The Future of Cities? ‘Extreme Automation’

Cities took a hit during the pandemic but are resurging. Analysts say cars will soon self-drive, but buildings will also undergo a radical tech transformation.

WASHINGTON – How will commercial real estate needs change in the next five to 10 years? How has the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the change? And what’s the implication for cities? Those questions were top of mind at the National Association of Realtors®’ (NAR) inaugural C5 Summit, a commercial real estate conference, last year in New York.

Cities have a bright future, said Greg Lindsay, a senior fellow and director of applied research at the New Cities Foundation, but the way residents live and work will undergo a radical transformation.

People take for granted that in the not-too-distant future, we’ll all be accepting deliveries and riding around in autonomous vehicles. But what about autonomous buildings, which are essentially machines where goods, services and amenities automatically come to you? That’s the future that Lindsay asked attendees to think about.

Research shows “Americans are ready for extreme automation,” Lindsay said.

To meet the demand, planners and developers are deconstructing spaces and rethinking them to combine housing, retail, industrial, office and recreation. The vision for autonomous buildings includes these ideas:

  • Food dispatched from nearby centralized kitchens
  • Retail and grocery delivery deployed from micro-warehouses
  • Residents eliminating their daily commute through their companies’ adoption of cloud solutions, flexible workspaces and coworking

Retailers and developers have already put such ideas into action, Lindsay said. He pointed to Hub 121 in fast-growing McKinney, Texas, as a development that turns traditional city planning on its head. Rather than restaurants and amenities springing up to serve area office workers, the developers started with multiple outdoor beer gardens and restaurants, and then surrounded them with flexible workspaces, Lindsay said.

Buildings that can integrate technology and adapt to consumers’ and companies’ changing needs will succeed.

“He who controls the app and the delivery controls the experience,” Lindsay said.

Amazon Fresh, for example, opened its first grocery store in Woodland Hills, Calif., and quickly began using delivery data to change the store layout in real time. Lindsay said the company is bringing to life the concept of the “15-minute neighborhood” – a term coined by University of Paris Professor Carlos Moreno to indicate areas where residents can mostly bike, walk, work and meet all their needs within a 15-minute radius.

Moreno, who serves as a special envoy for smart cities including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, envisioned the concept as a way of reducing cities’ carbon footprint while improving residents’ quality of life. He said he draws inspiration from the work of Jane Jacobs, author of 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs famously fought urban planning efforts of the 1950s and ‘60s that facilitated the growth of car-dependent, suburban living.

While the pandemic proved that office workers aren’t place-dependent, “superstar cities have retained their vitality,” Lindsay said. “Urban cores are stronger than ever, even if the real estate types within them are changing.”

To thrive, he said, cities need to rethink the public realm, focusing on how to beautify it, activate it, and turn it into something that’s more useful. “We can no longer think of cities as places where we stack people.”

Source: Realtor® Magazine coverage of the 2021 C5 Summit

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