How ‘Smart’ Can Keep Cities Safer From Pandemics


By Vanora Bennett

When coronavirus hit this spring, it was cities that bore the brunt of the pandemic.

Cities are where an ever-growing majority of people in the world live, at close quarters. They are also where most traffic, industry and commerce are located, and most of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world come from – making them at the same time the biggest contributor to the climate crisis and the biggest opportunity to solve it.

So, for years, planners have been working to transform cities into sustainable, inclusive, livable centres that can rise to the challenges of the 21st century, with clean air and drinkable water and non-polluting municipal infrastructure making life pleasanter for the people who live in them.

Tech solutions that provide real-time information allowing planners and citizens to control traffic flows, use electricity more efficiently and monitor the air and water people breathe have proved effective in flagship “smart cities” from Singapore to Sydney to San Diego.

Now Covid-19 has cast into still sharper focus the need for urban improvements everywhere to be underpinned by smart technology that intelligently supports cities’ needs while keeping their communities safe.

“We have many cities in our countries of operations where to board public transport either physical cash or paper tickets are handed over and punched or change given. Under Covid-19 that’s not ideal for virus containment,” says EBRD expert on smart technology solutions in cities, John Seed. He pointed to the greater convenience and – nowadays – safety in being able to book train tickets online or use cashless payment methods on public transport.

Going ‘smart’ is still a work in progress in many cities. This is the reason, Mr Seed adds, that the G20 group of leading nations’ infrastructure working group responded to the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown by suspending all its workstreams except one – the one concerned with advancing “infratech” which looks at incorporating smart technology into infrastructure.

“They strongly believed, and there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence for this, that those cities that have been more digitally enhanced, smarter, more innovative, have been able to mitigate Covid-19 impacts quicker and more efficiently than those that haven’t,” he said.

This is also the reason that the EBRD’s recent decision to add smart into its flagship EBRD Green Cities urban sustainability programme is so timely.

Since 2016 the €1.5 billion(US$1.67billion) programme has brought together 42 cities that want to upgrade their infrastructure for the 21st century. The aim is to sign up 100 cities. The EBRD helps each one both with municipal investments and technical support to write a tailor-made programme of planned improvements to improve its future, called a Green City Action Plan (GCAP).

Now smart is coming to the fore in that planning. Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and Novi Sad, in Serbia, are the first two EBRD Green Cities that will have smart assessments built into their GCAP from the start. But other cities already in the programme will have smart components retrofitted into their planning.

The coronavirus pandemic may be the latest reason to focus on making cities smart. But there are many more. Experts have been advocating urbanisation based on networked cities as far back as 2012, when chief globalization officer at Cisco, Wim Elfrink made a compelling case for smart city development:

“Clearly cities are the key to whether we achieve growth that is both sustainable and inclusive,” he said. “And the critical enabler is going to be technology. What was once a visionary notion is now the new normal: technology is really as essential as the three utilities—water, gas, and electricity.

“If you want to revitalize an old city, or if you are erecting a new greenfield city, technology has to be built in. Today many leading cities have a ten-year plan that includes a master information and communication technology (ICT) plan. A city without an ICT master plan is simply not relevant anymore.”

“The goal, of course, is to view technology as part of a holistic, services-oriented approach to revitalizing cities. Right now, in most places, whether you move into a new apartment or buy an old one, you have to rip the ceiling out to get wireless in and buy various devices. But imagine what would happen if everywhere you went, as with electricity or water, that technology were simply built in?”

Building in smart solutions to urban infrastructure is a natural fit with other goals of the EBRD Green Cities programme, as ‘smart’ has big green benefits, Mr Seed says.

For example, over the last ten years UK water mains on average lost daily up to 20 per cent of the clean fresh treated water they carry (3.3 billion litres) through pipe leakage. In old cast-iron systems, such underground leaks are hard to detect causing delays and costly repairs.

But a newly laid water distribution systems can have remote digital sensor devices built in that both monitor usage and water quality and can detect the location of leaks and guide engineers to the right place to fix them quickly.

It is energy-intensive to treat that water; preventing the leaks saves energy.

In the same way, smart electricity and gas meters give citizens better real-time information about how much energy they are using, giving them options they didn’t have before to plan and reduce their energy usage, choosing to time their energy-intensive activities for cheaper tariff times of the day or make their homes more energy-efficient.

On smart motorways, in which cameras on gantries above the road monitor real-time traffic flows and use artificial intelligence to adjust speed limits or open and close lanes to keep cars moving smoothly, traffic congestion is minimised, thus reducing the time that vehicles sit idle with engines running, polluting the city air.

Cities start to think about building smart solutions into urban life in one of two ways, Mr Seed says. Either they’re led towards smart by public-sector champions with experience or visions of adding in technology to infrastructure for city and community benefit, or they gain an understanding of how smart makes life more efficient simply through the private-sector introducing new commercial digital applications (apps).

Uber, or the similar Bolt car-ride service operating in several EBRD countries, is a good example of the helpfulness of a private-sector smart-city app.

“They use the technology in your mobile phone to understand where you are. They’re communicating with you about what you want, they understand where you want to go, they can agree a fare, and they can take payment. It’s all automated and makes life easier for us as the communities that live in the cities.”

Even if each app makes just one small improvement, several together can change lifestyles. Mr Seed likes the example set by Helsinki, where city officials have “promised their communities that through a number of different smart applications they’re going to try to save every single member of their communities an hour a day of time. You can imagine there’s no one application that can save you an hour, but combined you can have 20-30 different applications that a member of the community can use in a day that would make life easier for them. The economic multiplier effects of such time savings could be vast.”

About 80 per cent of municipal planning could benefit from smart applications, Mr Seed says, adding that Kyiv, the first EBRD Green City to be writing its GCAP with smart innovation specifically in mind, will be looking at building in smart solutions in transportation, energy and water and perhaps lighting.

In the three continents where the EBRD works, many cities suffer from decades of chronic underinvestment in infrastructure. The hope of many mayors is that they can use smart technology to “leapfrog” from their out-of-date present straight into the connected future.

“This is almost what the term ‘leapfrogging’ was invented for,” Mr Seed says. “You see it in places where people who’ve never used, say, banking before in their lives, can now go straight to their first exposure to its benefits through mobile banking on their phones.

“They’ve leapfrogged the Darwinistic evolution of how we learned about doing things through intermediate steps, over years and decades. They just go straight to the answer.”

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