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  • Writer's pictureTammy Meehan

The SmartER City responses to COVID

No matter where you are in the world or what type of geography you live in (urban, rural, suburban), the COVID-19 pandemic has had huge impacts on daily lives. The disease has also placed immediate requirements and constraints on our government agencies. Many of these entities do not normally have the levers to pull quickly toward action, especially when needing to shift into action in new and innovative ways. Generally the lack of speed is due to government limitations on how they can use the public tax-payer funding (all put in place for the best of intentions). The phenomenal blessing that COVID has brought in a very short amount of time, is that governments are being forced into quick actions, something very much out of character and comfort for them. Cities and other government entities have been forced into get quickly creative in how they approach the pandemic in order to protect their citizens and react to the influx of new data about the disease. The SmartER Cities (The PLUM's new accronym: Smart Emergency Responding Cities) have used this COVID time to truly build up and work on their out of the box thinking that they otherwise weren't allowed.

Smarter Emergency Responding Cities = SmartER Cities

Up until COVID, Smart Cities have been defined as "cities that are using IoT sensors and technology to connect components across a city to derive data and improve the lives of citizens and visitors" (TechRepublic). Many people have generally paired Smart Cities with an image of cellular data and IoT type visuals floating around digitally connecting everyone and everything. I'd like to challenge the traditional image of a Smart City to becoming more of the innovative post-COVID SmartER City examples here.

But first, a quick review...


Pollution/Air quality/Congestion improvements

No one can argue that we've seen real benefits of shelter in place and work from home initiatives. The before and after pollution maps are hard to argue. Images of lock down hours of commuting now showing as wide open roads, seem to be a common share on social media as the limited number of commuters celebrate. Not surprising that fewer commuters = less traffic and less traffic equals better air quality and lower congestion. Great to see it in actual reality, as temporary as this may be.

Roadway safety

The numbers are in, and states are seeing fewer accidents thereby demonstrating that less traffic makes our roads safer (duh). New York recently shared that as of May 13th, the city had broken a record during COVID of 58 straight days without a pedestrian death. Safety is most certainly something to celebrate 🎉 but again, not a surprise that less traffic means fewer accidents and safer roads.

All of these benefits have forced cities to look at long-term planning to become a SmartER City. So, what can we expect from these SmartER Cities?

What to expect from our post-COVID SmartER Cities

SmartER usage of the 2-wheel vehicles 🚴

Citizens who have the choice of transportation options are opting, post-COVID, to avoid shared mobility and public transit, at least in the short term. They are even being asked to avoid it in Europe where the countries are stating that they can't guarantee social distancing in congested cities. I fully recognize that not everyone has the transportation options available to them given geography or financial considerations, but if they have the option, it's now noted that many are choosing and being asked to use their own personally owned "vehicles". Given the urban benefits of decreased pollution and the decreased trust in public transit, people are turning to their own two wheels i.e. personal bicycles. Cities are designing miles of streets for only bicycles and pedestrians. Demand is surging for bicycles, especially the e-bike sales increased rapidly as stores reopened in Europe (from a May 14 article by the Verge) According to World Economic Forum, Britain's government has announced a 2 billion-pound ($2.42 billion) funding package for "active travel" such as cycling and walking, with 250 million available immediately for local authorities to make changes to their roads with the hope of seeing 14 million people start to bike their commutes.

SmartER cities are latching onto the bicycle commuting option to help keep some of the benefits long-term as they are listed above... but increased bicycle traffic is also forcing these SmartER cities to quickly re-evaluate their urban planning and real estate usage.

SmartER urban planning and real estate usage 🌃

American cities have been built around cars but COVID could now (finally) change how our SmartER Cities look at the designs. Many urban planners have been pitching for years the ideas of a pedestrian centered city designs. Wider sidewalks and no car zones are now finally getting front and center attention in the SmartER City planning teams. On April 10th, Oakland, California revealed its Slow Streets initiative enabling safer walking and cycling for 74 miles of Oakland's roads. According to a May 26 article from New Republic, other cities swiftly followed, including San Francisco, Minneapolis (shout out to Minnesota!), New York, and Seattle, which called its program“Stay Healthy Streets”in a nod to the public health benefits of time spent outdoors. Even smaller municipalities, such as the Boston suburb of Brookline, quickly widened sidewalks and added bike lanes, using temporary materials and markings to ease residents’ movement.

On a slightly different land usage note, according to a Xinhua News Agency article from May 18, China, recognizing the emphasis on contactless delivery post-COVID, has continued to push forward with self driving vehicle technologies by setting aside lanes on expressways and opening fleets of robotaxi's into urban areas. Experts say China’s “new infrastructure” plan has ushered in unprecedented opportunities to fast-track driverless vehicles.

SmartER Transit, social distancing, contactless delivery 🧍🏻‍♀️- 😷 -🧍🏽‍♂️

Public transit is under scrutiny. Some have even questioned if it will survive post-COVID. Some experts are challenging cities to use this time to re-evaluate and move into a more equitable transportation system. One thing is for certain, it is very difficult to practice social distancing on our public transit systems today. This inherent risk is forcing our SmartER Cities to react with much more innovative options like mentioned above in China, ex: fast tracking the driverless vehicles. Other current shared transit options are completely re-evaluating how they could offer safe, clean and socially distanced solutions for their ridership. Technology companies like those providing in-vehicle cleaning materials and cleaning systems are getting additional phone calls these days while transit agencies are trying to creatively solve this cleaning and social distancing problem. But for now public transit sits in a bit of limbo.

Contactless delivery has picked up steam where goods, supplies and even medical related transportation can be provided without risking human interaction in the process. Companies like Nuro, who has already received over $1 billion dollars in funding, have been able to take advantage of the social distance requirements and contactless delivery interest to deploy pilots in various cities. Nuro and CVS announced on May 28th that Nuro vehicles will provide contactless prescription delivery service in a pilot program in Houston. Per the May 27 WSJ article, Amazon and Zoox are reportedly in talks over a potential acquisition which Fortune's May 28th article claims "would help the online retailing giant expand its burgeoning logistics-and-delivery network", bringing Amazon into the self driving car tech industry. Contactless delivery options such as those provided by self driving car technologies now have the eyes and ears of City planners to help keep their citizen safe.

SmartER Data, testing and data privacy strategies 🛡

The question remains for Cities to answer, what will it cost to provide safety from a pandemic for residents and visitors. Costs may not just be financial. Costs could be in the standardization of data privacy, including the security of the data. Start-up companies almost immediately starting creating tracking software for users, claiming to be able to track locations of those with COVID. Healthcare data, a highly regulated industry, has started to get questioned in how important it might be to innovate and help protect the broader population. This paper, on Urban and Regional Innovation Research, highlights the importance of the adoption of universal standards for data sharing. "It argues that the lack of standardization between smart city technology suppliers can lead and is leading to non-communication between cities and data platforms. The inter-combination of data collected through healthcare system and smart cities applications could prove vital in front of pandemics."

So... Many questions remain regarding data. Essential but partially conflicting needs have risen to the forefront for the SmartER Cities to discuss : security and freedom, privacy and access to data. As seen in the April 17th article by ScienceX, SmartER Cities like Valencia, Spain are implementing a Big Data program with support from UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) agency "which analyzes aggregated and anonymized data from the telecom companies and looks for patterns in people's mobility and the impact that they have on the spread of the virus. [They] are also developing artificial intelligence (AI) tools that could explain the people's movement behaviors and identify places where they tend to converge too much. With all this, [they] will be able to design dashboards with estimations about citizen mobility and build epidemiological models of the virus." SmartER Cities will come up with innovative ways to protect and standardize the data while leveraging the benefits that the data can provide in the overall system.

SmartER Flexing capacity of our Healthcare systems 🏥

In order to protect the residents, cities need to know that a pandemic (or any other future emergency situation) won't overwhelm their healthcare systems. Some SmartER Cities are taking creative actions to build and create flexibility in their healthcare systems. Many times this calls for increased collaboration between hospitals, local governments and private companies. According to a May 20th article in AZBigMedia, in Arizona, a closed hospital, St. Luke’s Medical Center in Phoenix, was activated and utilized by the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure there were enough beds to meet the growing demand.

Valley architects sprung into action, as well, to help local facilities make the best use of their space. The innovative responses to this crisis are inspiring – from rapid transformation of hotels and schools to patient care areas and the fast construction of mobile units using shipping containers. This crisis is permeating pre-existing silos because everyone is being impacted.

SmartER Cities are working together between healthcare, public and private sectors to create a system that is capable of flexing toward keep all of their residents and workers safe.

The PLUM's final thoughts 💭 🤔

No question that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought destruction, emotional strains and HUGE financial impacts. If anything positive can be said of it, finally, ideas and designs that otherwise weren't considered in city planning, are now finally getting an opportunity to educate and even implement (quickly) so we can come out the other end of the pandemic in a better place. I believe we'll see a world that is B.C. (Before COVID) and A.C. (After COVID). The SmartER Cities will come out of the COVID much much stronger and with the more innovative solutions that will offer a better life for their citizens B.C.

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