The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically altered how people live, work, and interact with one another. Nowhere is this more evident than in cities, whose future functions and roles in our lives seem far less clear following the transformation that has taken place over the past year.

For a forecast on what's to come, Inc. editor-at-large Kimberly Weisul sat down with two entrepreneurs with extensive expertise in urban design and development: Jessica O. Matthews, the founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, a New York City-based sustainable infrastructure company; and Wanona Satcher, the founder and CEO of Mākhers Studio, an Atlanta-based manufacturing studio and urban design firm. The group discussed the future of cities at the 2021 Inc. Vision Summit, a virtual event, on March 24. Here are two of the solutions they're championing.

Data will be used to build more efficient infrastructure

Imagine if buildings, sidewalks, or streets could tell you what's going on around them. Well, in a way they can. Data collected from physical infrastructure can be used for smarter, more efficient energy solutions, Matthews said. Her company, for instance, uses special pavement--equipped with compact single-board computers and power cables embedded in a fiber-reinforced polymer--to help turn sidewalks into data centers. Among other functions, information from the sidewalks can alert community managers when the concrete is broken to help improve pedestrian safety. The material also makes implementing other new technologies, such as laying down fiber for internet, more convenient.

"It's easier. It's faster. You don't have to worry about digging ever again," said Matthews.

Data can also help with grid resiliency, she added, so instead of turning off power entirely during emergencies, you can determine where it should and should not be flowing. This will ultimately result in lower costs and shorter repair times. 

Small spaces can offer big opportunities

As the populations of cities grow, you'd think there'll be less available land for building and advancing communities. Not necessarily, Satcher said. Her company uses sustainable materials like shipping containers to build affordable housing, pop-up medical clinics, and community spaces. The concept is that any urban space, like a parking lot, can be transformed by these modular plans and "create the capacity and efficacy that you need to build mixed-use developments and in half the time and at half the cost."

Satcher noted that these spaces can be used as "factories in a box" where local tradespeople can build unique spaces tailored to a specific community. They'll provide jobs, workforce training, and the opportunity to redefine local supply chains.

"We can touch on not just small manufacturing, on-demand opportunities, but also buildings and space solutions that are affordably built, that are sustainable, that are reusing existing materials," Satcher said. "The goal is to create an equitable supply chain, where marginalized communities aren't just consumers but are producers as well, from the raw material to the end product."