The Case for Smart Cities: Can They Be Pandemic Resilient?

Four technology experts weigh in on what makes a smart city implementation successful, where they fit in a global environment, and how we can employ smart city technologies to help address crisis situations.


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Image credity: Intel "A Smart Cities and Transportation Technology Response Guide"


The use of technology, specifically IoT technologies, is being discussed as a way to help us better prepare for future pandemics. More immediately, IoT technologies are part of most multi-pronged approaches to rolling back the current shelter-in-place restrictions we have adapted to. In addition to testing, for example, medical experts note that contact tracing is critical to containing the COVID-19 infection.

To help prevent—or at least warn of—another pandemic, experts are looking at how IoT technologies can be deployed on a global level. Much of that discussion centers around building smart cities. Trying to nail down a singular definition of a smart city is difficult, but some common themes emerge from experts in the field along with some suggestions for pandemic-related IoT uses.

Improve Infrastructure

The ultimate goal of a smart city is to enhance the lives of its citizens. “Smart cities are those that are using technology to improve the benefits of living in a city and to reduce the negative…costs of living in a city,” says Christos Cabolis, chief economist and head of operations at the IMD World Competitiveness Center.

Successful technologies emerge as cities monitor the concerns of their constituents. After studying 16 cities around the world, IMD World found varied approaches to implementing smart city initiatives. Less developed areas deploy technology from the top down, and more advanced areas adopt smart city technology as a result of grassroots efforts. The latter are more common, Cabolis says.

“Most initiatives are from the bottom up. They include much more active citizen groups, and they bring up the issues that they would like to find solutions to,” Cabolis says. “We found that the challenges are multiple, but the interesting common ground is that all of them are actually centered in sustainability. Sustainability is the essence of what smart cities are.”

Overcome Urban Challenges

Smart technology provides a way for cities to address the significant challenges they are facing during the pandemic and beyond. IoT technologies already are being deployed to help with crowd management, traffic management, sustainability, and environmental monitoring. They can also be used in response to issues of inclusion, societal equity, inefficiency, or transportation, says Dr. Jonathan Reichental, author of Smart Cities for Dummies and CEO of Human Future, a global business and technology education, advisory, and investment firm. 

In times of a pandemic or other health crisis, smart technologies can identify infectious hot spots and travel patterns of infected users. However, no amount of technology will prevent a pandemic. “I’m afraid it is just not possible to be a city and be pandemic-proof,” says Leonie van den Beuken, program director of the Amsterdam Smart City initiative in the Netherlands. Instead, she suggests we should aim to be “pandemic resilient” and use technology to bring vibrancy back to the cities when lockdowns are scaled back.

Establishing technology and logistical systems now will help us do that, she says. “How could tracing apps help us to get a faster understanding of who is sick and who might be at risk. How can crowd management be put in place properly, so people can know where it’s too busy to go and where it is safe to go. How could we have--cities--rethink their mobility to get cars off the street and open the streets to cyclists?”

Create Smart Societies

It’s important to remember that smart cities aren’t just cities, van den Beuken says. Having a single city employ technology is a start, but that city is connected to a greater region, and the technology should incorporate the needs of the region. “Technology needs to be smart, but it also needs to be wise. It has to be adaptive to the region and the needs of that place and be changeable,” she says

It also needs to be more pervasive to be effective long-term. “We mustn’t forget that not all cities can adopt technology at the same rhythm,” says Jeremy Prince, president of IoT service provider SigFox. 

Sigfox offers a software-based communications solution, where all the network and computing complexity is managed in the cloud, rather than on the devices. The goal of that solution is to drastically reduce energy consumption and costs of connected devices.“We can’t only have wealthy cities going forward, leaving the other cities in the dust. We all have to go together,” adds Prince.

As we look at technology today, we can evaluate how to improve it for the future, pandemic or not. In China, robots were employed to convey stay-at-home orders, and drones were used to transport equipment. That reduced the number of people on the streets and, potentially, the spread of infection. When offices and schools were shuttered, we taxed our internet resources to an unprecedented threshold. That underscores the importance of ensuring our networks are resilient and that they have enough bandwidth in times of crisis, Prince says.

While technologies are useful, even life changing, they have to be implemented with care, not only to protect privacy and autonomy. “We have to keep in mind that what we put in place, the remedy, must not be worse than what we are trying to cure,” Prince says. “We’ve got to be careful that when we deploy hundreds of thousands of sensors, we make sure that they aren’t also going to bring a lot of pollution.”

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