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The future of work in the context of a smart city

The innovation process within the context of smart cities is closely related to work. From policymakers and regulators to employers and employees, we are all highly interested in, and in some cases concerned with, how technological innovations can shape the future and nature of work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated many aspects of our daily working life, often forcing businesses and workers to adapt to new work modalities. On this matter, some believe remote working embodies the future way of working, others are still skeptical. In any case, people need to be warned about the so-called “rebound effect”. It exists in every single field of study and implies that the current advantages of a certain process, dynamics or products, reveal themselves to be somehow harmful to some party along the chain in the long run.

One exemplary case was made explicit by the Covid-19 pandemic with remote and hybrid working. In such a context, smaller cities and suburban areas might have benefitted more relative to larger ones, with the latter suffering behind. Not only have remote and hybrid working practices allowed people to live and work a greater distance from urban centers where offices and headquarters are concentrated, but also statistics show that big cities have experienced an increase in private car use because of social distancing fears and consequently increased road traffic. On the other side of the medal, suburbs and countryside villages have taken up the opportunity - and hopefully are still doing so - to invest in urban improvements and digital tourism to increase their attractiveness.

What this entails is a necessity for big cities to adapt their competitiveness. Among the feasible options, increasing their digital services to tackle digital-gap-related issues, such as accessibility, availability, and affordability, must be a priority. Some have already picked up the challenge and have advertised the so-called “city-level welfare initiatives.” For example, the government of Singapore offers “SkillsFuture,” a retraining program that consists of short modular courses in emerging areas. Another highly successful example is the city of Chattanooga in the United States, which installed a citywide fiber network through its municipal electric utility company, thus providing affordable gigabit speed to previously underserved communities. Thanks to this initiative, low-income students were granted free Internet access to participate in online learning. Similarly, basic income trials are another possible policy intervention that gives unconditional monthly income to alleviate the need to engage in precarious and short-term work. For instance, the city of Stockton, in the United States, undertook a two-year trial by offering a selected group of low-income residents a basic monthly income of US$500, which eventually resulted in lower unemployment and improved well-being.

In conclusion, despite the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic’s long-term effects, cities have several tools to manage the economic and social impacts. The initiatives adopted by big and small cities show how challenging situations can be transformed into positive outcomes. Keeping this in mind, it is still crucial to involve residents in creating their digital solutions to urban challenges with the belief that better urban technologies and environments can be built by their users and for their advantage.

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