Editor's Pick

Expert Views: The Impact of the Pandemic on Cities

ESI ThoughtLab

The coronavirus pandemic has forced cities to reexamine their ability to respond to crises efficiently and promptly. Protecting people’s health while maintaining a growing economy proved to be a challenge that many cities struggled to address.

ESI ThoughtLab’s thought leadership team asked experts participating in our Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World global study to offer their perspectives on how the pandemic affected cities, what changes cities have implemented to tackle the crisis, and how smart technology and solutions will help them to address the challenges they face.

Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World is a multi-client initiative designed to create an evidence-based roadmap to making cities safe, sustainable, and resilient. The research will reveal lessons learned from the pandemic, centered on the social, environmental, and economic imperatives that matter most, and based on objective quantitative analysis that shows which investments and technologies will be most effective for achieving their goals.

What were the main challenges faced by cities during the pandemic? What were the key lessons learned and what will cities do differently as a result?

Kevin Taylor, Segment Development Manager, Smart Cities, Axis Communications: The first challenge was understanding this unique virus, particularly how it spreads. This early vacuum of information resulted in a perception of unclear leadership and lack of trust at every level—global, national, and local, and political polarization amplified this. Next, the lack of preparation for this scenario created public and consumer panic as there were not adequate warehoused supplies of PPE, ventilators, sanitary products, and household goods. Supply chains were stressed in a way never experienced in most modern industrialized countries.

Michael Flynn, Global Government & Public Services Financial Advisory Leader, Deloitte: The pandemic halted economic activity, put tremendous pressure on public health infrastructure, and disrupted government operations. The epidemic has caused havoc in city finances and navigating this financial crisis will be the most pertinent short-term challenge for city leaders. The traditional revenue streams in a city like taxes and usage fees have dried up, challenging cities in their efforts to deliver on key mission areas.

Andrew Caruso, Director, Urban Solutions, Hatch: Despite the challenges, our clients identified the pandemic as a catalyst for innovation, citing the adoption of digital processes and tools to boost productivity, accelerate organizational transformation, and enhance community and stakeholder engagement in planning initiatives and service provision. Necessity is the mother of invention, and our clients affirmed that the pandemic, like previous challenging periods in their history, could be an opportunity to reshape a stronger and more resilient organization for the future.

John Tuohy, Director, Smart Cities Strategy, Oracle: The main challenge was (and is) how to continue to provide citizen services, while managing a remote workforce. City services that were based on in-person interactions had to become digital to avoid office visits. Many cities were not prepared to manage a remote workforce, technically or culturally. A remote workforce needs cloud services, and data security becomes a priority.

Karen Lightman, Executive Director, Metro21, Smart Cities Institute, Carnegie Mellon University: The challenges were and continue to be multifaceted. Cities and their people were dealing not only with a pandemic, but also civil unrest and a weak economy. The inequalities and inequities in our cities were laid bare for all to see. The challenges are many-fold in the US alone: tens of millions of Americans are out of work; some estimate that the number of food insecure doubled during the pandemic; millions can’t access reliable broadband so they can attend online class or work from home; and transportation and mobility was severely disrupted.

Mark Saunders, Academic Director, Zigurat Global Institute of Technology: Cities experienced a “shock” of huge proportions. From gathering stakeholders to building solutions, cities had to continue to move forward at the same time as they had to lock down and protect life. Getting this balance right has been a constant challenge. New templates, teams, and processes around resilience have been created in cities which can be used in the future to expedite responses to secure the confidence of residents, businesses, and public bodies.

Raúl García-Rodríguez, Advisor, Real Estate Market Advisory Group, UNECE: Finding a safe way to return to daily commuting and movement or making sure the supply chain for the most needed items is not interrupted. Cities will try to adapt their inner mobility design and commuting capacity to optimize travel between living, working, and supply, perhaps effectively creating as many “15-minute city” units as possible within each metropolitan area.

William Baver, Vice President, Smart Platform, NTT: Some of the key challenges are about learning how to become resilient and flexible in the way to operate, plan, and allocate resources. Now it is all about learning how to do things differently and this is a great opportunity for cities to re-think their modus operandi, to evolve, and adopt new strategies. We believe cities should now leverage data in a better way, but to do so they will need a single data source of truth and they will need to build trust in data.

Yi Wang, Head of Global Development Program, ANBOUND: As countries went into lockdowns, travel restrictions, and business closures, many cities came to a sudden halt and experienced urban stresses of the utmost gravity, such as shortage of medical resources, unemployment, skyrocketing prices, psychological frustration, and social unrest. Sadly, rumors and disinformation on the media and internet were rampant. City leaders and policymakers should aim for information transparency, encourage investment in knowledge systems and sharing platforms, increase equal communications with citizens, and listen to their ideas and suggestions.

The need for social distancing demonstrated the value of smart city solutions. What smart city solutions will cities prioritize as they emerge from the health crisis? How will they rethink their practices regarding technology, data, partnerships, and governance?

Gordon Feller, Advisor to cities; Board Member: 4 VC-funded smart-city solution providers; 4 non-profit smart-city solution providers: The picture will not be monochrome. It will be multicolored, with local versions varying from place to place. Some cities will put a higher value on more intensive surveillance (especially in Asia). Others will focus on citizen engagement tools, and in some of those cases the motivation will be engaging residents/visitors to become hyper-local (shopping locally, etc.).

Kevin Taylor, Segment Development Manager, Smart Cities, Axis Communications: Smart city solutions, until now, seldom incorporated an aspect of public health beyond the physical perimeter of healthcare facilities like hospitals. Now we see there are circumstances where technology can be used throughout a city to monitor, confirm, and respond to situations of crowds gathering, lack of use of personal protective equipment, and behavioral patterns that require a health and human services response.

Michael Flynn, Global Government & Public Services Financial Advisory Leader, Deloitte: The most immediate solutions are smart health surveillance and sanitization technologies that avoid putting people in harm’s way. For instance, cities are already piloting smart cleaning and sterilization robots in public transit and airports. At the same time, no-touch thermal scanning technology will probably become ubiquitous in our daily life. Second, remote health monitoring and telehealth technologies will see a significant upsurge post the pandemic. The one silver-lining around the pandemic will be the big push to make data-driven decision making central in city operations and policymaking.

Jarendra Reddy, Director, Urban Solutions, Hatch: Technology has helped cities respond to massive disruption from the pandemic, extending the reach, agility, and connection of workers amid changing risks and tightening resources. Collecting and responding to real-time data will become increasingly important as traditional assumptions and use patterns evolve for the long term. But there is also a softer side to the next digital wave. While smart solutions promise needed gains in productivity and resource efficiency, they must be managed carefully to ensure they enhance rather than undermine levels of trust, transparency, and credibility in the organizations they support.

John Tuohy, Director, Smart Cities Strategy, Oracle: Cities now realize that they need to be more prepared and invest in technologies for remote working. Investments should focus on emerging technologies that have direct impact on service delivery, e.g., cloud computing, AI, IoT, etc. Install point solutions rather than big projects due to budget constraints. The most ubiquitous solution will be cloud. The need to provide remote access to staff and residents is crucial for maintaining any sense of continuity. As more cities move toward the cloud, security will be a priority, particularly given the increase in large security breaches.

Raul Garcia-Rodriguez, Advisor, Real Estate Market Advisory Group, UNECE: Cities can make the transition to digital not just because of its faster service, but also because it uses less resources and is environmentally friendly, and because it is safer. It is the moment to foster cooperation with technology partners, push their budgets to allow this transition, and promote data exchange for easier governance.

Mark Saunders, Academic Director, Zigurat Global Institute of Technology: The pandemic is not just related to health. Every process and transaction in our cities has been impacted and cities need to adapt and continue to be agile to update as new rules emerge and evolve. Cities should focus on positive solutions, such as clean air zones so citizens can feel confident in safe spaces and wearable technology to promote “health passports” to get people back to the hospitality and events industries.

William Baver, Vice President, Smart Platform, NTT: Smart platforms need to be able to provide adjustable analytics that cities can leverage to ensure the safety of their citizens while allowing them to continue to live their life and enjoy what the city has to offer. Citizens will always have to be at the center of these analysis. Focus will switch to usable technologies which will be selected and delivered by a mix of public, private, and governmental agencies—the strength of these partnerships will ensure the success of the projects.

Yi Wang, Head of Global Development Program, ANBOUND: The aging population is an extremely critical issue in North America, Europe, Japan, and China. During the pandemic, elderly people were the most fragile group. The aging population in cities would be well protected with advanced services for the elderly living alone and in nursing homes, i.e. remote health monitoring, online diagnosis, daily care robots, and mental comfort.

The pandemic underlined the importance of using the UN’s SDGs as a roadmap for urban development. Which social, environmental, and economic goals will cities prioritize due to their COVID-19 experience?

Per Bjorkdahl, Sustainability Sales Engagement Director, Axis Communications: The concept of using 17 goals is strategic. The goals are purposefully broad and vague so that stakeholders can think of them creatively and apply them appropriately to the situations within their unique community. The pandemic has revealed which are the most vulnerable members of our communities, and those most reliant on public services and assistance have been the most negatively affected. Coming out of the pandemic, we are likely to see city leaders make plans and preparations to safeguard these community members in the event of future crises.

Michael Flynn, Global Government & Public Services Financial Advisory Leader, Deloitte: Making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable will be, if not already, one of the most important goals for cities. The pandemic will upturn many traditional urban development models and compel cities to reimagine mobility, health infrastructure, housing, education, energy consumption, and more. Reducing inequalities will be another important goal for cities. The pandemic has laid bare the inequities in access and has impacted traditionally disadvantaged communities more. Along with inclusion, hacking at these systemic inequities in the current urban development model will be critical for cities.  

Karen Lightman, Executive Director, Metro21, Smart Cities Institute, Carnegie Mellon University: Each SDGs has some relevance for urban development but Goal 11—to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable—has the most relevance here. Goal 11 states “making cities sustainable means creating career and business opportunities, safe and affordable housing, and building resilient societies and economies.” It involves investment in public transport, creating green public spaces, and improving urban planning and management in participatory and inclusive ways. 

Andrew Caruso, Director, Urban Solutions, Hatch: The crisis has shown a spotlight on vulnerabilities and capacity constraints of health systems worldwide. SDGs related to enhancing public health and wellbeing will certainly be a focus in the coming decades. However, we think the COVID-19 experience has also revealed the importance of designing healthy communities—walkable neighborhoods with good water, sanitation, and digital infrastructure, transit that provides broader access and mobility, robust and diverse economic opportunities, and healthy environmental assets. These objectives reach across the SDGs, with a particular focus on goal 11, Building Sustainable Cities and Communities.

John Tuohy, Director, Smart Cities Strategy, Oracle: The most ubiquitous solution will be cloud.  The need to provide remote access to staff and residents is crucial to maintaining any sense of continuity. As more cities move toward the cloud, security will be a priority and with the increase in large security breaches we know that security will not be an afterthought.

Mark Saunders, Academic Director, Zigurat Global Institute of Technology: There is power in the creative diversity of cities, but where it makes sense to come together is around a thematic and measurement framework. The UN SDG is a widely supported and respected series of goals and can apply to any city context. Goals should be prioritized from a citizen/residence perspective to gain confidence from the bottom up.

Raul Garcia-Rodriguez, Advisor, Real Estate Market Advisory Group, UNECE: SDG 11 is proposing critical targets to improve life for the growing urban population, and all stakeholders are feeling the pressure to act in a coordinated way. Replicating best practices and learning from others’ mistakes also proves that SDG 17 is the key for success in an ever more interconnected global future for all.

William Baver, Vice President, Smart Platform, NTT: Many cities have seen huge changes in these past months due to the success of remote working practices and the different trends in urban mobility. These trends have shown cities that more sustainable models are possible. The UN’s SDGs offer a great framework for change; however, cities will need to turn these goals into actionable initiatives. While increasing sustainability, cities will also need to be more inclusive and start to focus on citizens as a whole and on communities rather than individuals. These changes offer great opportunities for cities to think about different business models and further leverage data and insights.