The role of technology in building more resilient cities

Written by Sandy Tung, Programme Manager for Sharing Cities at the Greater London Authority

Whilst the physical world has come to a halt in countries affected by Covid-19, smart digital technology has enabled businesses and governments to rapidly adapt to the shock and shift their operations online. However, the potential of this technology could be far greater, if cities made better use of data insights from smart solutions to become more resilient.  

In this article, Sandy Tung, Programme Manager for Sharing Cities at Greater London Authority and founding staff member at 100 Resilient Cities, and Sam Kernaghan, Global Lead, Knowledge and Impact at the Global Resilient Cities Network discuss how data insights are critical to help ensure cities adjust and recover by alternative means as quickly as possible, and plan smarter for the future. 

A resilient city is a city that can cope and adapt to challenging and changing circumstances and emerge stronger than before. As the outbreak of Covid-19 has ground cities around the world to a halt, we have already witnessed the tremendous role that technology can play in helping cities navigate these new uncertain times. At the Greater London Authority (GLA)  we were fortunate to have just completed our digital transformation before travel restrictions were enforced. In Tel Aviv, the city completed a planned 18-month transformation to online working in one week, and hosted a global hackathon to develop technological solutions to respond to Covid-19

However, as we look to the future, we need to look more closely at the data that we have and the technology we use to gather it, to help us make sense of an uncertain future. 

The response to Covid-19 is the challenge for today and tomorrow, but how do we ensure that we are using data to recover effectively and prepare for what’s next? 

Taking stock

Cities can and should use data to make sense of the complex environments we live in, and develop solutions and implement policies to drive better outcomes. Take our working patterns as an example, the rapid shift to mostly remote working has meant that our energy use patterns are also shifting. That can place a strain on the electricity grid (and telecoms bandwidth!). Here, smart technologies such as sensors and smart meters can be used to ensure that energy systems don’t overload. Through Sharing Cities, the GLA led the development of an integrated energy management system that was trialled in London, Lisbon, and Milan. Called the Sustainable Energy Management System (SEMS), it enables cities to minimise disruptions to the electricity grid. By feeding data from energy suppliers (utilities) and energy use in homes into an integrated platform, residents can be engaged in playing their part to reduce the pressure on the grid by reducing their demand when notified.

Listen to your community

The data we collect from the Internet of Things – our platforms, smart meters and sensors – could achieve much more than optimising our infrastructure or improving our commute. Citizens have been experiencing highs and lows, shocks and stresses in different ways. Here too, technology can play a role into actively engaging with our local communities and residents, to help us understand their lived experience and in turn inform new solutions and policies.

Milan’s citizen engagement platform, SharingMi seeks to encourage people to adopt sustainable behaviours in exchange for rewards that can be spent in their local communities. The city has been using the platform during the crisis to connect communities online with stay-at-home challenges. In tech-savvy Estonia, an online hackathon in March produced winning solutions such as Zelos, a platform for connecting vulnerable, at-risk people with volunteers via a call centre and task dispatch app to prevent further isolation and loneliness, and increase resilience.

Collaborate to innovate

The challenges we are trying to overcome cannot be solved individually and we all have a part to play. Platforms and tools for online collaboration have enabled people to spur innovation and develop new ways of working that can become the new normal. Global networks such as the Global Resilient Cities Network and the G20 Smart Cities Alliance are sharing the lived experiences of cities, and the trust that exists across the networks, to enable cities to learn from success and failure and accelerate their own response to Covid-19. Networks have quickly co-created useful resources such as the Coronavirus Tech handbook and GovLab’s living repository on Data Collaboratives to enable cities to learn and apply lessons learned to address their rapidly evolving challenges at home. 

Building back better

Cities cannot afford to just return to “normal”. We have to build back better and use the lessons we’ve learned to contribute positively to tackling larger, systemic challenges.  

This means mobilising our resources effectively to address the climate emergency and measuring how investments and changes we are making are contributing to improve lives on the ground. But to do so requires us to get our house in order. 

Now is the time to take stock of your data, listen to your community, and build your collaborative tools and networks to enable the innovation we need today, and prepare for the future when it’s safe to head back outside. 

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