COVID-19 has hit cities hard, with 90% of infections reported in urban areas. That impact will have a range of repercussions as cities aim to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 11, which calls for urban areas that are inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Now more than ever, cities will need to turn to advanced technologies that can help them not only face down a crisis like COVID-19 but also improve overall efficiency and quality of life.
Most important, cities need to avoid returning to “business as usual” when it comes to their smart city agendas. While it is still unclear what life will look like post-pandemic, city leaders need to view the crisis as an opportunity to re-evaluate and adapt their policies.
Cities and crisis
It’s not unusual for a disruptive event to prompt a “reset” of sorts when it comes to cities. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake led to the birth of earthquake engineering; the cholera outbreak in London triggered the first public health policy on urban sanitation in 1848; and a fire in Chicago in 1887 led to vertical construction and the first skyscrapers. The damage wrought by World War II also prompted massive government-sponsored housing and rebuilding programs.
The COVID-19 pandemic will likely be no different. But how cities operate post-pandemic will not only be informed by the gaps the crisis revealed: The new patterns of behavior and activity that emerged during the pandemic will also necessitate a rethink of how cities operate going forward. Consider some of the pandemic’s impacts:
An upsurge of digital payments and 77% year-on-year growth in e-commerce during 2020
An inability to access public infrastructure, services, and education emphasized the need for digitalization of city operations
Declines in economic activity led to cities losing on average 15% to 40% of their annual municipal finances 
A 6% contraction in global energy demand and a 7% reduction in carbon emissions in 2020 as compared to 2019
During the early months of the lockdowns—and the subsequent fall in economic activity—there was a 20% to 40% reduction in air pollution levels in major global cities
While the crisis is expected to trigger a renewed commitment to building resilience, these types of patterns should prompt a stronger consideration of inclusivity and sustainability in cities. The trends in e-commerce will affect neighborhood businesses. Digitizing of services, while important to access and city budgets, can leave behind people without internet access. Concomitant drops in air pollution and energy demand underline the importance of cleaner economic activity.
While pre-pandemic smart city policies may have been motivated by efficiency and cost-savings, local governments need to recognize that the pandemic has shifted those goals. Polices now have to be more people-centered and responsive with a greater focus on sustainability. They also need to fix gaps that can cause cascading effects from one urban system to another.
Despite the challenges presented by high density living, cities have had among some of the strongest responses to the pandemic. A recent study of 167 cities globally already shows how COVID-19 is impacting urban planning: 68% of cities are reconsidering urban planning and the use of space, with 54% re-thinking mobility and transportation.
For example, as an immediate response to the pandemic, Bogota, Columbia added 52 miles of temporary bike lanes to their existing network at the beginning of 2020. Milan, Italy, responding to the disruption of food aid caused by COVID, established a permanent joint public-private food aid system—that also provides consistent and comparable data about food distribution. And in Singapore, the government is increasing its ICT investment by 30% to accelerate digitalization that can enable citizens and workers to resume normal activities and businesses to reopen safely.
These examples highlight how actions taken both during and post-COVID will be vital to achieving smart city goals. They can inform some of the short-term and longer-term approaches urban planners should consider, including:
Communicating and promoting public transportation. City officials should provide as much information as possible about the availability of public transport—and its safety—to not only increase ridership but also to bring back nervous customers.
Using data to optimize mobility services: Data gathered by major tech players via mobile devices can provide critical insights into the transport needs of citizens. Data coming from other mobility-related sources—including micromobility players (scooter and bike rentals) and navigation apps—can also help urban planners design more effective mobility policies and systems.
Investing in making alternative, sustainable choices more attractive. This can be achieved with IT support from the private sector as well as by incentivizing sustainable choices—for example, giving out rewards for choosing environmentally friendly modes of transportation via an app. And according to the Deloitte City Mobility Index, more and more cities are considering measures that make micromobility more attractive such as reclaiming street space from cars for cycling and walking.
Drawing on the power of innovation and digitalization. With disruption as an accelerator, cities can and should continue developing innovative approaches using new technologies to become smarter and more sustainable. For example, IoT can provide important data via sensing. This data, in turn, can then be used via open digital platforms by private sector players to create innovative new services.
Taking a strategic approach. Rather than returning to pre-pandemic approaches, city planners should reassess urban plans and make strategic choices that can help make cities, cleaner, safer, more affordable, and more inclusive.
Underpinning any and all of these actions must be a strict adherence to strong governance. With the increased use of technology during the pandemic—and as a key enabler of urban transformation overall—cities must maintain public trust by addressing such critical issues as privacy, data protection, cybersecurity, and connectivity. Cities must never lose sight of effective governance as they invest in advanced technologies—understanding that their approach can play an important role in how society resets post-crisis.
Keeping the momentum
With more than half of urban planners acknowledging that the pandemic has permanently changed how people live, work, socialize, and travel in their city, there is no doubt that the pandemic has both altered and accelerated the smart city agenda. The question now is how to use the urgency generated during the crisis to continue making innovative choices that not only boost resiliency but also promote inclusivity and sustainability.
This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.