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Tech-Enabled Smarter Cities – Silver Lining in the Dark COVID-19 Cloud?

Challenging times often become the ‘face-off’ moments, and this is what we witnessed in the case of COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has brought cities worldwide face to face with the reality of their delayed focus on digital transformation. So, are tech-enabled smarter cities the silver lining in the dark cloud of COVID-19?

Governments worldwide have been making efforts to make cities digitally advanced, there’s no doubt about that, but is the progress happening at the desired pace? The pandemic has made almost everyone realize that discussions now really need to be translated into actions. Industry 4.0 needs to become the reality of today in every part of the world. Snail speed progress in making technology a part of every aspect of our living has to go now. We cannot afford to lag the digital progress anymore. And, thankfully it has happened in many realms of our existence. In the last few months, we have become better users of technology.

So, if I have to add a positive connotation to the entire COVID-19 situation, I would say that the pandemic has made us (cities and communities) realize our true potential to a large extent; we have realized how quickly and efficiently we are able to adapt to changes; to weave in technology in our daily routine. And, this is just the beginning.

With exceptional technologies such as GIS, Location intelligence coupled with the unimaginable prowess of smart technologies like Artificial Intelligence, IoT etc. at the disposal of cities, there should be now no looking back for cities and communities. The digital plans must now get translated into actionable goals. No more delays such that the human race becomes much better prepared for future challenges as unforeseen as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stronger digital infrastructure–backbone of future cities

With the sudden announcement of lockdowns world over, working from home became the new normal, and the way companies world over adapted to the new normal within just few days was amazing. Enterprises entered the ‘digital mode’ quite easily and effectively.

The same spirit is needed to transform our cities now. Cities after COVID-19 need to be more connected. The AEC Industry needs to rethink and come up with solutions that will be best suited in the COVID-19 era. 

Marc Goldman, Director – Architecture, Engineering & Construction Industry Solutions, Esri USA when asked to share thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on the AEC industry and the future of the built environment, insightfully explains,

“When we look to the late 80’s and early 90’s, an era defined by Black Monday and a series of recessions, the AEC industry went from 98% manual drafting processes to great adoption of the first generation of desktop CAD. The impact of the on design and engineering workflows from that era was as significant as the idea of a drawing became digital, not just physical. 

Fast forward to the Great Recession of ’08 & ’09, and we see the tipping point in the adoption of BIM in design and construction workflows occurred.  At the start of the recession, firms reduced their teams by epic proportions.  As the recovery took place, technologies and automation allowed firms to spin-back to full production with teams substantially smaller, yet more productive than prior to the crash. The correlation of the adoption of BIM and the financial meltdown may be a coincidence or perhaps the economic situation was a driving force accelerating the pace of change. 

Now we’re in a world which has changed our industry in ways we are yet to fully understand. Many of the changes that we’re experiencing and exploring are accelerated and being put into place with the concept of “location” central to the discussion. Where we work, and where we live, and where we learn – all are suddenly occurring in the same place, under the same roof, in the same location surrounded by the same people. 

Now is the time to look inward, at the way we work, where we   collaborate and how produce our work.  This introspection will change the way we plan, design, build and operate our world will change dramatically. The availability of tools built with location intelligence core to the solution will very likely put GIS into the toolbox of those solving a new class of location-centric problems, driven in large part by the COVID-19 era.”

Akshay Loya, Founder, GISKernel Technologies LLP, reinforces the point of bringing more technology to construction by sharing, “If we look back, history repeats itself. Be it the Spanish influenza in 1918 or coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the cities have been the epicentre of such pandemics. Though, the coverage of the new coronavirus feels as if this is the first time urban spaces and global movement of goods and people have given rise to the threat of pandemic, but the stories of cities have always been closely related to those of infectious diseases. We need to think what we have missed analysing about ‘intersection of urbanization and infectious diseases.’ 

We need to begin with a new imagination of the urban data we rely on to curtail the impact of such pandemics. With new-gen technologies such as GIS, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can build planned urban infrastructure that is ready to combat future pandemics with better sanitation and developed planning. 

Geographic Information System (GIS) helps us design well-planned infrastructure of cities and comprehend the current needs through satellite, remote sensors, and aerial photography which mitigates the spread of the future pandemic with better land utilization, building placement, sanitization plan, and waste disposal site.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Modern planning and infrastructure were born out of the mid-19th century in response to the spread of disease in cities. Similarly, digital infrastructure will be the backbone of the world after coronavirus.”

Improved digital infrastructure will aid in providing immediate response to crisis, thereby raising the quality of strategic, evidence-based decision-making on a national scale. A robust digital infrastructure is the answer when it comes to filling-in the connectivity gaps the cities face today.

Kevin Lang, Co-Founder & CEO, spadeGEO nails the importance of having a sound digital infrastructure in cities now more than ever by saying, “The recent pandemic may serve as a catalyst to accelerate adoption timelines for geospatial and digital technology pilot programs for many municipalities. One specific risk the pandemic has exposed is how social distancing affects real estate and facilities space utilization, urging developers, property owners and managers to reconsider how structures can flexibly comply with these new human factor requirements. 

Accurate blueprints, building diagrams and condition reports are often unavailable for older facilities. Emphasis must be placed on using geospatial data and new digitally-enabled inspection techniques to more accurately and efficiently baseline layouts, conditions and equipment inventories for existing facilities and supporting systems. Solutions that include 360 interior imaging, aerial data capture, mapping platforms and machine learning analytics are necessary to aid private and public sectors leaders to first baseline assets and then repurpose environments to meet variable occupancy needs. Importantly, these new solutions will require multi-vendor approaches and thus alignment on open standards for geospatial data structures along with better data security and sharing practices is required.”

More Insights: How geospatial data and technologies can help in disease prevention and control

Smart cities in India- setting the trend for cities after COVID-19

Smart cities in India have set the right example for future cities. Integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCC), which are an integral part of smart cities, have been playing an immensely significant role in making the fight against COVID-19 a highly viable one. 

Across the country, smart city resources are being deployed to combat the deadly virus. Through the use of sensors, technology, and the data mined from them, state and central governments are using this to keep a check on how their efforts are paying off. It is also being used to monitor movements across states, and determine whether lockdown guidelines are being adhered to. 

Smart cities have facilitated creation of war rooms. These war rooms by using a strong network of surveillance cameras along with location-based services are aiding in providing updated information to the public. These war rooms are also being used for monitoring quarantine facilities and craft containment plans. In cities like Tirupati these command centres are also facilitating deliveries of essential goods and groceries.

One way of monitoring citizen’s movements is through the use of heat maps. Governments are actively using this technology along with geo-fencing to keep tabs on movement, especially those of suspected cases, or residents of containment zones. They are also using this to monitor periodic health status. Technologies like GIS have also been used to map each positive COVID-19 case. Further, GPS systems are deployed to track health care workers in real-time and draw up containment plans. 

Smart cities like Mangaluru, Nagpur, Kanpur and Agra, have provided telemedicine services through centralized portals. These portals have been helping citizens to access medical help, without having to step out. These facilities have also eased the burden on healthcare systems and freed up hospital beds. 

Based on these findings, it is clear that to create safer, more liveable cities in future, these innovative and technology-driven ideas must become the new normal.

Cities after COVID-19 will need to be bold and imaginative, rather than driven by old solutions. Spaces will need to be adaptable and smart. New kinds of building materials, agile construction, and new approaches to accommodation will need to be part of this future too. 5G, platforms, digital twins, sensors, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things – all these technologies will be all the more important, and they will have to be deployed in support of a complete rethink of urban life, life in cities after COVID-19, where norms like social distancing will be the new normal.

Also Read: The importance of maps in the times of crisis