The pandemic’s effects on smart cities
Published 6 January 2022 by Quitterie d’Harcourt
Smart cities have been given all sorts of definitions. Generally, they are defined as holistic urban systems that have various technological systems installed at their citizens’ disposal to provide new services (e.g., healthcare, transportation, commerce) to their users and improve the efficiency of public services (Chin, 2015). Smart cities have been thriving all over the world because of urbanisation and digitalisation being the key catalysts for their emergence (Müller, 2021). But, given the impact COVID-19 has had on our urban surroundings, one would wonder: how has the pandemic affected urbanisation and digitalisation, consequently impacting the development of smart cities?
To begin with, what are some of the challenges our cities are facing?
COVID-19, which appeared in December of 2019, brought to light a slew of worldwide issues. These principally include population expansion, inadequate patient circulation in hospitals, medical personnel shortages, long hospital visits, and rising re-admission numbers (Burton, 2020). To make things worse, these challenges are exacerbated by increasing concerns of global warming, resource scarcity, and increased longevity. They have demonstrated the importance of developing more effective, reliable, and connected health care systems. Additionally, these challenges have highlighted the need for initiatives to balance economic recovery with sustainable development, with a focus on green urban infrastructure and renewable energy (OECD, 2020).
So, how has digitalisation been affected?
There is a widespread agreement among academics, designers, and government figures that technological research and development should be stimulated in favour of focusing more on constructing cities that are inherently safer and healthier. Accessibility to improved air quality and healthcare have generally been the focus. However smart cities have become increasingly efficient, tackling all sorts of issues using new technological innovations such as “artificial intelligence, 5G, and smart cameras, as well as innovative strategies and design” (Burton, 2020).
For instance, sensors, which are widely used in smart cities, detect things including climate, moisture in the air, irritants, pollutants, and much more. All sorts of sensors exist, with some spotting physical properties, while others detecting human senses (OMRON Corporation, 2021). Further information about the different types of sensors that exist can be found here. The data gathered from sensors can then offer insight for systems to comprehend a population’s current condition (Burton, 2020). Using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, the information collected enables municipal agencies to respond quickly to critical health requirements and adopt strategies to potentially dangerous events. Examining information from smart innovations can subsequently help people live better and healthier lives.
Many of these digital tools that were developed before the pandemic have been adapted to the current health crisis, enabling for new opportunities of digital advancements. In Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, for instance, an Urban Observatory captures and archives information about vehicle congestion, pedestrian mobility, and pollution levels (Sharifi & Khavarian-Garmsir, 2020). During the pandemic, the live data streams of this system were reconfigured to create a monitoring display that notified city officials of shifts in social habits, enabling them to take action when needed. For example, the Urban Observatory helped to quickly identify unusual differences in movement and behavioural habits that needed to be addressed (James et al., 2020).
From drones distributing medical and commercial necessities to allow social distancing, to using artificial intelligence to provide patients with treatment, smart and digital technologies have proven how effectively, and rapidly pandemic-related challenges can be addressed.
But what about urbanisation?
Before the pandemic, the population of cities around the world was steadily expanding. On a world basis, urban residents currently exceed the rural population. However, the pandemic seems to have destabilised urbanisation.
Since the arrival of COVID-19, cities have generally experienced more mortality than their rural counterparts due to their size, “though this may not be linked to density” as stated by Byrne (2021). In addition to that, many people found they did not need to be physically close to their workplace as they have been told to work remotely. As a result, a lot of urban residents have been migrating to the outskirts of their cities, or to more rural areas, to find a better standard of living, particularly during the series of lockdowns governments have been introducing.
The effects the pandemic has had on cities, therefore, intensified anti-urbanisation patterns. With fewer people using public transport systems, and fewer people desiring commercial and business spaces in cities, our city centres are transforming. At the same time, in many rural neighbourhoods, leasing capacity is tightening, housing costs are increasing, and vehicle congestion is developing.
Furthermore, many cities draw tourists from all over the globe. This is essentially why numerous European cities have been struggling during the peaks of COVID-19 outbreak, as they hugely depend on tourism to keep their economies afloat (Jha, 2020). According to a worldwide study, the top ten nations with the greatest proportion of COVID-19 cases are those of the most densely populated. (Jha, 2020)
In the end, it appears that the pandemic has presented an occasion to evaluate the capabilities of smart technologies to address important social and economic concerns. Digitalisation has proven itself as a game-changer during this pandemic, with governments striving to make their cities and town more digital by introducing smart systems. The pandemic has therefore given smart city growth a push, as seen by the rising use of telecommuting, telemedicine, monitoring devices, and e-commerce (Kunzmann, 2020, as cited in Sharifi & Khavarian-Garmsir, 2020, pp.8). Urbanisation, on the other hand, seems to have suffered a setback during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many experts believe that this setback will not last (Müller, 2021). Due to the popularisation of digitalisation and the opportunities it offers to cities, the urbanisation movement is projected to recover.
While COVID-19 has altered our perceptions of cities, smart cities have established that they have the tools to become more resilient, paving the way for new possibilities.
– Burton, J. (2020) Smart Cities Solving Today’s Healthcare Challenges. Available at: https://readwrite.com/2020/03/06/smart-cities-solving-todays-healthcare-challenges/ (accessed 04th January 2022).
– Byrne, J. (2021) COVID has disrupted our big cities, and regional planning has to catch up fast. Available at: https://theconversation.com/covid-has-disrupted-our-big-cities-and-regional-planning-has-to-catch-up-fast-139969 (accessed 03rd January 2022).
– Chin, H.-C. (2015) “Smart, Sustainable, and Safe Urban Transportation Systems”, in Vesco, A. & Ferrerro, F. (ed.) Handbook of Research on Social, Economic, and Environmental Sustainability in the Development of Smart Cities. Hershey: IGI Global, pp.239-265.
– James, P., Das, R. & Jalosinska, A. (2020) Smart cities and a data-driven response to COVID-19. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2043820620934211 (accessed 04th January 2022).
– Jha, R. (2020) Urbanisation of pandemic. Available at: https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/urbanisation-pandemics-65512/ (accessed 03rd January 2022).
– Müller, S. (2021) The Covid Effect: how the pandemic is changing smart cities. Available at: https://www.umlaut.com/en/stories/the-covid-effect-how-the-pandemic-is-changing-smart-cities (accessed 03rd January 2022).
– OECD (2020) Cities Policy Responses. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/cities-policy-responses-fd1053ff/ (accessed 04th January 2022).
– OMRON Corporation (2021) What is IOT? Available at: https://components.omron.com/us-en/solutions/iot (accessed 03rd January 2022).
– Sharifi, A. & Khavarian-Garmsir (2020) The COVID-19 pandemic: Impacts on cities and major lessons for urban planning, design, and management. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp.8-12.