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The digitization of cities is forcing us to rethink their role in our lives and work

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The role of the city is changing. To find out how, in April 2022 we surveyed more than 2,000 Victorians living in Melbourne, its suburbs and regional centers.

The survey is the first of its kind in Australia and documents a pivotal Melbourne social and economic reopening after long and severe COVID lockdowns. The findings have released in our report Digital infrastructures as part of the Digital CBD Project.

On the threshold of a “new normal” we found the long lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus and the rapid adoption of digital technologies have changed the way we interact with the city. It is now seen less as a workplace and more as a place for socializing, shopping and services.

What people were telling us is that at the time of reopening in Melbourne, they were entering the city on average about once a month. This included people living in the suburbs and regional centers. People who went into the city for work only did so on average for nine hours a week.

Unsurprisingly, they visited the city center much less often, but it still begs the question: what we want to use the city for. That was the subject of a long and complex debate even before the pandemic.

We surveyed a representative sample of 2,064 people. This means that we can be confident that what they told us broadly represents the experiences of the entire population.

RMIT researchers interviewed people about how they feel about Melbourne and the rise of a digital city.

What is the city’s role in the aftermath of the pandemic?

Work remains the main reason to connect people with the city. Our workforce survey respondents did this for an average of nine hours a week.

Looking at the work-from-home data we’ve collected, one in seven working people are working entirely from home and a third are using hybrid work arrangements in Victoria. We found that people work from home on average two days a week. These averages are from people who live and work full-time and part-time in the regions and suburbs, not just the inner city. Most working people appreciated and wanted to continue to have this choice to work from home or office.

So the city of Melbourne can’t really be seen as the place where employees go – that is, the office hive. What people told us makes it a lifestyle space. What they found important in Melbourne were the hospitality industry, essential services (such as medical appointments) and cultural and creative life, including education, sports and shopping.

The suburbs as ‘cities’

But many could easily find those activities in their suburbs. This makes it much less important for them to go to the city.

Those who lived in the regions had more trouble remembering when they last visited the city, suggesting it is not essential to their daily lives.

Despite this perception of the city’s shifting centrality in people’s daily lives, residents felt they were spending about as much time in the city as they were before the pandemic. This observation should be treated with caution, as a quarter of Melbourne residents in our study spent much less time in the city than before the pandemic.

Are people ready for a digital city?

These findings suggest that we should ask whether a city can rely on its reputation for lifestyle to maintain its position in a global economy, or as a political center and trading port. As digital technologies have been rapidly adopted during the pandemic, we think it is more important to think about how to position Melbourne as a digital city of the future.

A digital city refers to the set of connected devices and infrastructures that complement the city’s business, cultural and social life. Digital activities range from personal devices such as smartphones to initiatives such as the digital art gallery.

In our report In terms of Melbourne’s new infrastructure requirements, we see the city as an eclectic hub supporting entrepreneurial, creative, cultural, learning and digital endeavors that intertwine the regions and connect them to the global context.

Digital inclusion is vital

But to let city dwellers know how to interact with and benefit from a digital city, they need to have the skills and access to technology. Melbourne residents also told us about their digital skills. As the findings of the Australian Digital Inclusion Indexwe found that Melburnians have high digital skills, but not all are ready for the digital city of the future.

Building digital skills is essential. We also need to ensure that technologies are accessible and affordable and that internet access is reliable no one is left behind.

The pandemic has changed the city. This is an opportunity for some more imaginative thinking.

Our report highlights the investments we need to make to create a more inclusive city. We must now think about what is needed, materially and socially, for a digital city to promote the well-being of each individual and of society as a whole.

This article was republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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