Coronavirus: How can we make post-pandemic cities smarter?
The streets have been strangely silent in recent months when coronavirus blockades imposed by governments around the world hit the pause button in normal life.
And while many people have lost shops and cafes, many have also enjoyed the temporary respite from noise, pollution and congestion.
As cities begin to wake up from the so-called anthropause, questions are asked about how we can improve them permanently.
And the assumptions we had about making our cities smart may also need rethinking.
Robots and drones have certainly established themselves during the global bloc.
The Boston Dynamics Spot robot was used to enforce social distancing in Singapore, while drone regulation was accelerated in North Carolina to allow Zipline to supply medical supplies to hospitals and telepresence robots helped connect people in quarantine.
Daniela Rus is head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her laboratory has designed a disinfectant robot, which is used to clean the Boston food bank.
He told the BBC that robots made a “huge contribution” during the pandemic. “They have helped keep people out of the way and this is very powerful.”
In the future, it will see them take on a wider role in smart cities “by helping with both physical and cognitive work.”
Cities already collect large amounts of data through sensors integrated into the infrastructure and even street lamps, observing a series of parameters: from air quality and the use of transport to the movement of people.
And, probably for the first time, ordinary people have become interested in this information: how many cars are entering urban centers or how many people are gathering in parks has suddenly been directly relevant to their health and well-being.
Professor Phil James measures what he calls the “Newcastle heartbeat” from his urban university-based observatory. He has seen incredible changes in the past few months.
“There have been dramatic changes, off the cliff. The pedestrian crossing has decreased by 95%, traffic has dropped to about 40% of normal levels with very small peaks.”
One of the most powerful things about this data was “the city council was able to see how national changes were announced as these changes were taking place in the city in real time”.
“When they opened the garden centers, we saw an increase in traffic as people went to buy potted plants.”
He hopes these data will be brought forward to make more permanent and post-pandemic changes to “urgent problems” such as air pollution.
“When there was 50% of the traffic, we saw a 25% drop in the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Unfortunately he didn’t stay with us because the traffic returned to 80% of normal, so we are exceeding by new those barriers.
“But as cities try to reduce carbon levels, the data helps to understand the scale of these problems. The data should and can empower policy makers and decision makers.”
Post-pandemic cities also need to consider whether they want to make more permanent changes to transportation, using electric vehicles and bicycles, thinks dr. Robin North, who founded Immense, a company that offers simulations of future cities.
“There is a huge opportunity to redesign the transport system caused by the pandemic and its response. If we are to take advantage of it, we must be able to plan and think ahead,” he told the BBC.
Some cities are already thinking about how they could change when the pandemic is over. Paris is experimenting with the idea of a 15-minute city: decentralized mini-hubs where everything you need can be reached in 15 minutes on foot or by bicycle.
The “ville du quart d’heure” is a key pillar of Mayel Anne Hidalgo’s re-election campaign, transforming Paris into a collection of ecologically transformed neighborhoods.
And in the wake of the success of homeworking during the blockade, companies are starting to question the need for large, expensive and centrally located offices.
“The skyscraper moment may be over. Due to the pandemic, planners will have to rethink the idea of space,” said Professor Richard Sennett, an urban planning expert who helped redesign New York in the 1980s and who he is currently president of the Council on Urban Initiatives at the United Nations.
“What we have built now are fixed and motionless structures that serve only one purpose.”
What is needed, he explained, are more flexible buildings, able to adapt to the short-term need for greater social distance but also, in the future, to change the economy which could mean that offices must become sales outlets or even houses.
For him the biggest lesson from the pandemic is that cities must be sociable places. He says it, not only because he lacks a beer in a city bar, but also because he has seen how technology has worked best when used to help people communicate.
While tracking and tracking apps have had mixed reviews and success, localized neighborhood apps that keep people informed of waste collection times or allow them to help a sick neighbor have increased in popularity – what Professor Sennet calls a new era of “neighbors responsible for strangers”.
Sensors may be good at collecting data about the city, but in reality the smartphones that people carry are much more powerful, he thinks.
“Using an app to create communication between people is incredibly useful. There has been more use of social apps.
“The sensors can’t tell you why a crowd has gathered. We can replace the policeman on the corner with a camera, but what are we looking for?”
In San Diego, there are suggestions that smart street lamps were used to spy on Black Lives Matter protesters, raising questions about civil liberties.
And the data is actually quite stupid, said Prof James. “I can tell you how many pedestrians roam Newcastle city center, but I can’t tell you why they decided to do it today.
“A smart city must work with citizens, behavioral scientists, social policy makers. It shouldn’t be just about data and technology.”