The pandemic and the city of the future – 03/16/2021 – Paul Krugman

In 1957, Isaac Asimov published “Naked Sun” (in Brazil, Os Robôs or O Sol Desvelado), a science fiction novel about a society in which people live in isolated properties, with their needs met by robots, and interact only by video. The plot revolves around how this lack of direct contact distorts and limits their personalities.

After a year of working from home – as much as they could – although served by less fortunate humans, not robots, it seems almost certain. But how will we live after the pandemic is over?

No one really knows, of course. But perhaps our speculations can be informed by parallels and historical models.

First, it seems safe to predict that we will not completely return to our usual way of life and work.

In fact, a year of isolation gave remote work a classic case of infant industry protection, a concept typically associated with international trade policy that was systematically first articulated by none other than Alexander Hamilton. .

Hamilton said many industries could thrive in the young United States, but were unable to take off due to imports. In the event of a breakdown in competition, for example through temporary tariffs, these industries could acquire enough experience and technological sophistication to become competitive.

The emerging industry argument has always been a delicate basis for policy – how do you know when it is valid? And do you trust governments to make this decision? But the pandemic, by making our old work habits temporarily impossible, clearly allowed us to explore the possibilities of remote working much better, and part of what we were doing – long shifts to sitting in desks. cabins, constant flights to meetings of questionable value – none will return.

If history serves as an example, however, much of our old way of working and living will return.

See this comparison: what the internet has and hasn’t done to the way we read books.

Ten years ago, many observers believed that the physical books and the bookstores that sold them would be on the verge of extinction. And part of what they predicted has happened: e-readers have taken up a significant share of the market, and large bookstore chains have suffered a major financial blow.

But the popularity of eBooks reached a plateau in the middle of the last decade, never overtaking the place of physical books. And while the big chains have suffered, independent bookstores are in fact flourishing.

Why was the reading revolution so limited? The convenience of “downloading” books is obvious. But for many readers, this convenience is offset by more subtle factors. The experience of reading a physical book is different and, for many, more enjoyable than reading electronic ink. And walking through a bookstore is also a different experience than shopping online.

I like to say that online I can find any book I’m looking for; in fact, I downloaded a copy of The Robots a few hours before writing this article. But what I find in a bookstore, especially an independent store with good curation, are books that I wasn’t looking for, but ended up finding like a treasure.

The remote working revolution is likely to end in the same way, but on a much larger scale.

The benefits of working remotely – from home or possibly in small offices far from denser urban areas – are obvious. Living and working spaces are much cheaper; trips are short or non-existent; you no longer have to deal with the expense and discomfort of formal work clothes, at least from the waist up.

The benefits of returning to work in person, on the other hand, will be relatively subtle – the rewards of direct communication, the magic that can result from unforeseen interactions, the conveniences of city living.

But these subtle benefits are, in fact, what drives the economies of modern cities – and until the Covid-19 attack, these benefits fueled a growing economic divergence between large, highly educated metropolitan areas and the rest of the country. . The rise of remote working may undermine this trend, but it is unlikely to reverse it.

The rebirth of cities will not be an entirely beautiful process; much of it is likely to reflect the preferences of wealthy Americans who want the luxury and glamor of big cities. “The main problem with moving to Florida is that you have to live in Florida,” a CFO told Bloomberg.

But while cities thrive in part because they adapt to the lifestyles of the rich and the superfluous – whether or not their wealth and power helps shape the economy – cities also thrive because so much of the money is shared. information and brain activity occur during coffee breaks. and beers after hours; Zoom connections are not a suitable replacement.

Or, as the great Victorian economist Alfred Marshall said of the technological centers of his day, “Business mysteries do not become mysteries; but it is as if they were in the air ”.

So the best bet is that life and work in, say, 2023 will be very similar to life and work in 2019, but a little less. We can go to the office less than before; there may be a surplus of urban offices. But most people won’t be able to stay very far from the busy crowds.

Originally translated from English by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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