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How can COVID-19 make cities smarter?

December 15, 2020

By Richard Baker

A look at 6 key smart city building blocks to help shape our future

Even before the spread of COVID-19, our reliance on technology to complete everyday tasks was becoming more ingrained in our lives. But stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines quickly ramped up the smart cities and technology evolution in ways we couldn’t have guessed. How many of us had hosted Zoom family meetups before this pandemic? Did you DoorDash? How about getting groceries delivered?

While not all these changes will persist beyond the pandemic, we’ve seen many benefits and efficiencies. To best understand these benefits and how to scale them over the long term, we need to look at the six major building blocks of a smart city—people, environment, mobility, livability, government, and economics. By thinking about what we can do now to make the most of the changes we’ve seen, we can develop them with more thought and intent. 

Online ordering and delivery services can lead to jobs, enhance quality of life, and reduce individual car trips.

1. People: Going digital

The quick switch to a more digital world—ordering groceries, video conference calls, working and schooling from home—didn’t come without some challenges. But most of us quickly adapted—and are better for it.

It’s not surprising that online shopping and food delivery spiked during stay-at-home orders. But the sudden surge in demand revealed supply chains that were unprepared. Other issues, such as shortages due to stockpiling, longer waits for packaging and shipping, and software glitches during peak hours deepened issues. Several months into the pandemic, businesses have adjusted and are using technology to make better decisions. A McKinsey & Company survey indicates that many companies have accelerated the digital process by three to four years.

Online ordering and delivery services aren’t just useful in a pandemic. Growing the service can lead to jobs, enhance quality of life, and reduce individual car trips. Better data collection and sharing would make these services more efficient—and more affordable and accessible. Trend forecasting could help predict demand surges, and integration could identify shortages and overages.

Personally, going digital has greatly enhanced my work/life balance. Before the pandemic, I was commuting more than an hour each way. Now I have a home gym, which I can use in place of that commute time. As we neared Halloween, my family went and got pumpkins during my lunch hour. Our new personal flexibility will greatly impact transportation—and other systems—as we emerge from COVID-19.

Those are big changes brought on by a more digitally focused workday. For many people, the changes are creating better quality time.

Retrofitting buildings now will not only save energy in the short term but provide building owners with systems that can operate more flexibly as behaviors change.

2. Environment: What can we learn from empty buildings

Today’s empty buildings present us with another opportunity. Now is the time to start retrofitting our offices, shops, and more to realize the benefits of smart buildings. In many cases, our building systems are outdated, which means as they sit vacant or partially occupied, they’re using more energy and resources than needed. The stay-at-home orders also have shown that many workers can operate remotely. And for many businesses, that will continue for months—or permanently, in the case of some.

Retrofitting buildings now will not only save energy in the short term but provide building owners with systems that can operate more flexibly as behaviors change. Installing occupancy sensors allows a building owner to quickly adjust to the new normal. Once installed, these systems can shut down the heating/cooling to floors or suites individually, rather than a single “on/off switch” for the entire building. These smarter buildings will react more efficiently as certain businesses come back online.

3. Mobility: Now is the time to advance our use of autonomous vehicles

With offices, parking lots, and other infrastructure vacant or underutilized, we have a perfect opportunity to test technology that could improve our social distancing options in a future pandemic: Autonomous vehicles (AVs). Deployment of AVs can provide services like delivery and rideshare while eliminating contact with drivers.

Success will require input from both private and public sectors. From state and local governments, it’s critical to have a regulatory environment that allows for testing and deployment under current conditions. Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority is one agency leading the way, creating a code of practice for implementing AVs on existing roadways.

From the private sector, we need the resources to respond and ramp up testing and perfecting this technology so that it’s prepared to serve our cities.

Telemedicine has grown significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. For greater success, integrating biometrics from smart devices will make telemedicine a go-to option.

4. Livability: Skipping the doctor’s office and other daily engagements

Telemedicine (or telehealth) isn’t new. But in our COVID world, its popularity has soared. The convenience is astounding, especially when considering the amount of time a typical doctor’s visit might consume—driving to the medical center, waiting in the waiting room, waiting in the exam room, talking to a doctor, any follow-up necessities, and then a drive home—often two hours or more. For non-emergent issues, receiving a video call, chatting about your needs, and returning to your day is much easier.

While telemedicine has great potential, it needs additional support to truly transform how we “visit” the doctor. For example, integrating biometrics from smart devices—or creating new portable devices—that allow healthcare professionals to collect data during the visit (or have it submitted beforehand) are critical to making telemedicine the go-to option.

“Livability” isn’t just about better trips to the doctor. It’s also about knowing when and where your favorite food truck is serving pulled pork, cupcakes, or tacos. Before the pandemic, my hometown didn’t have a food truck scene. That’s changed—all aided by a new phone app that tells customers where to look for their favorite truck. A new app may not seem like much, but it’s one small change to make cities smarter—even mine.

5. Government: Making the internet available for all

One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned in the era of COVID-19 is the importance of internet infrastructure. From telecommuting and online schooling to using cellular data to track the movement of infected individuals and supplies, fast and reliable internet is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Now is the time to address gaps in coverage, boost bandwidth and speed, create affordable options, and work to bridge the digital divide.

There are many ways to enhance connectivity. Over 750 communities in the US have built some form of municipal internet service provider (ISP), touting benefits such as affordable rates, faster speeds, and access in underserved areas. One excellent example is Chattanooga, Tennessee, where lightning-fast service spurred the creation of an “innovation district” and attracted companies like Amazon, OpenTable, and Volkswagen to open and expand operations.

But the investment by cities can be steep. That is leading some to turn to public-private partnerships with traditional ISPs or cellular service companies to solve the challenge.

The bottom line is: Whether you live in Manhattan—New York or Montana—fast and reliable internet is essential. Local and regional governments can make our cities smarter by prioritizing internet upgrades.

Chattanooga, Tennessee set up its own municipal internet service with super-fast service, which spurred the creation of an “innovation district” and attracted multiple companies.

6. Economics: Smart cities are money makers

In a recent survey of city governments implementing smart city programs, one of the main drivers for their efforts was their local economy. That is even more imperative as we look to slowly open our cities and rebuild economies while protecting public safety.

Every investment outlined here can create jobs and growth. Skilled, unskilled, blue collar, white collar: We can create more manufacturing, grocery, software, and construction jobs. But unlike investing in the status quo and the jobs of today, we can choose to prepare our communities for the future and foster growth that’s more sustainable and long-term.

A smart cities future

Many of us continue to work from home—and help teach our children while juggling our own workload. Honestly, we don’t know when that will change, exactly how our new world will function, and what changes will be permanent or temporary. But it’s clear that applying smart city principles will support that future.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, it is sometimes a challenge to remain positive. But understanding that challenges lead to changes, we are at a smart cities intersection. Making the right choices now can put us in the fast lane to adoption of smart city principles. And hopefully, when we socially gather again, we will be in a smarter place.

  • Richard Baker

    As an information and communications technology designer, Richard's role consists of design, coordination and implementation of the infrastructure for technology systems in buildings.

    Contact Richard
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