In a recent LinkedIn post, Siemens’ Smart Infrastructure CEO Cedrik Neike gave an insightful account of what he believes cities of the future might look like in a post-COVID19 environment and how adaptability and digitalisation will be a game-changer for city infrastructure. He highlighted that while the pandemic has given our environment a much-needed breather, it hasn’t removed the most significant challenges we are up against which is that our resources are still finite and using them efficiently so we can live sustainably on this planet remains a top priority.
So, how then can cities be more resilient in the face of unforeseeable challenges? According to Stephen Marsh, who is the Middle East Cities lead at Mott McDonald, a focus on social resilience and a human-centric approach, allows cities to be more resilient to shocks and unforeseen challenges.
“A key consideration in enabling cities to be more human-centric is by improving the spaces in which we spend around 90% of our time in, especially in the Middle East region,” Marsh explains. “With physical distancing in place and working from home potentially becoming the new normal, we need to explore the impact buildings we live and work in is having on our state of health. This could include exploring and improving materials used, use of healthy building materials, control pollutant sources, deploying of an environment which does not disrupt our body’s circadian rhythm and the impact of biophilia on our wellbeing.”
Marsh believes that the global pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to introduce more far-reaching measures to permanently alter behaviours to make cities more resilient and to set a path to the new normal which could, as an example, tackle climate change and its harmful effects.
“For example, a major risk following the pandemic is that instead of using public transport, people will turn to their private cars to travel, consuming more fossil fuels and emitting more damaging pollution into the atmosphere,” says Marsh. “A human-centric approach to infrastructure epidemiology combines healthcare and infrastructure and could be used to return confidence in public transport. Streets can be redesigned to encourage walking and cycling to restrict car travel and maintain social distancing. Renewably-fueled electric devices offer possible sustainable alternatives to countries with high summer temperatures.”
As Neike pointed out in his LinkedIn post, it is now more evident than ever that the main characteristic of our future cities needs to be adaptability. Marsh agrees: “Anticipating future challenges to ensure that your infrastructure, supply of goods and services, and the daily lives of people can adapt to unforeseen challenges is critical to allow cities to respond and limit the long-term impact of unforeseen events. And, as noted in a new report by the Centre for Digital Built Britain called ‘Flourishing Systems’, we can do this more effectively if we recognise infrastructure as a complex, interconnected system of systems that must deliver continuous service to society.”
“With this in mind, scenario planning exercises could be crucial to identifying the long-term risks and opportunities for our cities. The opportunities and risks for today may not be the same opportunities and risks tomorrow. To be truly resilient and adaptable to future change, one must assess using a future lens and prioritise. More comprehensive and robust scenario planning could be the key to ensuring that cities are more adaptable and resilient in the future,” Marsh adds.
When it comes to being able to fully harness the opportunities provided by technology to address specific urban challenges, according to the University of Birmingham’s Future Urban Living Report, the overall evidence suggests that we do not lack technologies, nor the data captured by technologies, but that the bigger challenge lies in governance, financing, and complex ownership structures that make it difficult to put the data to good use.
“The focus of technology should be to improve the lives of the people that live in cities, and in that way cities can harness the potential of technology deployment to the fullest extent,” Marsh explains. “However, it is not all about technology, and there are other ways that cities can prepare better for the future, and we don’t want to rely on technology alone. Collaboration is key, and the sharing of information to capture lessons learned and identify early warning signs to slow or better stop the spread of infection. Redesigning our city spaces and our streets are also important to facilitate sustainable travel and also support local communities and businesses.”
The understanding of what society values is also important. Citizens assemblies and other forms of participatory decision-making are being trialled in cities and digital visualisation can be a powerful tool in enabling informed discussion on complex and multi-stranded topics.
As we sit on what Neike describes as “the cusp of a leapfrog into a new era of digitalisation”, how does the digitalisation of our cities make us quicker to respond to a crisis? According to Marsh, in the current pandemic, the increased use of digital infrastructure and digital tools has enabled many of us to carry on working during the lockdown, and it has allowed a better response from our healthcare providers and medical assistance without the need to travel and put others at risk.
“However, with increased digital infrastructure and services, there is a balance to be struck regarding privacy. The success of digitalisation also lies in good data management and right end-user distribution. In the current situation, we were able to experience how quick COVID- 19 related information spread around the globe, but also false and misleading information has spread with it. Verification, analysing, and communication of information needs to be in balance going forward.”