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Like many others in the UK, I joined in the community clapping to express our thanks to the frontline staff in the NHS, medical services and ‘frontline’ staff who are dealing with the human impact of the coronavirus. Their pivotal role has rightly cast afresh a light on the highly valued role they (and others in ‘essential services’) have in the current pandemic crisis – and undoubtedly will later reignite questions about how they are rewarded by society, including their wage levels.

Similar questions will arise about the role of those in the retail industry who have stocked the shelves in our supermarkets, have delivered our online orders, and have been at the ‘frontline’ of keeping us fed.  And perhaps similar issues will be asked about the farmers and food producers who continued to supply the shops.

If there is one positive dimension to the pandemic it will be a widespread reassessment of how society values those who have roles are vital to the daily routines of society. Once the peak of the crisis has passed, across the world there needs to be a discussion about which skills are valued and rewarded in terms of pay and conditions.

For the past two years, the Institute for Future Cities has been engaged in an international research project exploring this issue – specifically in relation to one sector, hospitality*. Working with colleagues from the University of Strathclyde and University of the Philippines, Diliman, we have been considering how in the era of ‘smart cities’ those with low levels of skill remain critical to the economic and social success of the city, and asking about how they can and should be ‘valued’.

The knowledge economy, the growth of new technology and the (growing) desire to create smart cities across the world, has as Kourtit et al (2012) expressed it placed emphasis and value on technological inspired innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, and on those people described as creative.

The growth of smart cities and its focus on certain creative sectors and skills, has in turn generated changes in the ‘pecking order’ of employment. Like the argument presented by Richard Florida in his ‘rise of the creative city’ the assumption is that the most valued people are the ‘creative class’ – those who inhabit roles that support the development of creativity. Similar argument can be made for those who support the development of the ‘smart city’.

Reflecting on this emphasis, and drawing on our British Academy research, my colleague Prof Tom Baum** has likened the associated celebration of such creativity and smart skills to that of ‘gentrification’. Just as with the process attached to housing where the physical upgrading of property generates a welcome rise in value and provides positives for areas, so too are there the negative effects – social downgrading of those unable to participate in gentrification and in turn social displacement.

In the context of smart cities – and in the current context of the Covid-19 crisis – the key question is what about those who occupy roles which surround and support the creatives and smart classes? How are those who have low-paid, low-status and menial roles valued at a time when skills and professions (the gentrified roles) are valued?

Our research points to the continued failure to appreciate and illuminate the roles that low skilled service workers play in supporting urban futures and to reflect on the often precarious nature of their employment. In particular, there has been an absence of conceptualising how such roles fit in the much lauded ‘smart cities’.

In policy terms, as was evident in both the Scottish and Philippine case studies of our research, the primary focus has been on upskilling to address both skill deficits and in turn low wages/poverty – the gentrification of these employment sectors. Whilst important for some and key to helping social mobility, such approaches nevertheless do not address the fundamental point that ‘lower’ skill roles are critical to the future of the smart city. And for the city to function, those in such roles need to be able to access housing, transport and services to enable them to contribute to the success of the smart or creative city. And as the current pandemic shows, vital to ensure society’s resilience in moments of crisis.

Without public acknowledgement that such roles are valued and valuable, it is easy for politicians and policy makers to sidestep the issue. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic when public support for some such roles is evident, there may be an opportunity to break away for this apathy.

 

In such discussions, it is worth considering the debates in India over what is or should be part of a smart city programme. Launched in 2015 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the national government’s desire to have 100 smart cities – a mix of both new area-based developments for growing urban populations and pan-city solutions that improve the quality of life of many through technology – has provoked heated discussions. One key part has been the questioning of whether in a rush to build smart cities around technology and infrastructure they:

  • Meet basic local needs of the population – especially water, electricity, schools and hospitals all of which are not part of the programme
  • Deliver affordable living – especially for those who are moving into smart cities
  • Addressing existing social inequalities – rather than exacerbating them by technological requirements (eg online payment for bike hire schemes)
  • Lacking citizen participation in decision making – enabling projects to meet local needs and not be driven by external demands

A more critical question however is how the Indian smart cities support the thousands of low skill (and low paid) workers. Across the country, farmers and other local groups are resisting the development of smart cities, demanding rights for land and livelihoods – and to be valued for their contribution to the country’s economy. So far, some city authorities are refusing to sign up to the Indian Government’s smart city agenda arguing for more powers to help their citizens in other ways.

Here in the UK the current coronavirus crisis has underlined the essential roles of those who support our ‘smart’ response – we can no longer overlook their value!

 

*https://pureportal.strath.ac.uk/en/projects/low-skills-work-in-a-smart-city-supporting-capacity-development-f

**See Tom Baum’s wider argument on changing employment dynamics in creative cities at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0143831X17748371