desirable a place London became in the lead up to 2020. I’m not just talking about the last couple of years, but over the course of my entire life (from the 1970s onwards). Everyone seemed to want to come to London, from the glitterati to the illegal migrant.
“Why?” I would ask myself. It’s so crowded, so expensive, it’s so dirty, so full of crime, of anger; nobody smiles, nobody says hello, everybody’s miserable, it’s impossible to enjoy a decent standard of living.
And yet people kept coming.
It’s not just London, but every booming city – from New York to LA to Tokyo to Shanghai. As in the Industrial Revolution, but only more so, so many people seemed to be moving from rural and suburban to urban. We dreamed of rural idylls, we talked about them – but our actions spoke louder and we lived in cities.
Technology means that we don’t need to live in a city to benefit from city life
Eventually, there is a saturation point, however. The accommodation is just too expensive, the day-to-day living standards too grimy. People begin choosing other options. It seemed like we were reaching that point. Mind you, I’ve been saying that point for yonks – and yet people keep coming.
Why do people want to live in London? They come here here for the same reason Dick Whittington did in the 1300s: to seek their fortune. To find work, to find friendship, to find love.
But technology is obviating the need to be in cities. It has made so many of the reasons to be in cities redundant. So much of what made them desirable – the services, the sociability, the sophistication – can be provided by the internet.
You don’t need to be in London to work. You can come in for essential meetings, but much of your work – talking, trading, thinking, deciding – can now be done remotely (that doesn’t bode well for towering office blocks).
You don’t need to be in London for entertainment. You can watch movies in your house, you can watch sport in your house, you can play games online, you can laugh at comedy online. Live online pub quizzes have recently taken off. I’m attending a 50th birthday party this Friday night on Zoom. Many of the nice restaurants and the craft beer bars near me are now delivering.
Shopping has long since gone online. Basic consultations with GPs are being conducted remotely, and that now is the norm. Therapy and counselling have gone online. AA meetings are being held online.
Education is getting a much needed kick up the backside to move it into the 21st century. So much of what we learn at school or university can be done online and remotely. Why do children need to be in classes with 20 or 30 other children born between September and August with one teacher at the front? There are other ways to learn.
Self-driving cars, if and when they come, using the “internet of things” to communicate with other vehicles, traffic lights and navigation systems, promise quicker, cheaper, crowd-free travel. They will make migration away from cities all the more practical.
As for finding love, dating apps have long since been the new norm. You don’t need to go to bars or clubs any more. Algorithms that understand you better than you do yourself will find partners for you.
People are already going on virtual dates. Drinking wine together, talking, vetting each other. Even sex itself is going online.
Casual hook-ups in a Covid world look rather less desirable. But there is sexting, video sex, cam sex. I narrated a documentary last week (in my new home studio) about robots. Robot sex dolls are a thing apparently. Holographic pornography soon will be. What will the future be for the “oldest profession”? Surely that too is heading online. Sex is going to get cleaner.
The best way to invest in this theme – even if the demise of the city is exaggerated
If fewer and fewer former office workers are in cities, what about those who serve them coffee in the morning on their way to work? Or clean their offices after they’ve left? What about the waiters, the cleaners, the drivers?
Many live in crowded dormitories, trying to save money. What is their future in this new world of empty cities? If there is no work for them, they will go elsewhere.
City centres could become ghost towns. We might see the return of squatting.
People won’t travel to other cities, unless they really want or have to (and with fewer people travelling, the cost of travel – from plane tickets to hotel rooms – will increase). Instead, staycations – where people stay at home and take time off to read, relax and pamper themselves – will become a thing. Businesses that cater to this will surely grow. The need for open spaces – woods, moors, mountains, beaches, parks – will grow, too.
In a world in which the day-to-day risk of infection is high, in which people don’t want crowds, we will see a turnaround in the fate of cities – a mass exodus to the cheaper, more spacious lifestyle of the country.
How do you invest in all of this? Surely, all roads lead to tech. The simplest way to get exposure is via the Nasdaq, which, for UK investors, is tracked by the Invesco EQQQ Nasdaq-100 UCITS ETF (LSE: EQQQ).
The counter-argument of course, is that people have been moving to cities since the very first ones were built in Ancient Mesopotamia. So this might just be a temporary blip. But even if that is the case, it is hard to see how you go wrong with tech.
• Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future is available at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere. If you want a signed copy, you can order one here.
Dominic Frisby (“mercurially witty” – the Spectator) is the world’s only financial writer and comedian. He is MoneyWeek’s main commentator on gold, commodities, currencies and cryptocurrencies. He is the author of the books Bitcoin: the Future of Money? and Life After The State. He also co-wrote the documentary Four Horsemen, and presents the chat show, Stuff That Interests Me.
His show 2016 Let’s Talk About Tax was a huge hit at the Edinburgh Festival and Penguin Random House have since commissioned him to write a book on the subject – Daylight Robbery – the past, present and future of tax will be published later this year. His 2018 Edinburgh Festival show, Dominic Frisby's Financial Gameshow, won rave reviews. Dominic was educated at St Paul's School, Manchester University and the Webber-Douglas Academy Of Dramatic Art.
You can follow him on Twitter @dominicfrisby
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