Future skills for future cities

Smart cities continue to proliferate around the globe as the solution to a more efficient way of life. They are the work of multi-fold layers of technology woven together to create futuristic, urban places to live, work, and visit. When on display, we see their impact on different dimensions of human life; including healthcare, agriculture, transportation, and tourism. What we do not see, however, is the work of individuals behind the curtain to create the final product. As more countries move toward adopting the smart city framework, ICT-based skills are surging in demand. Yet, one area that remains underexplored in this regard is the potential smart cities hold in generating new jobs, building new skills, and unraveling new economic opportunities. 

In other words, becoming a smart city leads to spillover effects related to job growth. At the national level, this happens through new, digitised ways of delivering public services, which in turn provide an opportunity for entrepreneurs to deliver digital innovation solutions that meet community needs. It also utilises the talent of tech-savvy youth who typically struggle with limited opportunities and staggering unemployment, especially in regions like MENA. 

Since smart cities infuse digital intelligence, they function more efficiently, thereby becoming more productive places to do business. Thus, the dissemination of information technology in cities has given rise to a new workforce reality; i.e. jobs within the “gig economy”, specifically on-demand work. This type of work entails flexible working hours composed of a different routine every day. For some workers, this is a perfect recipe for work-life balance, creating new and innovative experiences each day. Specifically in the aftermath of COVID-19, on-demand jobs are expected to further consolidate the future of work. Since this type of work is predominantly an urban phenomenon, smart cities have undoubtedly the most relevant mesh to regulate gig economy work. 

However, as smart cities and their accompanying ICT-based jobs continue to gain a foothold, the skills that workers must develop to remain competitive are being disrupted. In order to offset any negative implications, and prevent skills obsolescence, it is critical for policy measures to take into account place-specific sectoral compositions and skill levels in the workforce, and accordingly reskill workers for jobs of the future. While pioneering cities are well-equipped to leverage digital innovation, other cities may fall behind due to the lack of adequate policy measures. Therefore, jobs created under the framework of smart cities must go hand in hand with strengthened policy in order to inform future approaches to economic development and help workers build skills for the new world of work.

All in all, smart cities must not be underestimated in their potential as strategic job drivers. The startup and entrepreneurship scene must be further cultivated in order to help smart cities achieve their objectives as well as aid in the “smartification” of traditional cities. Firms in smart cities must ensure that their workers possess the needed skill-literacy to stand resilient against future disruptions that may occur as a result of new modalities of work. Finally, policies that regulate emerging fields of work must be constructed as new forms of work do not follow the traditional labour model upon which such laws were instituted.