Transforming Cities and Workplaces: Expert Insights For Smart Leaders

Transforming Cities and Workplaces: Expert Insights For Smart Leaders

Urban experts consider global trends and analyze Saudi Arabia’s The Line, environmental and inequality challenges, and the role businesses must play

Transforming Cities and Workplaces: Expert Insights For Smart Leaders
 This article covers: 
  • The evolution of cities and workplaces in the post-pandemic world 
  • Expert analysis of urban trends and challenges, and the role of businesses in shaping cities
  • Challenges cities face, including inequality, climate change, and political inaction

Crowe Global’s Art of Smart helps business leaders make smarter decisions by informing them of the latest innovations and trends. In 2024, the future of cities and workplaces is an especially relevant topic. 

The symbiotic relationship between work and cities has been a constant throughout history. Urban centers have traditionally acted as magnets, attracting people with their vast employment opportunities, vibrant cultural scenes, and unique experiences. But the coronavirus crisis threatened to upend decades—if not centuries—old norms. 

In 2021, a year into the pandemic, urban experts Barrie Barton, CEO and Co-Founder of Right Angle in Sydney, Australia—an urban innovation firm established in 2005 to “understand and improve life in our cities”—and Peter Hogg, UK Cities Director of global design, engineering, and management consulting company Arcadis, which has 350 offices across 40 countries, were invited to share their views in an article, A Brilliant Opportunity To Reinvent Cities.

The main takeaways were as follows:

  • The pandemic exposed inequalities and problems in cities that must be addressed.
  • Cities will endure but need to adapt and clarify their value.
  • Developing regions can build equitable, sustainable megacities by learning from the pandemic. 
  • Businesses should avoid panic reactions—offices and cities can be repurposed.
  • The role of business will shift towards social responsibility and employee wellbeing.

Three years later, Art of Smart asked the duo to revisit that piece, analyze their earlier insights, and make fresh predictions about the evolving workplace and the office’s role in the urban landscape.

Now, post-pandemic, business leaders find themselves at a critical juncture, tasked with making informed decisions about the future of work. Will a return to the office and the city stimulate innovation and growth? How can cities be revitalized, reshaped, and revolutionized to meet the needs of a post-pandemic world?

A gradual shift to polycentric cities

Hogg observes a clear trend towards more polycentric cities—urban areas with more than one center—and a move away from the traditional hub-and-spoke model. “We are definitely seeing a move in that direction,” he says. “We’re seeing much more focus on areas of huge cities or clusters of smaller towns and cities, each being much more focused on their own proposition, how they can present themselves and promote themselves, and how to connect to their neighbors in an intelligent, rich and a mutually collaborative way.”

While acknowledging the psychological shift towards polycentric cities, Barton maintains his stance as a “diehard fan of the central business district (CBD).” He explains: “In Australia, what I’ve found intriguing and comforting is that for too long, the CBD has been the sole area in the limelight, the only place people would go for particular commercial and entertainment experiences. Now, due to COVID, there’s at least an attitude that we need more points of agglomeration and CBD-type activity, and that there has to be some diversity. It’s not necessarily a polycentric city reality, but it is certainly the ideology and it’s great to see more focus on hyperlocal identities.”

However, Barton highlights the challenges associated with polycentric cities, citing Sydney’s aspiration to create two additional CBDs as an example. “The idea of a polycentric city, as nice and egalitarian as it is, presents real identity and funding difficulties,” he says. “It’s hard for Parramatta and the Western Aerotropolis to compete with a CBD right on the harbor—at the moment it feels like two second-class cities are struggling to leave the shadow of the original CBD.”

Barrie Barton

How do our graduates get noticed if they never see their colleagues, or get promoted if their boss never actually sees them in action? How on earth could our home office create a corporate culture? Are we actually discriminating against workers who don’t have good work-from-home conditions, and is the office at least a level playing field? It’s time to look those nasties in the eye.

Barrie Barton
Barrie Barton
CEO and Co-Founder
Right Angle

Where organizations need to focus

Hogg argues that organizations should focus on taking their office space and relationships with their people seriously, moving towards a model where work is something people do rather than a place they go. “If there are benefits in bringing people together, we need to articulate what those benefits are, make them clear, and ensure they are there in terms of good quality space, amenity, access to facilities, transport, and so on.”

Barton shares the example of Atlassian in Australia, which has a work-anywhere policy but is nonetheless investing in the world’s tallest timber skyscraper with exceptional amenities. “I suspect that they think they’re more likely to get people coming into work if they give them explicit freedom not to come in but create a wonderful workplace,” he says.

“I can’t help but think that we are only just realising the negative effects of working from home, which in turn strengthens the argument for inspirational offices,” Barton continues. “How do our graduates get noticed if they never see their colleagues, or get promoted if their boss never actually sees them in action? How on earth could our home office create a corporate culture? Are we actually discriminating against workers who don’t have good work-from-home conditions, and is the office at least a level playing field? It’s time to look those nasties in the eye.”

Peter Hogg
It’s no good for businesses to sit at the back of the bus and say: ‘The government isn’t making great cities for us.’ Businesses must recognize the importance of making their own weather around high-performing cities.
Peter Hogg
Peter Hogg
UK Cities Director

Learnings from Saudi Arabia’s The Line

The pair agree that Saudi Arabia’s ambitious project, The Line, offers valuable lessons for business leaders regarding bold, innovative thinking in urban development and creating cities of the future. 

As Barton notes, The Line, despite its potential drawbacks, showcases “prodigious and impressive” aspirations and represents the kind of “radically different thinking” necessary to tackle future challenges, particularly in inhospitable climates.

Yet, both experts also emphasize the need for a more measured approach when applying such progressive ideas to existing cities. Hogg stresses that change is more likely to happen incrementally and organically in well-established urban areas rather than through a complete overhaul of the current system. 

Business leaders must recognize that while drawing inspiration from groundbreaking projects like The Line, they should focus on adapting and improving existing infrastructure and systems to align with their communities’ specific needs and realities.

Moreover, Barton highlights the potential societal implications of a project like The Line, describing it as a “dark and menacing proposition in urban form” with “layers of scary totalitarian thought.” This verdict reminds business leaders to consider their initiatives’ ethical and social ramifications. While innovation and boldness are essential, they must be balanced with a commitment to creating inclusive, equitable, and humane environments that prioritize the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

Urban exodus proves short-lived

Barton says about people moving from cities to rural areas during the pandemic: “Rents in regional areas in Australia are going down. Rents in cities are going up. Sure, there was a bit of panic and people flocking out of cities. Most of them realized within a year that they were lonely and have good reasons to be in a city, so they’ve returned. As the great British urbanist Jonathan Meades said: ‘The country is why the city exists.’”

Hogg agrees, saying: “We are seeing several areas outside of London that did see a significant influx of migration in the early stages of the pandemic now suffering because those people are looking to transition back.”

Inequality remains a pressing issue in cities

Discussing inequality in cities, Hogg shares startling examples from London. “We have the horrific reality where if you live in certain postcodes in East London, you will live 12 to 15 years less than people living in more affluent postcodes in West London. How can that be right in an advanced Western global city?” 

He predicts inequality will become a political issue, with electoral decisions being made based on people’s sense of disenfranchisement from opportunity. “We saw in the May 2024 London mayoral election large swathes of outer London registering a real protest that they felt the ultra-low emission zone legislation, applied blanket style across London, was hampering not just quality of life, but equality between inner and outer London. That was reflected quite strongly in the vote.”

Barton states that the most significant conflicts in Australia will likely be between demographics rather than cultures or religions. “If you’re in your 20s or 30s now, unless your parents are giving you money for a deposit or you’ve been incredibly fortunate with your career, you’re not buying a house. Downstream of that lack of home ownership and financial security are quite pernicious issues around social mobility, mental and physical health, et cetera.”

Climate change action stalls amid political posturing

When asked if climate change action has gained momentum post-pandemic as expected, Barton laments: “Not that much has changed, and certainly not fast, in Australia. The clock is always ticking, and it feels like we’re just hoping the scientists can solve this, not expecting our politicians to.”

He describes a global malaise and exhaustion as a result of COVID. “We’re all battered and have no overarching narrative to grasp as a society. There’s no faith in capitalism, no faith in green policies. There’s a profound, societal lack of belief. People are okay with demonstrating a commitment to certain causes in a very online, clicktivist way, but we’d rather have a tote bag with an ethical slogan than actually mobilize to solve a difficult problem.”

Hogg observes a “dispiriting and dangerous tendency to politicize the issue of climate change” in the UK, pointing to the government rolling back climate change commitments in 2023. “I cannot be unconvinced that was a very opportunistic gambit by a government who said: ‘We can frame the climate crisis and the desire for a response to it as some sort of middle-class urban metropolitan elite conceit that is going to impact you, and you who we want to support us politically will lean into a government that says that’s all nonsense.’”

He hopes that in a year of record-breaking elections worldwide, those in charge will make the necessary bold decisions. “As long as we have politicians prepared to behave that irresponsibly, we’re not going to turn the dial. You can have all the business and scientific investment you like; nothing will change if we don’t get better political behavior.”

Key to cities: specificity, participation and long-term thinking

Looking ahead, Barton emphasizes that what makes cities wonderful is their specificity and uniqueness but notes an essential generality: “It’s a participant city, where citizens, businesses, and governments don’t just think about their rights to the city; they take responsibility for it as well. People with short-term motivations making decisions with long-term consequences is the root of sustainable problems. A great city must think beyond normal cycles that dominate our decision-making, like electoral cycles and shareholder returns.”

Hogg urges businesses to remember they will gain the cities they’re prepared to invest in. “It’s no good for businesses to sit at the back of the bus and say: ‘The government isn’t making great cities for us.’ Businesses must recognize the importance of making their own weather around high-performing cities.” He suggests the onus is on businesses to invest in their offices and, to an extent, infrastructure to attract and retain top talent, which is arguably business-critical.

Finally, Hogg underlines the importance of businesses forging solid relationships with city government and communities. “Businesses are going to have to continue working hard on recognizing they can’t just be a one-dimensional investor; they have to see themselves as a stakeholder in the system.” He adds: “If business can commit to that and forge the right long-term partnerships with communities and government, then we will have genuinely great cities.”

Key takeaway questions

  • How can your company contribute to creating inclusive, equitable, and sustainable cities? 
  • What steps are you taking to design offices that inspire and attract employees back to the workplace? 
  • How can your business forge strong partnerships with local governments and communities to drive positive change in cities? 
  • In what ways can your organization apply lessons from innovative urban projects while remaining grounded in the realities of your community? 
  • What long-term strategies are you implementing to address pressing urban issues like inequality and climate change, beyond short-term political and economic cycles?