5 min read

Cities after the pandemic

How will our cities look after the pandemic; government-led innovation is more imitation than imagination; and how will China exit its polycrisis?
Cities after the pandemic

1—Cities after the pandemic

Harvard profs David Cutler and Edward Glaeser penned an essay for the IMF looking at what the "double blow of the COVID-19 pandemic and the remote-working revolution [might] have on cities".

They believe that despite the "shift to remote and hybrid work... cities as a whole—in both rich and poor countries—will survive and even thrive", for four reasons:

  1. People have been calling the end of face-to-face contact for at least 40 years, despite the productivity gains.
  2. Scale: "Urban agglomeration produces better restaurants as well as better accountants."
  3. Most offices won't remain vacant for long; prices will adjust downwards "to ensure that offices don't remain permanently empty".
  4. "[M]uch of the world remains poor, and for the poor, the economic appeal of urbanization easily overwhelms fears of health cost."

However, the winners and losers won't be evenly distributed. In the US:

"Sunbelt cities such as Austin, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona, have done extremely well, measured by growth in housing prices, employment, or housing construction... Meanwhile, rust belt cities have particularly suffered. For firms in cities like Chicago and Detroit, teleconferencing may be more important as a tool for communicating with suppliers and customers than it is as a way to enable remote work."

You can read the full article here (~9 minute read), which warns policymakers to remain vigilant because "We may not be so lucky next time."

2—Imitation in lieu of imagination

Politicians and governments love to boast of their plans to improve productivity, innovation and economic diversification. But achieving those ends is not easy, especially when the plans are not the product of imagination, but imitation:

"In 2018, California's GDP became larger than the UK's. This is not by government efficacy. California's energy utilities are a disaster. The state cannot build a relatively basic high-speed rail network. California ranks 43rd in child literacy by state and 50th in adult literacy. Its success is attributable to Silicon Valley, which contributes about 20% of the state's GDP, and the legacy industries that preceded it, such as aerospace.
Silicon Valley's success is defined by relatively small communities of very smart, ambitious, and secretive people building new traditions of knowledge, and with it, new markets. The ideology is built on eschewing competition and imitation and seeking monopoly status through platforms. Copying these novel developments is, by definition, near impossible. I believe the UK can effectively copy the negative aspects of Silicon Valley; the internal conformity, the gradual bureaucratization, the bloated workforces, the mad hype cycle, and diminishing levels of dynamism. But I think if a small country like Britain wanted to be a comparable center of innovation, the markets, technologies, and institutions would have to be novel. Just applying web 2.0 to banking and plastering 'silicon' onto every roundabout, alley, and cul-de-sac is an exercise in futility."

That's from Rian Chad Whitton, who cautions governments against creating bodies aimed at fostering innovation where:

"...the autonomy of the organisations [are] compromised by being tied to fashionable issues like aging societies, climate, and so forth... The best thing is to build enough credibility in technology circles to cause a stink if money is taken away, but innocuous enough not to elicit unwanted scrutiny."

You can read Whitton's full essay here (~6 minute read), which questions whether the "1950s American tolerance for mad scientists will be compatible with modern preoccupations with accountability and results-driven metrics".

3—A living dystopia

"A green QR code needed to access to transport, food...even residential complex."

4—China's polycrisis

Protests broke out across China last week – despite the high individual costs of doing so – as citizens grew increasingly fatigued by the pandemic and the government's hard-handed approach at suppression. It's not clear how Xi Jinping will exit what an anonymous author recently labelled China's polycrisis – "where the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts".

China's government has recently signalled a slight easing in restrictions, but it hasn't really helped:

"Despite this, the social media sentiment (which I observed in my WeChat moments, akin to posts by Facebook friends) towards COVID policy became more sarcastic, despondent, and angry than any other time I have been in China, and I think even more so than during the Shanghai lockdown. The policy whiplash—excessive optimism over the government's policy, followed by crushing of that hope—seemed to trigger a spree of negative or satirical posting. One critical event to add is a fire at an apartment in locked-down Urumqi which killed ten people on November 24, with some claiming that the building's fire escapes were blocked and that fire trucks were delayed from responding as a result of zero-COVID policy; this was just the latest tragedy that seemed self-induced by COVID and triggered outrage. Lastly, others have pointed out that seeing the World Cup proceed as normal has also generated disillusionment towards zero COVID."

When a population has been repressed to this extent, for this long, it doesn't take much to set it off, especially when the exit remains highly uncertain:

"China's condition pre-protest was already fragile. Authorities could not figure out how to open up at acceptable cost, taking as one person put it, 'one step forward, and ten steps back.' Some think that it is still possible to relax COVID policy gradually in coming weeks, but I think that remains near impossible to achieve given the infectiousness of current Omicron variants. Practical policy over the past week has shown that the 'Twenty Measures' could not be undertaken without infection rates taking off, and the Chinese leadership has yet to find an 'acceptable' (to the leadership) path to living with the virus—admittedly a difficult task when the leadership has yet to ensure universal vaccine coverage, create an adequate stockpile of therapeutic drugs, or vastly expand hospital ICU capacity."

You can read the full anonymously authored article here (~12 minute read), which considers the "three main choices available for the government".

5—Further reading...

📉 In a video from October this year – a month before FTX came crashing down – veteran short seller Marc Cohodes savaged Sam Bankman-Fried and the now bankrupt crypto exchange, calling it a scandal bigger than Enron.

🧠 Elon Musk wants to start putting chips into people's brains within the next six months.

⚔️ "In a shocking statement that has now been withdrawn, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote that Ukraine has lost 100,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians in the Ukraine war... a signal that Washington's de facto war with Russia is in trouble."

😷 Pressure to increase infrastructure spending to boost national growth figures but not "enough eligible projects to spend the money on", has led local Chinese governments to pump "billions of yuan on projects that may bring in little revenue – centralised Covid quarantine facilities".

🤖 OpenAI released ChatGPT to the public, "a dialogue-based AI chat interface for its GPT-3 family of large language models". Hilarity ensued.