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City life must change completely after COVID-19
, not just get smarter

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton May 11, 2020
Nicola Yates, CEO of the Connected Spaces Catapult, argues that Smart Cities aren’t just about tech, but that new approaches to mobility and living are now essential.

smart city

As countries look to a post-lockdown future and consider what shape our communities might take in the months and years ahead, the question is how can we put shared benefits and sustainability at the centre of the recovery, rather than simply reset to 2019?

All of us have come to rely on technology networks, flexible working, and remote access. But as explored previously, the focus now needs to shift away from connected hardware and technology platforms, and towards looking at what problems could be solved with open data, smart thinking, fresh approaches, and collaboration.

The reality is that city life may have to change completely.

Nicola Yates is CEO of the UK’s Connected Places Catapult, a government-backed center-of-excellence for innovation in mobility and the built environment, one of a network of such organisations across the economy. Speaking at a virtual Westminster eForum conference on Smart Cities last week, she said that even before COVID-10 struck, introducing innovation to the way that cities and towns were planned was difficult:

The approach and governance arrangements around decision-making, the perceived barriers of public procurement policy, and a regulatory framework that does not keep pace with technological changes...From a supplier perspective, it's often difficult to navigate that complexity, and to understand what products and services are in most need, and are likely to be bought.Crucially, it can be incredibly difficult to develop innovations that are capable of being deployed at scale.

Make things better

Yates’ organization was set up to broker better and more informed conversations. But then a microbe hit the planet with the impact of an asteroid. We’re familiar with the consequences to date, but the long-term economic shock will be deeper and more resonant – particularly for those least able to help themselves.

In a sense, this creates opportunity: a chance to make things better in a very different world, she argued:

COVID-19 has created an inflection point in the connected places market; a significant opportunity for some innovative businesses. It's important to start by recognising that the sudden change in the way we all live, work, and play is having a huge impact on those that are not so fortunate.

Mobility [transport] providers are facing a particularly torrid time, as their operations are largely based on high utilisation of assets. The strategic planning report for London has suggested that maintaining reasonable levels of social distancing on public transport is expected to mean a maximum utilisation of just 15% for the Underground and 12% for busses. Operating at such low usage levels would be hugely damaging to the financial sustainability of the network.

That demands new thinking, and other sectors have been quicker – or more able – to adapt, she suggested:

Organizations that have historically shied away from digital have gone digital within weeks [...], with an urgent dependency on technology to maintain some semblance of normal life. So you can start to see where the opportunities from the pandemic lie, and which companies will be best placed in the aftermath.

Historically, one of the key barriers to digital has been the sharing of data. In addition, personal data rules, the interoperability of systems, and different approaches to ethical considerations. However, COVID-19 has seen a rapid and significant shift towards greater sharing of data.

The pandemic has shown that, if there is a sufficiently compelling need to share data, then it is possible. It has shown what can be done to collapse those barriers and improve that speed. The challenge now will be to ensure that this continues into the future.

Data provides not just opportunities to do things better and more efficiently, but also to do new and different things. We need to think about how we use data, and how to use our existing infrastructure differently, both during the pandemic and in the future.

Early data from Chinese cities indicates a flight from public transport to private vehicles post lockdown, as people seek to maintain social distancing and reduce their exposure to risk. To counter an unsustainable resurgence of private vehicles, cities around the world must invest in new mobility infrastructures, said Yates – ones that encourage lockdown-friendly activities, such as cycling and walking.

Cities like Milan, Paris, and Brussels are already experimenting with these and with on-demand transit solutions, including affordable electric vehicles, charging points, and rapid contactless deliveries via ground-based robots.

Managing this shift in demand will require a greater adoption of advanced modelling and decision-support technologies, added Yates.

But the changes won’t end there. New kinds of building materials, agile construction, and new approaches to accommodation will need to be part of this future too. Cities – and countries – will need to be bold and imaginative, rather than drawn back to old solutions. Spaces will need to be adaptable and smart. Until the disease is eradicated, all kinds of premises will need additional space so that social distancing can continue.

Flexible and remote working are likely to remain high on the agenda for most types of organisation, now that it has been demonstrated that commuting and large office premises aren’t necessary. Homes themselves may change, to accommodate a need for more, not less space.

She concluded:

We cannot fully know what lies ahead, but we're getting glimpses of what a changed world looks like. Net Zero was a little more than an abstract concept for many in the world until recently. Now we've all experienced what a reduction in emissions looks and feels like, my own view is we need to seize this moment to accelerate the transition to Net Zero. As President Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘Never let a good crisis, go to waste’.

My take

Yates’ presentation was striking – not least because of the lack of focus on 5G, platforms, digital twins, sensors, and the Internet of Things that normally characterises Smart City pitches. She demonstrated that while all these technologies will be important, they will be deployed in support of a complete rethink of urban life.

All of this will have legal dimensions too. For example, Robert Bond, Partner at law firm Bristows explained that a ‘triangle of trust’ between government, information businesses, and citizens will be critical. For Smart Cities to work, we will need smart people, transparency, and privacy, ethics, and accessibility by design.

Welcome to your new city and your new life. Going back to 2019 won’t be an option, unless we simply want to recreate a mass of old problems.

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