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Beyond Technology: How Smart Cities Are Reinventing Themselves Post-COVID-19

New smart city strategies comprise smart mobility, short food supply chains, and holistic approaches to social and environmental well-being.

The concept of smart cities is normally used to refer to urban areas that use technology, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics to improve efficiency and engage with their residents. But while there has been experimentation with smart city approaches for over a decade, technology alone has not solved the numerous challenges related to how we organize our communities and societies.

Au contraire. The more urbanized our world has become, the more challenges we are faced with to manage our cities. And, as we're watching the global healthcare, economic, and societal crisis brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic unfold, it is becoming more and more clear that making our cities smart(er) will require a holistic approach; one that takes into account the social fabric, economy, environment, and culture specific to every city and where technology is deployed intelligently to address strategic needs.

From Wuhan to New York City and from Stockholm to Sao Paolo, cities have had to rethink how they do things in order to ensure their residents' safety and well-being. As we are slowly beginning to emerge from lockdowns, many are overhauling their processes, mobility, the provision of essential services, and how they source products. Some have used the crisis as an opportunity to launch long-term strategies to ensure that their inhabitants are all provided for, within the limits of what our planet can offer.  

As cities are reinventing themselves, the concept of smart city is beginning to take on new meanings. Beyond connectivity, IoT, and efficiency optimization, it is becoming imperative that smart cities also be liveable, equitable, and environmentally conscious.

Why cities matter 

Home to 55% of the world's population, accounting for 80% of global economic output, and 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, cities are the engines of modern civilization. According to the UN, up to 70% of us will live in cities by 2050, with emerging countries like Nigeria and India accounting for a large share of this drive towards urbanization. Cities are melting pots where culture and ideas meet and fuse, synergies are forged, where new technologies are invented, records are broken, and where economies of scale make it possible for us to enjoy the kind of amenities and utilities that are not possible in more sparsely populated areas.

But they are also places where income and social inequality are painfully obvious, where many people struggle to find a physical space to live, let alone their place in society, where the roads are jammed with traffic, and where some of the environmental and climate issues we're currently grappling with have originated. 

Cities and COVID-19

The thing that makes cities so unique the high concentration of people and of activity also meant that containing the spread of a contagious virus like Sars-CoV-2 was all the more difficult. When lockdowns began to be imposed, cities around the world were faced with the conundrum of how to keep ensuring basic services like waste collection and treatment, utilities, and mobility for those who needed it (e.g.: healthcare workers), while keeping everyone else safe and at home.

In some countries, like the U.S., the decisions about the extent of the restrictions were left to cities and states themselves. In others, it was national governments that dictated measures across countries. In both cases, cities worked in collaboration with other stakeholders to save lives and ensure basic services. In February, the world was stunned when Wuhan managed to build two hospitals in days in order to treat sick patients. That feat has since been repeated in other virus-stricken cities, a testament to the resilience and mobilization capacity of our public institutions.

But aside from quickly expanding their healthcare infrastructure, cities have gotten creative in many other ways during the pandemic. From setting up emergency hotlines for elderly citizens in Helsinki and Istanbul to deploying city orchestras to perform concerts from balconies in Karlsruhe and to making sure that historical landmarks sent the right message to the residents of Nice, cities have moved quickly to inject life into their empty streets and hope into their dwellers' hearts. C40 and Eurocities, two networks of cities, have documented these instances of smart adaptation in metropolises around the world in designated knowledge hubs and collections. 

Nice's Apollo sculpture dons a face mask
Nice's Apollo sculpture dons face mask to raise awareness about Covid-19 safety measures, Source: Eurocities

Many a city has sought to strike the right balance between the seriousness with which they expected residents to take the safety measures and the light-heartedness and generosity of their efforts to continue entertaining and engaging with their residents, as well as supporting those most affected by the pandemic.

Rethinking mobility

As the lockdowns are being lifted, we are starting to see a "new normal" emerge. Nowhere is that more visible than in the transportation sector, which has been one of the hardest hit in recent months.  

Public transportation has long served very important functions in cities: providing mobility at affordable prices, reducing pollution and road congestion, connecting people to their workplaces, and helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and therefore climate change.

But the proximity between riders in buses, trams, and subways has turned them into hotspots for infections, as evidenced by the sheer number of drivers that have passed away from COVID-19. Oftentimes publicly owned and run, metropolitan transit companies are now grappling with a perfect storm: sharp falls in revenues during the lockdown, coupled with the need to protect passengers and staff by drastically reducing their capacity and putting in place expensive safety measures, which will continue to erode their bottom lines. Between March and May 2020, the use of mass transit in countries like the U.S., Australia, and Germany dropped by more than 70% year-on-year, according to Apple.

Public confidence in mass transit is at an all-time low, as revealed by several recent surveys; and skepticism about it is expected to outlive the pandemic. Cities are therefore faced with the double challenge of finding ways to rescue transit companies and protect their employees on one hand, while staving off an expected rise in car ridership in order to contain emissions, protect public health, and prevent traffic bottlenecks on the other.

To address the latter conundrum, many cities around the world London, Brussels, Athens, and Paris being among them  have moved to ban or restrict car traffic in city centers, while simultaneously expanding the network of bike lanes and turning entire avenues and roads into pedestrian and biking areas.  

In Brussels, where I live, city authorities have added an extra 40 km worth of bike lanes, while imposing strict speed limits (20 km/h) for cars in the historical center.

The French capital has announced plans for an additional 650 km of post-lockdown cycle lanes after witnessing a more than doubling year-on-year in the number of cyclists during the lockdown.

A three-fold increase in cycling during the second half of March 2020 also prompted the Scottish government to allocate £10 million to building pop-up walking and cycling routes.

And many more cities and regions, from Madrid to Lima, have followed in their footsteps. These measures make sense. It is impossible to ensure social distancing if pedestrians and cyclists are crammed into narrow sidewalks and lanes, while vehicles occupy the majority of the road space. There are obvious environmental and climate gains from this rethinking of urban mobility, as well as knock-on effects on public health stemming from the increased levels of active travel.

Smart mobility is being redefined. Beyond technology, smart mobility is becoming more and more about the reallocation of space in cities in smart ways in order to benefit city dwellers and the planet.

The private sector, in the meantime, is betting on shared mobility. Between March and May 2020, venture capital firms invested more than $9 billion in different shared mobility start-ups and scale-ups, most notably in Google's autonomous driving sister company Waymo ($3 billion), Southeast Asian ride-hailing firm Gojek ($3 billion), Chinese bike-sharing firm Didi Bike ($1 billion), and Israeli mobility-as-a-service app Moovit ($900 million).  

While the trust in ride-sharing has also slumped in recent months, such companies are bound to bounce back faster, investors believe, thanks to their adaptation strategies, which have consisted of pivoting into ancillary services like food and goods deliveries and of partnering up with municipalities to offer services to essential workers.

Feeding the city 

The pandemic has also made manifest the importance of food to our lives and livelihoods. But it's also laid bare just how fragile and rigid our food system is. While the lines outside food banks have kept getting longer and longer, US farmers found themselves in the unenviable position of having to destroy their crops. Meat processing plans became hotbeds of contagion, sending prices for meat skyrocketing, while countries like Kazakhstan moved to ban or limit exports of staples to protect domestic supplies.

The culprit for this breakdown in supply and demand for food are our global, industrialized food supply chains, in which producers and consumers are separated by numerous degrees of separation. Case in point, cities consume two thirds of all the food we eat. Yet, for many city dwellers, grocery store shelves are the closest they ever get to the source of their food. 

Dutch Architecture Firm Develops Blueprint for Hyperlocal Market
Dutch architecture firm Shift developed a blueprint for hyper-local grocery markets, Source: Shift Architecture

Smart cities and their dwellers have come up with creative solutions to shorten supply chains and bring people in closer contact with their food. In the Netherlands, for instance, architecture firm Shift designed a blueprint for a hyper-local, COVID-adapted grocery market consisting of just three stalls that can be quickly assembled in any public square. Harm Timmermans, the mastermind behind the pop-up marketplace, told the World Economic Forum in an interview that his type of "friendly, smaller markets are needed in more points across cities and towns".

Meanwhile, the UK government has launched Pick for Britain, a platform that aims to mobilize a "land army" of some 70,000 furloughed workers to harvest British crops this year. With international travel subject to restrictions, newly unemployed Brits are being asked to fill in jobs that immigrant workers normally do.

In France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, nations that also depend on migrant labor for their food supplies, authorities have moved equally as swiftly as the British government to connect farmers with job seekers in order to save crops and feed the nations.

The increased demand for local produce has prompted a surge in community-supported agriculture (CSA) around the world. In China, the demand for food directly from farmers increased by 300% in January, according to Shi Yan, co-president of URGENCI, the international CSA network.

In an effort to better connect farmers with consumers, the British and French CSA networks have pooled their resources together to create virtual maps of farms that delivered food, according to URGENCI.  

In the US, Harvie, an online marketplace that connects farmers with their customers, has seen such growth in demand, that it surpassed its yearly sales goals by April. The platform was only launched in January 2020 and has been on a hiring spree since March to keep up with its unexpected early success. 

Amsterdam goes for a doughnut-shaped recovery model

In April, the Netherlands' largest city published the results of a year-long effort: its development strategy based on the doughnut economics model devised by British economist Kate Raworth. Disenchanted with neoliberalism and looking for an economic model for the 21st century, in 2017 Raworth developed the doughnut as a framework that articulates humanity's needs and the broader planetary context in which we live.

 The model brings together the 12 basic necessities underpinning a thriving society — ranging from energy, water, food, and health to education, gender equality, and social equity — and the nine planetary boundaries — climate change, air pollution, biodiversity loss, land conversion, and others — that we should not exceed if we want to prevent catastrophic environmental degradation.

If we fail to meet basic social needs, we are in the hole of the doughnut, meaning that the social foundation is shaky. If we go above our ecological ceiling, we risk overshooting planetary boundaries. The sweet spot is between these two limits — that is, the doughnut.

Until now, the doughnut has been a framework that many liked in theory, but few knew how to apply in practice. Enter Amsterdam, which has worked with consultancy Circle Economy to devise a strategy, based on the doughnut, for a thriving city that lives within planetary boundaries.

To define what the people of Amsterdam need in order to thrive, the city hall engaged with them through numerous surveys and meetings, which had somewhat surprising findings. Even in an affluent city like Amsterdam, affordable housing continues to be one of the main social challenges, with almost 20% of tenants in the city reporting that they can't cover their basic needs after paying their monthly rent.

An illustration of the fact that technology doesn't solve everything is the city's connectivity situation: 98% of Dutch households had access to the internet in 2017., yet 13% of Amsterdammers over 19 years old experience severe loneliness.

The result of the study was a roadmap for the city for 2020-2025 that has 17 directions for action, as well as the creation of a platform comprised of different organizations that will promote the strategy through "Doughnut Deals" or agreements with local companies, civic groups, and individuals to do things the doughnut way.

All eyes will be on Amsterdam in the coming years to see what the results of its new strategy are. One thing is for sure: cities around the world are looking for ways to become smarter, a process that COVID-19 and the recent lockdowns have accelerated. Technology is a part of this process, but an even more important part is a holistic rethinking of how we live, work, and consume in cities in order to ensure that everyone, including our planet and historically disadvantaged communities, thrives.

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