The physical world fights back
Its been a bruising year for the physical world, the real, corporeal world of bits and atoms. The urban world most of all — bars, restaurants, gyms, theatres, gig venues, shops, offices, cafes, museums, all shut. The buskers have retreated, birds are chirping amongst the skyscrapers in the City of London, the tube trundles on empty, like a ghost train.
We’ve retreated to our homes, and come to run our lives over internet cables: Zoom calls at work all day, ordering food deliveries online, kids attending lessons through laptop screens. It’s far from perfect, and most of us are itching for the end of it, but as Yuval Harari said recently “the fact that it could be done at all is astounding”¹. The world economy has trundled on, functioning at almost normal-levels, whilst being managed from kitchen tables, balconies and bedrooms; and the fact this switch happend almost overnight and absorbed like a mere bump in the road, in historical terms, is even more remarkable.
The physical world right now will be feeling optimistic: workplaces are starting to re-open, the western world (the USA and U.K. at least) is in the early stages of unlocking, by late summer we expect the streets to be full again, shops bustling, festivals buzzing and live music back on the agenda. People will flock to see friends and family, even colleagues, making up for lost time. The roaring twenties is on again, and the physical world is the stage. The physical world would point to the mental toll lockdowns have placed on people around the world, the anxiety, the loneliness; it would question whether WFH really has been as effective as people think it’s been; it would ask what the effect has been on children of being cooped up at home and missing interaction with teachers and peers; and what about dating, how do people meet people?
Large cities are the ace in the pack for the physical world, the apotheosis of humanity’s dance with the physical world. There is nowhere that packs so much punch in corporeal terms: the bustle of people cramming down to the tube, the glass cathedrals soaring into the sky, music blasting from cars, shops, windows, the smells from a hundred stalls in a food market. It is all that people are, and all that our ancestors were before us, compressed into a few square miles.
But the story on how this unfolds for the city is unwritten as yet. The WFH revolution will reveal its hand over the next six months, as employers are forced to formalise temporary arrangements into permanent policies. What happens? What will your employer let you do, one day in the office, two? Where the pendulum settles exactly is unclear but what is obvious is that were aren’t going back to how things were, and the effect will be an unfurling of the bonds that tied many people into living in big cities. We may see this come through in house prices in London later in 2021, as people can finally bank long-term life decisions on concrete policies from their employer. How many people take the opportunity to up sticks and head for more lifestyle-agreeable locations, Bath, Brighton, the cotswolds? We’ll see, but the city will surely take a hit in the short-term.
What should worry the physical world, as it limbers up for the comeback, is what the virtual world has in development. You may be well-past sick of Zoom calls, but this is only remote work 1.0. This is like the AltaVista webpage in 1997, or the brick-sized mobile phones of the late 1980s. You ain’t seen nothing yet. The future here looks like full-on 3D, virtual meetings with your team, using your VR headset, communicating via your personal avatar. If this sounds like sci-fi its not, the big tech companies are building and testing this right now. This is where Facebook is at right now:
That should give swaggering cities pause for thought. Meetings in person were a major stronghold for the domain of physical space, the siren call of the office, but the virtual world is making big moves on this territory. Behind the big guns come the light infantry of remote work: the explosion of tools, tested to destruction in a year of shelter-at-home — Microsoft teams, Slack.
The virtual world is coming for physical world experience piece by piece, the quality delta varies but the direction of travel is clear. The physical world serves up conferences — a chance to network, chew the fat with industry chums. The virtual world answers: Hopin. The physical world will say “Its not the same! it means something to shake someone’s hand, to look them in the eye!”. But this is to make the same mistake as everyone who was ever disrupted, which to assess the interloper only against reference point of how things used to work. Hopin will never beat the real world at eye contact, but it doesn’t need to, it wins people over by moving the fight onto an entirely different vector. See, the thing with Hopin is that it enables something new and transformative. It slashes the cost of hosting an event by >100x (no need to hire a space, or to pay for coffee and people to serve it), and at the same time opens the addressable market for your event to basically everyone within a manageable time-zone radius. Sure you could always travel to a conference in Lisbon but it costs a fortune, spews out carbon emissions and knocks a couple of days out of your life. That cost on top of the ticket price makes the barrier to attendance incredibly high, meaning only a tiny fraction of good event ideas actually come into being.
What happens when you knock the constraints? An astronomic explosion of online events, more diverse, more niche, more idiosyncratic than ever before. There will be an event for everyone and everything now, probably happening next week. This is how the virtual world gets one over — it picks up the ball and takes it onto a different pitch.
The next swing at cities comes from flying taxis, again this just sounds like the Jetsons but it isn’t sci-fi either, this is happening now — just a couple of weeks ago Joby, a Californian ‘air mobility’ company announced it is going public. They’re not the only ones with their eyes on the skies: Volocopter, Lilium, Vertical Aerospace, Toyota, Airbus, Boeing are all in the game. What happens when you can fly from Bristol to London in half an hour? Now your ‘live in the capital / live in the country?’ monologue takes another leg down, away from the capital. You could live in Cornwall and still be a big-shot lawyer in a London firm.
So the city is on the ropes, what does it have left in the tank? It is down but far from out. The city’s strongest card is that there is something irreplaceable, something unanswerably vital about being in a physical space with other people. Those are the two things — people and space. A date will never be the same over VC. You’ll never recreate riffing with a couple of good friends in the pub, or the buzz of being in the crowd as an artist steps out on stage. So the path that cities will take — the path that will be demanded of them — will be towards cementing their position as the epicentre of social experiences. This means the ‘old economy’ venues should hold up pretty well — pubs, coffee spots, theatres, gig venues. What will be more exciting is the cascading emergence of a class of experience that really seeks to capitalise on those advantages of people and space. Expect interior design to be a boom industry in the 2020s — those who can craft an experience into the aesthetics of a physical space. Expect more and more outrageous, custom hardware to enable unique experiences — floatation tanks, experimental gyms. Ultimately anything that helps facilitate the sparks of energy when human beings interact — that is the class of experience the real world has to own.