For many cities worldwide, the last few weeks and months have been extra-ordinary in so many ways, that managing them under lockdown restrictions must have felt like corporate crisis management at its best/worst, depending on perspective. There is one important difference, though. With the COVID-19 pandemic, even some of the world’s most experienced business players must have felt caught off-guard. Many of them have since performed a serious update to their modus operandi, and some (like event organisers) have re-designed their day-to-day operations almost from scratch, in ways that had previously seemed right next to impossible.

Given that companies are generally believed to be far more agile, resilient and flexible than public administration, it’s probably safe to assume that the real impact of the 2020 pandemic on cities, municipal budgets and newly-emerging urban trends is yet to be seen. The next few months will have accelerated some of the transformative processes that, without the pandemic, would have taken years, if not decades, to become reality. The changes on the horizon will likely make many a city take their development goals and strategic long-term visions back to the drawing board.

The Great Leveller It Is Absolutely Not!

During a recent virtual conference I emceed with participants calling in from all over the world, a guest speaker from Nigeria commented on the general impact of the pandemic with the following words: As always, the rich will become richer and the poor will become poorer.

For some industries, the impact of the covid-19 mandatory lockdowns was instantaneous and all-encompassing. Imagine a conference centre, for example, where travelling the distance from ‚We are fully booked till 2025 and couldn’t be happier about it’ to ‚We’re completely closed and have no clue when and how it will be possible for us to reopen’ was a matter of days, if not hours. This included great many cultural institutions, theatres, museums, festivals, concerts and cinemas. For a lot of others, technical and creative innovation seems to be the only possible way towards long-term survival.

Even schools and universities worldwide were quick to move classes and lectures online, adopt new tools and make everyone adjust, while event organizers across the spectrum rushed to experiment in the land of the virtual, reassessing what it takes to successfully migrate from one habitat to another as they went along. Needless to say, perhaps, those who thought the only difference between an online conference, class or a lecture and a real-life one would essentially boil down to the word digital or virtual in front were in for a painful lesson.

The Ghost Towns of Overtourism

Who would have thought, by the end of 2019, that in less than six months, even the international icons of overtourism would turn into ghost towns of their former selves. Today, in the wake of the pandemic, many of those cities are surely taking a deep breath as they prepare to enter the new era of tourism and travel, as and when (or ‚if’, as some prefer to see things) it (re)starts in earnest. However, a leap from ‚too many tourists’ to ‚almost none at all’ is a huge one to make, even for a wealthy historical city like Venice, both mentally and in purely economic terms. And so, it’s hardly surprising that many of those who complained about the never-ending rivers of tourists swarming all over their beloved cities find themselves in a somewhat sentimental mood these days, hoping for at least half of them to come back as soon as possible.

 

Kraków (UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978)

The photo on the left was taken on 17 April 2020, in Kraków, right in the middle of the pandemic. The one to the right (the same street) was taken only 2 days ago, after a large number of restrictions have already been lifted by the Polish government. To be perfectly fair, yes, the one on the right was taken on a Saturday afternoon, on a warm, sunny day. Those of you who have been to Kraków’s Main Market Square know all too well, however, that despite its impressive size, to see Kraków’s Rynek Główny this empty is almost impossible during the day, even when it’s raining cats and dogs.

I have spent the last few years watching Kraków from up close, closer than ever, perhaps, analyzing the many variables of Kraków’s success and failure as an international tourist destination, an international festival centre, and, last but not least, a vibrant global hub for fin-tech, IT and global business services. One of the city’s biggest success stories is its event industry, ranging from mesmerizing cultural events, attracting the world’s best creators and performers (like the iconic Film Music Festival, already in its 13th edition) all the way to huge industry conferences and fairs. In the last 5 years alone, Kraków hosted two major UNESCO conferences and, last year in June, the 15th World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, hailed by many as one of the very best (if not the best) in the entire history of the organization. In addition to events organized by global corporations and industry leaders, Kraków has also developed its own unique formats, such as the Open Eyes Economy Summit, whose ambitions revolve around industry 4.0, circular economy, tech innovations and climate change.

Here Comes the New Normal

Looking at Krakow’s reinforced enthusiasm for addressing some of the big questions of sustainable urban development as well changes already on the horizon has been both tremendously instructive and eye-opening in a lot of ways. While many will see the period of the pandemic lockdowns and restrictions as fire-quenching and immediate problem-solving above all else, I strongly believe it’s really important to go a step further and put at least some of the questions listed below to debate:

  1. How do you measure resilience and sustainability under ‚the new normal’ and what can you do to improve it long term?
  2. Do you hope for exactly the same type of tourism to come back after the dust has settled? If the answer is „NO”, what are you doing to change it and why is it already almost too late to start thinking about it?
  3. What makes you truly unique as a city (on both national and international scale) and what do you do to strengthen this aspect of your city’s core identity?
  4. When was the last time you tried to attract a very specific, new industry to your city (say, a film production by an Oscar-winning director or a conference that attracts hundreds of thousands online) and how did you go about it?
  5. How does your city communicate (in English) to the outside world? What are the most important channels used and what do you do to aggregate, consolidate and prioritize (all of) your city’s English-speaking content?

These are only a few of the many important questions that need to be reviewed strategically by many an international destination if they truly wish to look back at the 2020 pandemic one day and say: it made us truly re-evaluate our priorities and revisit some of the most fundamental questions, like: Why do we do what we do? and What it is that we want to be associated with in the future, both domestically and abroad?