When smart technologies combat Covid-19 and contribute to urban resilience

The Covid-19 pandemic is generating a chain of events with severe human, societal, economic and political impact. Due to their high inhabitant concentrations, Cities are particularly vulnerable in this pandemic, as they would be in any other natural disaster or man-made catastrophe. That’s why Covid-19 is generating a wide debate around City resilience and urban development models.

We learnt about the experience of some Cities facing the rapidly evolving Covid-19 emergency during the knowledge sharing sessions organized by the Global Resilient Cities Network and World Bank. The common understanding is that smart technologies play a powerful role in this global public health challenge, both for supporting the Covid-19 response and enhancing Cities resilience.

Talking about the situation in China, professor Ying Long from Tsinghua University acknowledged national and local authorities are leveraging a number of different technologies, from mobile Internet and cloud computing to the Internet of Things, advanced robotics and Virtual Reality. Web connectivity is vital for remote working and smart education programs, but it is also supporting remote patient assistance and e-commerce to provide people with food and other basic goods to be delivered at home.

New applications based on Internet of Things sensor networks have been tested and quickly implemented to enable accurate traffic control (for instance mapping people movements in quarantined districts, also taking advantage of UAVs), or the intelligent management of solid waste, with specific attention to medical waste. Sensor-equipped robots are being used in some malls for shelves restock or customer in-store service, and in some areas for automated street disinfection. Blockchain is also being piloted to ensure higher data transparency and validity in selected healthcare applications.

In Tel Aviv, known as Israel’s “Nonstop City” because of its bustling urban life, technology is being used to ensure the continuity of government activities and most business processes, and also to track Covid-19 expansion. National Shin Bet security service is analyzing data harvested from millions of mobile phones to triangulate locations and travels of people exposed to Covid-19, managing one of the most comprehensive national surveillance exercises anywhere in the world. Although criticized for its impact on personal privacy, Liora Shecter, Chief Information Officer & Smart City Director in Tel Aviv, pointed out that the measure allows a better assistance to infected and quarantined citizens, as they can be prioritized in first-aid and relief actions.

The UK and Italy are accelerating the adoption of smart technologies too. Alice Reeves, Deputy Chief Resilience Officer for the City of London, explained that the City is struggling to grant continuity of key public services, so digital platforms are paramount to allow information sharing and coordination among public bodies, private companies, charities and voluntary organizations that are committed to Covid-19 response.

But smart technologies are not only necessary during the emergency: Cities should start thinking about the future and design the ‘post Covid-19 new normal’. In Milan, City government is already planning some recovery initiatives for local economy and businesses, while drafting a new framework for a more inclusive and sustainable urban development. According to Piero Pelizzaro, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Milan, smart infrastructures will pave the way of a new green wayfinding and the transition towards a truly open urban community.

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