What Cities Should Expect in 2021

From job retraining to providing more social services, cities can revitalize themselves in the new year.


The coronavirus devastated cities. They have suffered some of the highest death tolls, financial hardships, and a loss of residents – some of whom may not return from a relocation to suburban or rural environments. But they’ve shown incredible adaptability to soothe much of the fallout caused by the pandemic – whether that’s adding more cycling and walking paths to providing essential services like food deliveries or medical supplies.

But 2021 can be a year of revival for cities. Cities can partner with the private sector, nonprofits, and educational institutions to rebuild more resilient. They can work together to distribute the vaccine, retrain workers, and close the digital divide.

Both public and private spaces in cities can be transformed to offer more inclusive services, whether that pertains to culture, public health, or economic opportunity. Workers need access to the internet and trained in more digital skills to succeed in a transforming economy. 

Cities Must Repurpose Their Spaces 

We may never return to the old way of working and doing business. The coronavirus has already transformed the way we live by accelerating the adoption of digital technologies like video conferencing and telehealth. As flexible working arrangements become more entrenched for many, living close to the office or having a short commute will likely be deprioritized in favor of having access to green space and living in areas with lower population density.

We expect some creative roles – like those in the arts, marketing, or product development space – will continue to remain in the city, while those that are more “routine” – like IT support – may become permanently remote.

And with the competition for talent and businesses heating up, cities need to repurpose the space available to them for what residents are looking for: More than half of all respondents prioritized free or subsidized healthcare, internet connectivity infrastructure, and eco-friendly practices as the top services cities should provide after the pandemic.

One plan for London, jointly developed by Oliver Wyman and Arup, calls for some office spaces to be reimagined as a small business and arts hive that provides an affordable creation space with access to high-tech infrastructure like broadband access. Some retailers may even be interested in turning their existing spaces to collaboration hubs that can be rented out.

The possibilities of urban revitalization are endless. With creativity and purpose, cities can give themselves a makeover in what they offer residents.

Digital Infrastructure Needs to Be Bolstered

There’s a reason why the majority of survey respondents prioritized having more internet connectivity in their cities: Not enough people have easy access to the internet, and many do not yet have the skills to use it efficiently for work or school.

As the coronavirus forces many to work or study remotely, home internet access has become as indispensable as electricity. The pandemic has brought greater attention to a disturbing gap between the haves and have-nots of the internet: Nearly 20 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds do not have access to high speed internet, according to a separate Oliver Wyman Forum survey. One in four respondents, from Singapore to Germany, reported difficulties with internet access.

Even San Jose, the paragon of tech innovation, isn’t immune to the digital divide. The Silicon Valley hub reported that at least 11,000 children – about five percent of the city’s under-18 population – were unable to access their education remotely during stay-at-home orders. Schoolchildren are just one demographic of the city’s larger digital divide: 95,000 residents in San Jose – roughly nine percent of the municipality’s population – lack internet access at home.

But the situation is improving in the Californian city: A major telecom company is working with San Jose to provide internet hotspots to students and low-income households. It’s just one example of how public and private sectors can unite to solve a critical problem.

Unless more governments act, we expect this digital divide to worsen – particularly among communities that have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19. For those cities that don’t have the resources to close the gap themselves, gathering the right stakeholders to tackle the divide is key.

Cities Must be Proactive in Retraining for a Digital Workforce

The world has a long road to economic recovery, and retraining will be more important than ever in the next year. Certain sectors will not rebound fully, and there are fears that the current resurgence of coronavirus infections and the end of business support programs could inflate unemployment rates quickly. 

Workers in 2021 will have to grapple with more COVID-spurred layoffs and their susceptibility to automation to cut labor costs. Cities will likewise have to partner with other sectors to provide retraining opportunities before residents look elsewhere for work.

The corporate partners are there – and perhaps willing to work with a municipal government on their trainings. Two tech giants, for example, are offering their own digital retraining programs – one specializing in cloud-computing and the other in fields like data analytics or user experience design. The European Commission’s Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, meanwhile, boasts more than 400 members, including those in the private sector, that are funding digital skills training across the continent.

Singapore has been particularly active in this regard. The city-state has committed about $2 billion of a $66 billion stimulus program to job retraining and investment in local tech firms. Plans include the creation of 40,000 public and private-sector jobs, 25,000 traineeships with firms, and government-sponsored trainings for 30,000 job seekers. Companies receive monetary incentives – like the government supplementing salaries – if they hire people from the traineeship and training programs.

It’s that kind of adaptability to disruption and technological change that gave Singapore the top spot in our AI Readiness index. Cities around the world should take note.

2020 was a bizarre year, and some of that same unpredictability may carry over for cities in the future.

How the mobile portions of a city’s population choose to locate may have a dramatic impact on the paths of different cities. The desire for more green space, better air quality, and lower population densities may persist for many. Conversely, the longing for a normal urban lifestyle may be so great that people decide to care less about those things.

The only thing we know for sure is that disruption and uncertainty are here to stay. Cities must learn to control for that x-factor in 2021.