Next month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of one of the classic songs of the 1980s – ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials. The single, the last released by the band, reached number one in the UK singles charts in June 1981 and stayed there for 3 weeks.
Set against the backdrop of a recession and urban city riots, the song is a lament for the young, the unemployed and the disaffected. The city streets described by The Specials in the song are inhabited by ghosts; the sounds of life, community and creativity are no more.
Fast forward four decades, and it could be argued that the central themes of the song are as relevant today as they were then – for recession read pandemic. Ghost Town has been described as the haunting sound track of thousands of lost futures, and only time will tell if the narrative will resonate in 2021 as it did in 1981.
The last couple of weeks have seen an easing of the lockdown restrictions placed upon the citizens of the UK’s four nations, as we gently move into a more socially interactive form of normality. Pubs, restaurants, non-essential retail are beginning to welcome customers back, albeit within strict safety guidelines. The streets of our towns and cities are once again filling with people, in sharp contrast to the past few months when you could have driven around in a 1961/2 Vauxhall Cresta (as The Specials did in the ‘Ghost Town’ video), and found them eerily silent.
However, the easing is only the start of the process, questions remain about how cities and towns will revitalise and become thriving centres again, as we get used to the new ways of living and working. What seemed at the start of March 2020 lockdown to be a temporary move towards homeworking is rapidly turning into a settled trend across the globe.
A recent piece in the New York Times reported that the market value of office towers in Manhattan, home to the USA’s two largest central business districts, has plummeted 25 percent, contributing to an estimated $1 billion drop-off in property tax revenue.
JPMorgan Chase, Ford Motor, Salesforce, Target have all announced plans to give up expensive office space, with Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, the largest private-sector employer in New York City, informing its shareholders that the company will significantly reduce its real estate. For every 100 employees, he said, the company “may need seats for only 60 on average.”
Closer to home, the City of London Corporation, the governing body of the Square Mile, launched its action plan for its ‘post-pandemic’ future – where it aims to become the world’s most “innovative, inclusive and sustainable
The action plan focuses on introducing more residential space into the area for people to live (which prior to COVID-19 wasn’t ever front of mind) and to attract technology-led businesses to the area.
The report lays out exactly what the City is committing to over the next five years, some of which includes: Working with private sector partners to provide workspace, advice, digital skills, access to networks and capital. The City wants to “curate” an ecosystem of high-potential tech-led businesses and will introduce them to City networks, with the aim of helping them grow.
The City also plans to work with the property industry to enable and promote “sustainable, flexible and adaptable buildings”. It is exploring ways to use vacant space and is aiming for at least 1,5000 new residential units by 2030.
Likewise, the city of Calgary has just announced $45 million in incentives to help developers and affordable housing agencies convert old office buildings into residential developments.
With these city action plans, we are already witnessing an acceptance that the new norm will involve remote working and that the days of millions of people commuting into city centre spaces are numbered. They also place technology at the heart of the post pandemic recovery.
It is no coincidence that in this same week, Microsoft was revealing that its profits had soared during the first three months of 2021. Its fiscal third-quarter profit of 14.8 billion dollars (£8.26 billion) were up 38% from the same period last year, with its cloud computing business growing 23% to 15.1 billion dollars (£8.43 billion).
It makes sense and is certainly not surprising. If you have a distributed workforce or are planning to reduce your real estate, why would you not consider off premise IT? Why would you want a couple of servers tucked away in your office with the added headache of physically maintaining them? Far easier to replace them with virtual machines or have them managed on your behalf 24 x 7.
For businesses who can quickly adjust and who are looking to make substantial cuts in their costs, it may not be a bad strategy.
“Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?” sang The Specials. Well, the answer is yes and what’s clear is that things won’t return to the way they were.
With commuting cut, innovative and flexible use of space, more residential accommodation, the short-term problems for our towns and cities are multiple but the new long-term visions could be transformational and uplifting.
Ghost Town words and lyrics © Jerry Dammers