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Smart and Resilient Cities in a COVID World

By Dr Amy Hochadel

The global COVID pandemic has changed everything about how cities operate in ways not previously thought possible.

Two key themes have strongly pervaded the learnings around smart and resilient cities as we begin to analyse the short-term impact in city systems and services – Agility and Digitalisation.  In addition, one big opportunity has presented itself around our shared global goal and responsibility towards achieving Net Zero.

The early lessons learned from COVID and the opportunity before us can help inform smart and resilient cities – two issue areas that must now be addressed hand-in-hand if we hope to have both economically successful and healthy cities moving forward.

Agile Cities

Inevitably we have seen some organisations, both in the private and public sectors, that have fared better than others during these testing times. There is no doubt that academics and consultancies will study the drivers of differentiated performance for years to come but one capability that will certainly be near the top of the list is agility.

In essence – organisations and cities with high levels of pre-existing agility were able to respond better and faster not only to the initial crisis but then to best leverage the changing situation as a phased return to ‘the new normal’. Cities that pre-COVID, were open to new ways of working, new innovations, testing digital methods and cultivating a dynamic and integrated innovation ecosystem exhibited a higher level of resilience during the crisis.

The most obvious example of this is, as clearly referenced in Smart Dubai’s Covid-19: City Experience Resilience and Impact Report, relates to remote working.  Many organisations have found ways to transition roles to remote working that would previously have been seen as amongst the most challenging. The difference between organisations that were able to do this quickly and easily compared to those that have laboured and encountered costly barriers is the agility built into their systems and processes.

A good example from London, is from a local surgery that had been testing a new secure video stream innovation for remotely seeing patients.  When COVID hit, many of the GP staff were able to immediately begin triage of patients via video stream because the surgery was set up for this as they had recently trialed a new innovation in video consultations for certain patient groups.  Because of their openness to testing new digital innovations, the technology and processes were ready to scale up quickly in the crisis.

We also know of other business-related examples – like restaurants with websites or pre-existing affiliations with delivery companies that were able to almost immediately offer alternatives to on-site dining therefore maintaining a limited but crucial revenue stream.  Similarly, companies like Amazon, who have long utilized delivery staff on flexible hours to allow for management of spikes in demand, were able to maintain a level of service far more in keeping with BAU than would otherwise have been possible.

So what does flexibility mean for cities and city services – how can they have increased resiliency when a crisis arises? What allowed for a level of increased agility?

Digital Cities

Agility in city systems during the COVID crisis has been almost completely underpinned by digitalisation. Previous to COVID many cities around the globe were embarking on digitalisation journeys for city systems and services as part of their ‘smart upgrades’ – usually a small part of the city budget reserved for innovation and something easily decreased or delayed when other major issues arise.

But we now know that digitalisation is ‘make-or-break’ for cities in the new COVID world. As cities learn to cope with a new reality moving forward which will inevitably involve ongoing or recurrent restrictions to movement, digitalisation will be the foundation for city services that will determine if a city economy and the related public health can bounce back and be relevant in a COVID world.

Cities that have made progress on digitalisation will fare better than those who haven’t made this a priority and cities that are currently on the digitalisation journey will need to fund and fast track digitalisation of city services and systems if they hope to survive.

So, what does digitalisation do for cities and services? Firstly, digitalisation allows for a far deeper understanding of the state of play of the city’s operations. Without this level of real-time information, cities cannot hope to build effective consistent service provision, let alone a crisis response plan. Secondly, enabling citizens, collaborators and other stakeholders to access essential information remotely has become absolutely critical.  Without this, any level of continued customer service would be virtually impossible, let alone flexible working.

The tools listed in Smart Dubai’s report support this goal and the ability of some of those organisations surveyed to accelerate digitalisation (section 4.3.10) puts them in an excellent position moving forwards.

Lastly, for the full value of digitalisation and the associated data to be realised it needs to be shared, not just accessed, with relevant stakeholders. Clearly some data is confidential or commercially sensitive, but wherever possible it should be shared. This allows for data to be integrated across silos and for the construction of more accurate and more valuable insights at the city systems level.

Most importantly digitalisation allows innovators to be able to ‘bolt on’ urban innovation solutions far faster than most governments can – but only if digitalisation is accelerated, allows remote real time monitoring of systems and then allows appropriate access of data for innovators to work their magic.

Technologies like the UAE pass, streamlined the switch to digital operations demonstrating the importance of digitalisation of city services to not just improve efficiently but to create a more resilient city. This combined with Dubai’s pre-existing paperless strategy has positioned Dubai well to weather the current storm in the best way possible and is a lesson for cities around the world.

It is easy to suggest that nobody could have predicted the current pandemic, but relatively recent years have seen other examples of coronavirus outbreaks, bird flu and swine flu. It seems that majority of companies and cities treated them as isolated incidents unlikely to ever occur again and certainly nothing to seriously worry about. We simply cannot afford to make the same mistake again.

The role of innovation agencies like Smart Dubai and Connected Places Catapult is to provide leaders with well thought through frameworks and the practical toolkits that help them use foresight to become smarter and more resilient.

Net Zero Cities

COVID 19 has been described as the greatest ever reset of capitalism, a unique opportunity to restart and do things differently. It is imperative we take advantage of this to make things better.  This means making a step change in how we achieve environmental targets and decarbonize our economies for both the health of our citizens as well as our economies.

In many ways this economic reset has come at the right time. Now, perhaps for the first time, we have viable alternatives to carbon intensive technologies. We can electrify transport using electric cars, e-scooters and drones. We can use smart building management to improve energy usage in homes and offices and coupled with increasingly clean construction techniques, leading to a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions across full lifecycles of the built environment. Again, we cannot afford to miss this opportunity.  Put simply, if we do not decarbonize the economies now, we never will.

Finally, it is absolutely critical that in this drive towards a more digital future state and hopefully a smarter and resilient city – we do not lose our human centered focus. All of our new services and activities need to keep our people at the center and ensure human centered design.  Agility, digitalisation and Net Zero are all in pursuit of creating healthy happy citizens in smart, resilient cities.

Dr Amy Hochadel, Director of Global Business at Connected Places Catapult is an expert in global cities working with local leaders, entrepreneurs, city and national governments around the world, including the Gulf states, India, Asia, Africa, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the Unites States.  She is the author of Local Leadership in a Global Era: Policy and Behaviour Change in Cities (2017, Palgrave Macmillan), exploring the changing role local leaders are playing in addressing local challenges through global engagement.

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