Covid-19 and the future of smart cities

Business News

by Saverio Romeo, Associate Lecturer on Emerging Digital Technologies Management and Policy, Birkbeck – University of London

The narrative on smart cities was based on two assumptions: 1) a dramatic move of population from rural and peripheral areas towards cities, which become larger in size and population 2) therefore, cities become the innovation and economic powerhouses. The “smart city” was the framework able to accomodate point 1) and drive point 2).  The picture was not all that rosy. Smart cities, as smart system of smart systems, were under pressure already, sometimes not able to cope with point 1) and to sustain point 2). But alternative views to that narrative did not have strong voices. The decline of rural and peripheral areas or their destiny to serve smart cities as food producer only was almost an irreversible fact. Decentralising was not so desirable. Concentrating power in cities was the mantra.

The Covid-19 experience raises challenges to that model and suggests a new reflection on smart cities and communities. The thinking should happen around two main considerations:

  • Social distancing. We will not go back to hug each other immediately! Social distancing will become a temporary social approach and its consequences can characterize our future social arrangements. On the business side, social distancing has contributed to the immediate effect of transforming physical companies in virtual companies forcing the adoption of smart working, and hopefully, opening the attention to far more sophisticated forms of smart working (remote maintance, remote control and so on). Smart working is not just opening your laptop from home! It is much more! On the mobility side, our transport models need to be rethought completely. I cannot imagine a Tube of human sardines soon! The work on smart working or telecommuting in the past was addressing the problem of transport to offices creating satellite offices outside the cities (https://etpoblog.wordpress.com/2020/03/12/from-telecommuting-to-smart-working-experimenting-new-forms-of-working-beyond-the-crisis/). Finally, there are then issues around social spaces like theatres, sport facilities, cinemas, parks, streets and squares.
  • Pollution effect. There are two areas of research about the relationships between Covid-19 and pollution. The first one looks at understanding the reduction of levels of pollution in cities in lockdown (Nature, 9th April 2020- Why pollution is plummeting in some cities and not in others – https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01049-6). The second relationship looks at the correlation between pollution and Covid-19 mortality rate (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200406100824.htm and https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.05.20054502v1). Both research areas require more work, as highlighted in the articles mentioned between brackets – but the dramatic reduction of NO2 and other airborne pollutants, mainly created by vehicles and fossils burning, in cities is evident (See data from European Copernicus satellite). Note that those pollutants can cause respiratory diseases.

Those two considerations should promote a debate on smart cities. We should start from the following two questions.

  1. Is the concentration of human activities, decision making, and wealth in mega-cities still the best mode of organizing our society? Do we need to re-think the role of peripheral and rural areas within a renewed national and super-national socio-economic strategy?
  2. Is it the time for designing sustainable communities for real and ubiquitously? Shall we revamp concepts like “smart and sustainable communities”?

The experience of Covid-19 is tragic, but it gives us the opportunity to re-invent rural and urban communities. The technology is available for supporting that re-invention.