How Smart Cities Can Help Build a Better Post-Pandemic World




smart cities pandemic

If we look back on the past five years, we would find many breath-taking tech advancements. Smart cities, micro-drones, Internet of Things, connected logistics, artificial intelligence, etc. have put us on a platform where pride comes naturally. We can talk about the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns all we want. However, we shouldn’t forget one thing. Technology has empowered us with numerous advantages to fight this crisis.

We are in this together. It’s not just a statement, it’s a fact. Let’s pause for a minute and evaluate the ‘tomorrow’ beyond the current pandemic. When we do get through this tunnel, we should endeavor to build a better and more connected world together.

In this article, we would talk about: why this is important; what we can improve; and how we should go about doing it.

How global cities measure up during this pandemic.

We kept speaking about disruption and innovation for years. The starting point for both was ‘need identification’. Where are the gaps, and why aren’t they being filled? Let’s look at some of these points.

  1. Information overload with minimal applications.

The world has been consuming information and data at an extravagant rate. Hence, the current slowdown (in all news other than the pandemic) has pushed people into consuming coronavirus updates like candy. This, inevitably, pushes us towards information overload.

This has led to misinterpretations, misinformation, and misrepresentations. In short, there’s too much information that doesn’t lead anywhere. It doesn’t have any application or doesn’t solve anything. It’s just noise.

  1. Multiple labor and logistics bottlenecks.

Lockdown and travel restrictions have prioritized essential services (medical, food supply, utilities, etc.) over all other goods or people’s movement. This sounds good on paper. However, there have been problems with getting the right people and the right supplies to where it’s most needed.

Some cities and states have shut down their borders. Shutting down borders further hinders the smooth logistics movement. There are (understandably) multiple checks and balances. Checks and balances, also delay the delivery and availability of essential goods and services.

  1. Longer reaction times due to inertia.

The above points (and many intermediate ones) culminate into longer reaction times. The authorities get stuck with firefighting and decision inertia. These decisions, in turn, lead to food and supply insecurities among the masses, especially the poor. Another point of worry with decision inertia is the inadequate or delayed testing, reporting, and isolation of possible infections.

The Smart City Approach: What it means and how it can help

Let us now develop a scientific approach towards the crisis management. What are the facts and how do we proceed? The underlying, and inherent benefits of smart cities, here, turn into essential tools.

The ‘Smart City Approach’ is when authorities within the city leverage real-time insights and updates. With this, they streamline their crisis response, plan for process improvements, and ensure seamless logistics.

  1. Detection and reporting: Fast and decisive action.

We need better ways to detect and report possible Covid-19 cases. Moreover, we also need better reporting for other emergencies relating to the operations and governance of major cities. Cities like New York, London, Singapore, and Mumbai have been global travel hubs for decades. These globally-connected cities need faster case (or emergency) detection and reporting.

  1. A collaborative approach from cities, states, and nations.

Cities and countries need to be on the same page with the fight against this unprecedented crisis. We have discovered common threads of empathy and compassion that have connected us all, across demographics. We want this to continue beyond the pandemic. The connectivity and collaboration will help us recover, as companies and cities, faster.

  1. Stakeholder mapping and planning.

The crisis has thrown many curveballs. It seems like when cities solve one issue, another rears its head. There are migrant workers and homeless people who stand to be worst affected by the lockdowns. The people on the frontline of the crisis: the doctors, nurses, police, utility, and sanitation personnel, etc. need more attention. They need to be protected with the timely deliveries of necessary equipment and supplies.

  1. Real-time tracking and information.

Overall, the cities need to function as one. Each development, each shortage, each victory needs to be tracked, recorded, and utilized. Smart cities cover all these aspects with aplomb. These cities have the power to handle live information and turn them into key insights.

The Application: How smart cities can be better equipped.

We have talked about improving the connectivity and conditions of our cities by turning them into truly ‘smart cities’. The current crisis is unprecedented in every way. We are at a point where we need to minimize the damage, protect the assets (people and economies), and revitalize our operations (in cities).

We must learn and adapt using the intrinsic smart city concepts to better equip all cities.

  1. Drones as a catalyst for better visibility.

Many cities in China, the United States, India, etc. are either planning to use small or micro-drones or are already using them. These drones primarily help:

  • gather intel with regular lockdown surveillance (spotting suspicious activities or simply supervising local operations);
  • spray disinfectant in areas with active Covid-19 cases (reported);
  • detect elevated body temperatures of random people on the streets (used in Hunan, China);
  • deliver essential medical supplies (especially masks or sanitizers), etc.

Drones can help local city authorities build situational awareness. The mayor or emergency service officials can view live video updates of sensitive (quarantined) zones without putting on-ground forces in harm’s way.

All information is encrypted and transmitted back to a central repository for current or future use. The drones also ease the pressure on the overworked essential forces within the city.

  1. Connected logistics and contactless deliveries.

People under different levels of lockdowns depend on their local stores for their groceries and essentials. Hopefully, we are past the initial frenzy and panic buying. Now, the essential goods and equipment must move seamlessly within and outside the cities.

Many retailers and e-commerce players within major cities have, previously, reaped the benefits of a real-time package and shipment tracking. They used route-planning software to identify short and ideal travel routes. This gave them the cumulative benefits of speed, cost, and end-customer satisfaction.

We need to extend this AI-enabled route planning and live shipment tracking to ensure that all essentials are evenly distributed across districts. Retailers and foodservice providers, along with the local authorities, should engage with this technology as equal collaborators. We will cover more on this in the next point.

People have been confined to their homes and have become more and more dependent on hyperlocal deliveries of food and groceries. Delivery service companies have stepped up their response with contactless deliveries where prepaid orders can be left at the doorstep.

The entire ‘proof of delivery’ is conducted in-app. The delivery person sends the receiver a photo of the package (at the receiver’s doorstep). The receiver, then, confirms the delivery. The network interconnectivity within smart cities is the linchpin for such sharp adaptability within delivery companies.

  1. Centralized city info-system for essential services.

Local and central governments are keeping a close eye on all relevant developments within cities (and the nation as a whole). Smart cities have been historically more adept at collating and pushing actionable insights. These insights have been critical in effective decision making.

The authorities, now, must scale and interconnect all related services in the city into one central info-system. It will:

  • give the exact cluster map of active and suspect Covid-19 cases (with live health and status updates)
  • show live drone-surveillance through key-areas giving real-time intel about select or sensitive areas
  • enable retailers and suppliers to update their stock-levels as they depreciate in real-time
    • This will trigger automated delivery requests.
    • The authorities can track delivery trucks in real-time, through in-vehicle trackers, and direct them to the shops with lower supplies.
  • help plan and execute structured disinfecting of different areas in the city
  • ensure proper law and sanitation upkeep through automated and regular drone-surveillance
  • ensure on-time food packet deliveries to the elderly, homeless, and needy (this can be enabled through interconnected community-based reporting)

A connected and centralized info-system ensures effortless smart city management. This leaves the authorities with enough insights (as they study cluster patterns) to tackle and overcome the pandemic.

Beyond the crisis: Recovery and rebuilding.

According to sources, we are in the midst of a recession. We will understand the full extent of the economic backlash once we emerge from the current crisis. However, we have our work cut out for us.

Technology and connectivity have helped us fight this pandemic. Smart cities with emerging and innovative tech applications have witnessed faster and effective testing and reporting. These cities have set the benchmarks for adaptability and recovery. We must embolden more cities with smart and connected technology. This will strengthen us and hasten the rebuilding phase for our communities.

Future generations would read about this pandemic in their history books. Let’s turn our response to it, as a global community, into something that would motivate them for years.

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann; Pixabay

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Original article: How Smart Cities Can Help Build a Better Post-Pandemic World
Author: Faiz Shaikh