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How sport is helping to shape the smart cities of tomorrow

Urbanisation will be one of the most powerful forces in shaping the 21st century and even with life in most cities on pause, there are many looking ahead to what will come next. For sport, this could have profound implications.

22 May 2020 Eoin Connolly

The common understanding of a sports city, from an industry perspective at least, has a lot to do with the people who watch it. Big teams generate a local identity and an economic stimulus, top-tier events project a monetisable image far and wide, and large-scale infrastructure is thrown up to support it all.

Yet as cities change, the role sport plays within them will change as well.

Urbanisation will be one of a handful of megatrends that defines life in the 21st century. It is only since 2008 that more people on the planet have lived in cities than in rural areas. According to a 2018 study by the UN, 55 per cent of the world’s population is now urban. By 2050, that figure will have risen to 68 per cent – 6.7 billion people out of an anticipated global population of 9.8 billion.

The cities those people live in will be shaped by forces whose effects are harder to model. At the time of writing, many of the world’s biggest urban centres are mostly closed down as part of measures taken to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus. The overriding concern in 2020 is about the threat to human life and wellbeing but in the long term, the shock of the next few months could profoundly affect how cities operate.

Some of the changes that come about might be in direct response to this crisis, with infrastructure adapted to improve pandemic readiness. Design consultancies and planning departments are already exploring ways to slow contagions down in the future.

“There’s an interesting nexus that’s happening with the increase in thinking about chronic health in cities and the health districts that we’re designing and this particular epidemic,” said David Green, a principal at international design practice Perkins and Will, in a March interview with Fast Company. “I think that the next couple of months, especially, and the next year, is going to fundamentally change the way we think about the design of cities.”

Population growth in sprawling cities like New Delhi, India, is posing new challenges for governments and urban planners

The adaptations that city spaces are subject to would take a few different forms. In some cases, it might involve reworking the layouts of crowded areas like airports – easing pinch points like queues where groups gather in close proximity or increasing the use of contactless entry points.

That thinking might extend to sports stadiums and arenas, as might the suggestion that building interiors are reconfigured to improve air quality. Improving circulation to get more fresh air into enclosed spaces decreases the time people might be exposed to harmful microbes. Sunlight is also a disinfectant – albeit a mild one – and getting more natural light into the next generation of buildings will be a priority. Isolated UVC light is dangerous to human skin but has been used in China to disinfect buses, floors and cash due to its virus-killing properties, and is incorporated into some new filtration systems to make them cheaper and more efficient.

In the current crisis, a number of sports and entertainment venues have been offered up for emergency healthcare purposes. In the UK, temporarily dormant event spaces like the ExCel Centre in London and Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre have been transformed into giant ‘NHS Nightingale Hospitals’ used solely to treat thousands of Covid-19 patients. Meanwhile, London mayor Sadiq Khan has asked venue operators to follow the likes of Lord’s Cricket Ground and Watford’s Vicarage Road in making facilities available to healthcare services in whatever capacity is sensible.

Authorities in Wuhan, China had already set the template by including a local sports stadium, gymnasium and exhibition centre among 11 buildings converted into temporary hospitals. Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana is among a number of other stadiums worldwide to be redeployed as a field hospital. In the near future, scope for these kind of conversions may feature in initial building plans.      

There are also significant socioeconomic changes that could be accelerated by coronavirus shutdowns. Working and consumption patterns are being heavily disrupted. Huge numbers of companies have switched to remote office set-ups and many may only partially switch back.

In 2016, the Macro Trends Group at management consultancy Bain & Company identified what it called the ‘declining cost of distance’. Spatial economics has historically determined the formation of cities, with people moving close to work or preferring homes with accessible transport links, but cheaper shipping costs for goods, communications technology and the mainstream arrival of services like 3D printing could change that.

Urban areas will still continue to grow. While a handful of cities like Tokyo – currently the world’s biggest, with roughly 37 million inhabitants – are getting smaller, most are going the other way. There are expected to be 43 global megacities – those with populations of over ten million – by 2030. As long ago as 2011, according to McKinsey, China and India were needing up to 2.8 billion square metres of new residential and commercial space a year.

Such expansion brings its own challenges. As parts of Jakarta, with its population of ten million, sink into the swampy foundations on which it was built, Indonesia is building a new US$32.79 billion capital, as yet unnamed, on the island of Borneo. Plans for the proposed city have attracted the attention of environmental groups like Greenpeace, given that it would be built amid heavily forested land, though national authorities vow it will be a smart, green project.

It came to the sports industry’s attention in early March, however, when Reuters reported that Indonesia’s investment board, BKPM, was exploring the idea of putting the new capital forward as a candidate city for the 2032 Olympic Games. Early talks were said to be ongoing with SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son and other investors. Indonesia’s national Olympic committee has since insisted that Jakarta would be the only city it would support for any bid by the world’s fourth-most populous country.

Indonesia’s scheme is not even the most ambitious of those scheduled in the next decade. Saudi Arabia’s free-spending attempts to diversify its income and soften its global image will continue with Neom, a mega-city set to cover 10,230 square miles of desert in the north-western province of Tabuk at an apparent cost of US$500 billion. The prospectus for the new development draws on every conceivable technological wheeze, from ‘cloud-seeding’ to increase rainfall, to prototypes of flying taxis and robot servants.

Citizens and city planners in Tokyo now work together to design urban areas that meet the needs of its aging population

According to a December report in the Daily Mail, Saudi Arabia’s notoriously repressive laws would also be relaxed within Neom, with more internationalised standards on women’s rights, labour conditions and alcohol consumption. The backers hope that will make Neom more appealing to overseas investors, not to mention the promoters of major sports and entertainment events on its mooted completion in 2025.

However eye-catching these ventures may be, the way existing cities evolve will be more consequential. Technological innovation is sure to play a role in how urban areas develop. Internet of things (IoT) solutions are expected to help authorities draw rich data about the movement of people and traffic, waste management needs and energy use. Those systems will get more sophisticated as a wider range of connected devices become available.   

Still, designing cities that address 21st century concerns will not just be about technology. As municipalities worry about the need for drastic cuts in carbon emissions, about living standards and circulation in ever more crowded spaces, and about public health issues like isolation and alienation as well as physical fitness, more and more of them are looking at a completely different set of concepts. 

‘Placemaking’ is one urban planning principle by which big cities are being recomposed. 

‘This is a planning and design approach that works with communities to understand, imagine, and deliver solutions that meet their local needs, rather than relying on the whims of a grand city plan,’ explained Layla McCay, the director of the startup think tank Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, in a piece for Quartz in September 2018. ‘After all, most people live their lives at neighbourhood scale, not that of the megacity. Policies passed down to support those in the centre often have no bearing on those at the edge of the ripple.’

McCay points to Tokyo as an example of a city – or, to be more accurate, a metropolitan prefecture – where this kind of thinking is being applied most consequentially through the process of machizukuri, by which citizens work with city planners to best meet local needs. The Japanese capital, which will host the Olympic Games in the summer of 2021, has been responding to the challenges faced by its aging population by designing Daily Activities Areas, which McCay suggests ‘could be interpreted as villages within the city, ensuring that people can walk to their grocery store, library, post office, health clinic, social club, and other such local amenities’.

There are echoes in this of the type of lifestyle-focused provision that might go into an upscale private housing development or a co-working space but the incorporation of public health into urban planning has more telling ramifications. What might be happening is the decentralisation of some major cities.

Another example of this philosophy can be found in the summer Olympic host that will follow Tokyo. At the time of writing, the French capital of Paris is still awaiting the final result of its mayoral election after the second-round ballot was delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Socialist party incumbent Anne Hidalgo, one of the faces of the 2024 Olympic bid and the biggest vote-winner in March’s first round, had campaigned with a long-term vision for phasing out vehicles and phasing in a concept called ‘la ville du quart d’heure’ – or the 15-minute city.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo (left) wants to phase out vehicles in areas of her city, which will host the 2024 Olympic Games

The aim of this is to encourage more self-sufficient communities by clustering vital amenities, shops, cafés, sports facilities, cultural centres, entertainment venues and schools within a 15-minute walk or cycle of every citizen. In theory, the result would be Paris as a collection of local neighbourhoods. Similar schemes have been explored in Copenhagen, Melbourne and Utrecht, and the concept is championed by the Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno. It all marks a break from a century of city planning that has tended to produce business, retail, entertainment and residential districts.

The crossovers between sport and a city based on physical mobility, rather than private transport, are pretty clear, and there are logical extensions for existing digital communities on fitness apps like Strava. There might even be routes into a different kind of economic participation. One startup active at February’s Global Sports Week conference in Paris, Baba Au Run, has mustered groups of recreational runners to transport morning pastries, Deliveroo-style, and is investigating ways of getting surplus food to homeless people.

The harsh realities of urban development are also contributing to these phenomena. In many established cities the cost of land and planning restrictions can restrict the creation of new public spaces. Paris, with its tight and carefully protected historic centre, has its own headaches in that regard. Those local authorities whose budgets are stretched, or grassroots groups priced out of private facilities, must find more creative solutions.

One response has been to make use of so-called ‘meanwhile spaces’ – areas under development or awaiting clearance for a change of use. In cities across the UK, local authorities grant temporary leases on some of these properties, which often find themselves used by arts projects or small catering businesses.

Meanwhile spaces are often found in interiors like shops and archways, well suited to Crossfit or other fitness-based activities but just as usable for esports or something like it. Events based on digitised products like Zwift, the online running and cycling training programme that lets users interact and race in a virtual world, would make a neat fit for these locations.

But snug urban spaces are being adapted in other ways as well. In cities around the world, rooftops and cul-de-sacs have been reimagined as compact courts and pitches – a designer’s interpretation of how young players have always set up games where they find room. That environment lends itself neatly to non-traditional versions of traditional sports: 3×3 basketball, say, or small-sided street soccer.

Adidas has focused its operations around six cities, including Paris

Those are activities that tap into a youthful culture of improvisation and digital sharing – one that is shaping a lot of what happens above it.

Leading brands already get the significance of growing urbanisation and are recalibrating their activities in kind. Nike has shaped marketing campaigns around big urban communities for a while now. Adidas has built its operations around six cities where, in its own words, it wants to ‘over-proportionally grow share of mind, share of market and share of trend’.

Those cities are London, Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Paris – where it also pulls in business innovations to meet sustainability and new economic demands through its own startup accelerator, Platform A. That is based at Station F, a repurposed railway depot that houses similar projects for major tech companies and the likes of luxury goods giant LVMH.

“Cities are growing in terms of population and there is a clear importance in treating them differently as a market,” said Adidas general manager for Paris, Brice Lefevre, explaining the brand’s city-based activities on the SportsPro Podcast in January. “Paris is different from the rest of France. London is different from the rest of the UK. A New Yorker has not much in common with the way someone is living in LA, just because of the time of the season, the aspiration when it comes to doing sport.”

In Adidas’ case, this approach is being developed on a hyper-local scale, connecting with distinct parts of a city through dedicated products or community initiatives like running clubs or Tango League street soccer competitions. It also gets the brand closer to emerging sporting talent, artistic trends and entrepreneurial breakthroughs – all of which helps its cause of staying relevant to consumers.

“I have a responsibility to help my colleagues who do not have the insights and do not have the opportunity and the chance to be in Paris on a regular basis – to make them understand what is going on, what is needed,” Lefevre said. “I need to help them to be more consumer-centric, to be more consumer-obsessed.”

Rights holders, too, are beginning to respond to the possibilities urban sport offers in opening up new talent pathways and reaching communities that might otherwise prove hard to reach. The headline example of this is the incorporation of 3×3, skateboarding and breaking on the Olympic programme.

Last year's World Urban Games in Budapest featured disciplines like BMX freestyle, breaking and flying disc

In Paris, those disciplines could be presented in an Olympic Park that feels more like an urban park, with events unfolding around visitors alongside music, food and other artistic spectacles. That would build on the example of the most recent Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, where a number of events were arranged across four city parks.

Last year also saw the first edition of GAISF’s World Urban Games in Budapest, Hungary, combining disciplines like parkour, BMX freestyle and flying disc – also known as frisbee – with cultural celebrations. Other event concepts bubbling up are even more radical. Aphetor, a startup led by former Engine Sport chief strategy officer Carsten Thode, plans to launch a multi-sport event contested by influencers and consisting of sports that can be more easily played by those watching. The participants would be central to content creation and could monetise that however they choose.

The changing nature of content delivery, whether through a social media ecosystem or the remote production possibilities of 5G, could also be instrumental. For millions of young people, using city spaces for sport provides a sense of ownership and empowering them to tell their own stories would be a compelling prospect.

That above all could sustain the emergence of a new phase in sport’s development. Where agrarian life and the comforts of the leisured classes brought many modern games into being, and sport today still largely moves to long-passed rhythms of industrial towns, the rapid currents of urban life might yet carry everything somewhere unexpected.

The whirl of big leagues, teams and events that had maintained the sports industry before the current shutdown will largely be restored but in time, cities could be the source of something new to join it. 

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