One of the most notable impacts on planning and communities from the COVID-19 pandemic is the rapid shift away from the use of physical spaces and toward digital and virtual spaces. Work, meetings, socializing, healthcare, and schooling suddenly were facilitated through online meeting tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Sports teams and musicians performed in empty arenas exclusively for an online audience. Retail stores, grocery stores, and restaurants turned to online order fulfillment, contact-less dropoffs, and same day delivery. While many of these changes in how people live, work, attend school, socialize, and shop may have felt sudden, these trends have been developing for decades. There is even a term for it: Digitalization.
What is Digitalization?
Digitalization is the conversion of processes or roles from an analog form to a digital form, including business operations, social interactions and behaviors, or business models. Digital technologies such as email or chat instead of regular mail or the telephone, or a web-based development plan review portal are both smaller scale and familiar examples of digitalization. However, digitalization also includes broader shifts in social behavior facilitated by the widespread availability and distribution of technology.
What are some of these broader trends in digitalization, and what are the implications for planning?
Digitalization of Life
While often characterized as "work-from-home," ongoing developments in connectivity and the associated growth of digital and online tools enabling collaboration and interaction are allowing many jobs to be performed in a wide variety of places other than the office. Colleagues can meet in the same digital "place", even if they're physically located across town or across the country. However, access to these tools and the infrastructure to support them (especially broadband and wireless connectivity infrastructure) are not evenly distributed across the United States, making it hard for people in broadband deserts to experience the benefits of digitalization. The digital divide was highlighted during COVID-19, when many people, including children had to use public facilities such as parking lots of libraries and schools to work or study.
Digitalization-driven changes in how people engage with both the retail industry, as both customers and as workers, were already well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the IBM U.S. Retail Index, the pandemic accelerated e-commerce developments by five years. Retailers such as Amazon continue to develop large scale fulfillment centers across the country and hire workers to pack, ship, and deliver orders as quickly as possible — with 20 minute delivery being the latest goal. Larger scale chain stores such as Target and Wal-Mart are increasingly using their thousands of physical stores to facilitate same day online-order pick-up. These trends in digitalization are notable in that they don't simply signal a wholesale transition away from the physical and toward the digital, but also involve a reconfiguring of physical spaces based on the growth of digital tools and infrastructure. Physical locations such as fulfillment centers must be built ever closer to the customer for even quicker deliveries, existing retail buildings must be re-configured, and workers must be hired to pack, ship, and deliver items.
Similar changes are underway in the food-service industry. While order pickup and delivery isn't a new concept for many restaurants and grocery stores, many of these new interactions are facilitated and mediated through apps and websites like Grubhub and Instacart and performed by independent contractors. "Ghost restaurants" or "cloud kitchens," restaurants without a physical location for dining and that exist only as kitchens for the delivery of orders through online apps are another example of the ways in which trends in digitalization are shaping physical spaces.
Significant advanncements in network speed and connectivity laid the groundwork for the large scale shift to remote work. Understanding the full implication of this shift, along with other trends in digitalization, is vitally important for planners and cities in the coming years.
The healthcare industry is also undergoing changes due to ongoing digitalization. The COVID-19 pandemic led to significant increases in the number of patients engaging in virtual visits with doctors and other healthcare providers. Health-monitoring tools through smartphones and smartwatches are increasingly providing data that would previously have required in-person visits. These changes have the potential to profoundly impact overall healthcare access, though persistent gaps in broadband access, connectivity, and comfort with the use of these emerging tools may be a barrier to their wider use. Additionally, privacy and the appropriate use of the data are an ongoing concern for many people.
The mainstream engagement with online education during the COVID-19 pandemic was largely predated by significant digitalization trends such as online colleges, universities, "massive open online course" (MOOC) providers such as Coursera, and through popular tools like Khan Academy. Zoom classes are the latest, and largest scale development in the digitalization of education. There is potential for digital tools and technology to greatly expand access to high quality education by allowing students to seek out programs that aren't local. However, can community colleges and smaller programs compete with larger education providers with well-developed online programs? What are the equity issues concerning students for whom schools are not just places to learn but also critical sources of food, shelter, and safety? These challenges along with persistent gaps in access to technology and in broadband coverage are vital equity considerations as digitalization trends in education continue.
Digitalization has also changed how people interact with their social networks and how and where they engage in leisure activities. Some, as live concerts, were primarily rooted in physical spaces that have been retrofitted for digital consumption and participation, while others (such as online gaming) have developed over time almost entirely within digital and online spaces. Further, the massive growth of online social networks is one of the clearest examples of how advancements in computing power, storage, and connectivity can drive significant changes in how people live and socialize with others.
The trends in digitalization discussed pose significant implications for the built environment, our communities, and how we make plans for them. The following considerations and questions are an overview of some potential impacts upon the built environment for planners to consider:
- What is the role of the digitalization of work and schooling in driving changes to patterns of housing and development? Where will those working remotely full time choose to live? What kinds of homes might they prefer? Will location still matter?
- How might increasing options to work remotely impact transportation behavior and mobility needs? Will there be downstream impacts on how we use streets, sidewalks, and parking spaces; highway building; transit use and access; and other emerging sectors in transportation such as autonomous vehicles and micromobility?
- In locations reliant upon office work (larger downtowns, suburban office parks, edge cities, etc), how might significant reductions in on-site work impact the local economy and shape changes to the overall form and function of these places?
- What is the role of broadband infrastructure and access in determining areas of growth/decline?
- What are the major considerations in planning for both large and small scale fulfillment center operations? Are there citing and access issues? Will there be more housing demand in these areas?
- Given the potential for continued declines in traditional local retail, what sort of economic development strategies should communities pursue? What is the potential for large scale vacancies of places like shopping malls, shopping centers, and big box stores? What is to be done with all of that vacant land? What about downstream impacts on local tax revenues associated with these declines?
- How might the ongoing shift away from physical spaces and towards digital spaces reflect in the location of, access to, and demand for public open space?
The preceding questions for planners to consider are far from exhaustive. Rather, they are intended to provide a broad overview of the types of wide-ranging impacts driven by accelerating trends in digitalization. As discussed earlier, digitalization is not just a shift from the physical and analog to the digital. Rather, digitalization has the potential for driving a large-scale reconfiguration of how we use both the built and unbuilt environments. People will still need places to live, work, and play. It is up to planners to better understand just how these places will fit into a vision for the future that is equitable and accessible to all. The American Planning Association, in partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, will be exploring these planning-related questions in more depth and will be closely watching the trends in digitalization that are impacting everyday life and planning at large.
This research was developed in partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The Lincoln Institute runs the Consortium for Scenario Planning, which provides technical assistance, educational resources, and access to a network of fellow innovators.
Top Image: Chinnapong/iStock/gettyimages.com
About the authorS
Joseph DeAngelis, AICP, and Sagar Shah, PhD, AICP, are research managers at APA.