Our cities will need bold ideas and investment to keep them productive during a pandemic

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US comedian Stephen Colbert delivers a pre-recorded address at APEC2021.

OPINION: When I told some of my fellow Aucklanders that I was going to Apec this week, the reaction I got was a look of sheer terror.

Their reactions weren’t some sign of growing animosity towards economic co-operation in the Asia Pacific, most were simply just repulsed by the idea of walking into an enclosed room with other people again.

To me this showed the much larger hurdle we will have to jump at the end of all of this when everything opens up: how do we make people comfortable living in a city as a virus circulates in the community?

That point appears to be getting closer by the day as poll ratings drop and tantalising new announcements around traffic lights leak out.

* Apec: Hosting one of the world’s largest business summits in an empty room
* NZ ‘playing catch up’ on climate change action, Jacinda Ardern tells Apec summit
* Let’s talk about our cities, and how we make them more productive
* Coronavirus: Moving APEC 2021 summit online a ‘huge blow’ for Auckland hotels

At the very least it is looking like Aucklanders might embrace this reality before Christmas. If it proves difficult getting them to embrace some of their old sociable habits, then we might be worse off for it.

Potentially nothing demonstrates this better than Apec itself. The CEO summit was largely held virtually this week. While the line-up of speakers and presenters was sometimes impressive, you could not help thinking the world had lost something by hosting it all virtually.

Apec is sometimes mocked as a “a perfect excuse to chat”, but it has been an incubator for good ideas – largely driven by the sheer numbers of conversations that happen there.

Hosting the Apec CEO summit virtually has often made the whole thing seem like less of a conversation and more of a public speaking competition for business leaders.

Technology is good, but it is not good enough to replicate the energy of arguing with someone face-to-face.


New Zealand hosted Apec digitally, digital solutions are not a full replacement for real-life interactions.

Our videoconferencing technologies are best suited to having one person say their piece, then put themselves on mute while the next person speaks, and everybody else browses Twitter or news websites.

At Apec the result has been panels where various high-powered leaders have managed to struggle along without engaging with their fellow panellists or speakers.

Because of this lack of critical friction it is unlikely we will hear leaders in future years talking about that great conversation, discussion or idea they had during New Zealand’s hosting of Apec.

A lack of ideas out of Apec might be a small price to pay in the scheme of things, but it becomes more costly if we think about what this might mean if we see this as a potential future way of life.

All of those Aucklanders nervous at the prospect of attending Apec are presumably not going to be too keen to sit inside in their offices with a face-mask on, to be seated near people on public transport, or even to live close to one another.

This poses a major problem for our cities because these kinds of interactions are exactly what our cities are built on.

The high productivity we often see from major metropolitan centres comes from the cross-pollination of ideas: the chance meeting on the street, or the continual exposure to new ideas and people.

Yet right through history the things that make our cities special – density, connectedness to international markets, community – are the same things that make it easy for diseases to spread.

The other lesson of history is that these disadvantages are easily countered with the eager embrace of new ideas and investments.

For example, the construction of the Croton aqueduct helped prevent New York from experiencing a deadly cholera epidemic again. Ironically the scientific theory that prompted the construction of it – that pandemics like cholera were caused by “rotten” air – proved incorrect, proof that even an imperfect solution can sometimes be good enough.

Ricky Wilson/Stuff

We will need to think about how we protect our cities against Covid-19 without losing the things that make them great.

It is likely our cities will need thinking on this scale.

Perhaps this time it will be purpose-built quarantine facilities, open-air parks, hospitals, or larger and faster testing laboratories that prove to be the aqueducts of the future.

Whatever the solution, history has proven cities and Governments can’t afford to just sit back and see what happens. They need to be prepared to invest large amounts of money quickly if they want people to not only be safe, but to feel safe.

If we don’t then we are risking some of the great ideas that come out of our cities, they will simply not be created if people can’t meet, live together, and socialise.

As a society we often don’t place much value on intangible concepts like ideas, and often prefer to focus on things made out of concrete or steel.

Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland is often fond of saying we will always choose a big, expensive pieces of infrastructure to fix our problems, even where more intangible solutions might yield better results. It’s a process he calls “creative devaluation”.

Cities are where those, often devalued, creative ideas are produced.

A lot of Aucklanders, especially those working from home, have probably noticed how their productivity has dropped off while they have been in isolation, and this is the reason.

Working from home studies show increased levels of output, but they also show some of that increased output comes from being able to work more hours (because you’re no longer stuck in traffic) rather than actually producing more per hour.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Viv Beck wants a clear signal from Government around whether people should return to their offices if they’re vaccinated.

Flexible work hours do aid productivity, and it is easier to work flexibly at home, but theoretically there is nothing to say you can’t have flexible working hours at the office too.

Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck says the last time Auckland exited level 4, the organisation used events to get people back into central Auckland.

People flocked in, but this time she acknowledges they will probably be a bit more reluctant to go to work or gather in groups.

“I think the challenge is that we do need a clearer steer around if we’re 90 per cent vaccinated why can’t people come back to work?”

The conversation needs to start from a point of getting as many people working in our cities as safely as we can, even if that involves a substantial investment.

History shows that if you invest in keeping creative cities moving, it almost always pays off.