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Taking stock of 2020

It’s nearly impossible to put this year into context. What I hope for is we take advantage of the opportunity that exists. Covid-19 has made it clear that we need to change our lives. 


I hosted a Zoom pub quiz – 2020’s most common social event – several weeks ago and asked which film won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars (the answer is below). The question was received with laughter as the Oscars felt like they were around 10 years ago, rather than 10 months.

It’s nearly impossible to put this year into context. SmartCitiesWorld entered 2020 with all the excitement that a new decade and all of its promise could muster. The next 10 years would see the technology we have written about become mainstream. Trials and pilots would finally be part of our daily lives.

We all know what came next. The monotony of lockdown, the fearful wait for the daily death toll in our respective countries, new ways of staying in touch with friends and family, "Graeme, you’re on mute", discovering new hobbies, fatigue at hearing the phrase "the new normal", facemasks, hands raw through using too much sanitiser, boredom and exhaustion.

I live in the UK and my partner and I worked in split shifts in those early lockdown months, me from early in the morning, her until late in the afternoon. Once my working two thirds of a day would finish, I would take my young daughter down to the beach through our deserted local park with locked playground and along empty roads and wonder what we will think about this weird, tragic period in our lives when we move back to a semblance of normality.

But what will that be? Some have written about this period of our lives as a comma, that our lives will get back to normal extremely quickly once vaccines become universal and herd immunity builds. Others suggest it will lead to a more intense examination of our lives. The optimism that emerged after the end of the Cold War was dealt a heavy blow by the financial crisis of the 00s and finally floored by Covid-19. They argue we now need something more.

Having a mini-city on all of our doorsteps is a way of making services truly universal

While it has been dominating my thoughts, if I’m honest I’m unsure of the answer to what’s next and how much our lives will change. What I hope for is we take advantage of the opportunity that exists. Covid-19 has made it clear that we need to change our lives. It will hopefully place climate front and centre as the biggest challenge of our time.

This year’s SmartCityExpo returned again and again to the theme of the citizen and how cities should be inspired by what they need rather than imposing change from above. Paris’s 15 Minute City has been mentioned at conferences and in articles so many times it is in danger of becoming as banal as "the new normal". But at its heart is a citizen-centric approach and that is surely what is important above anything else. Having a mini-city on all of our doorsteps is a way of making services truly universal. It also affords us the opportunity to become closer as people, to rebuild the face to face relationships that we have all missed during the past 12 months.

Facebook and Twitter’s disruptive influence on our lives, no matter where we live, has shown that technology can make us angrier, more confrontational and more willing to bunker down in our little digital corner of the world. But technology is better than that. It has facilitated vaccines being developed in record time, it has helped us keep in touch with one another in ways that would be unthinkable some 20 years ago, and it has led to new ways of working and new types of innovation.

The eagle-eyed among will have spotted this is my first newsletter for some weeks. That’s because all of us at SmartCitiesWorld have been working on our plans for 2021 and beyond. I can’t wait to share with you what we are doing and how we will continue to talk about how cities can solve the challenges they face.

We’ll be sending one final newsletter on December 23rd and will be back with you in earnest on 4 January. In the meantime I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a happy new year. I trust you will take this opportunity to switch off and spend time with those you love. Lord knows we all deserve it.

(And the answer to the Best Picture question was Parasite; an excellent film but not very Christmassy. Better to stick with the Muppet Christmas Carol)


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