By 2050, two out of every three people on the planet are projected to be living in cities. In order for cities to cope with such increasing urban immigration, a smart city movement emerged. The concepts of what ‘smart’ might mean are far-reaching and sometimes seem downright futuristic: Autonomous cars picking us up from home, drones dropping medicines at the doorstep, neighbourhoods sharing solar-powered micro-grids, sensors collecting and transmitting data to improve municipal services. But like so much else in our life, COVID-19 has highlighted the urgency to accelerate smart city trends. Here are three ideas for better city living in our new pandemic reality.
First, we need to re-think the home to be both our living space and office for the long-term.
For centuries, artists and writers have created meaningful work-at-home environments, seamlessly managing multi-functional space. When Patti Smith lived in Detroit, she converted her storage room into a writing space. When her son grew up, he took it over and she began writing from the kitchen. With Covid-19, everyone is wrestling with how to make work ‘work’ at home, especially those with families. We could learn from artists, and our shared experience with working from home (WFH), to find innovative ways to transform space from life to work and back.
In this new era, an adaptation of our interiors will have to be prioritized to accommodate the growing need to work remotely, adapting our homes in dense cities. Those who have had the luck to remain in the workforce have had to create quiet, uninterrupted, office space. Kitchens, dining rooms, halls and bedrooms have become an extension of corporate offices.
WFH culture has been on the rise over the past decade, and is often included as a ‘benefit’ offered by employers. With the pandemic WFH is no longer a choice for many, but a necessity. Some big technology companies, like Google, have announced their employees can choose to work from home until the end of 2020. Twitter said staff can work at home forever.
But if people are going to work from homes, companies and governments ought to offer incentives to invest in necessary home adaptations. Employers have a vested interest in employee productivity. They will also benefit as they downsize the ‘footprint’ of their owned or leased office space. Municipal and state governments benefit from reduced traffic flow and congestion, and hence should provide tax incentives for WFH.
Home design, architecture and building will also have to adapt. Living and work spaces should adopt smart house trends that utilize robotic furniture, which transform home interiors to create multifunctional spaces that move automatically according to our needs. Smart design offers flexibility to work, practice yoga, eat, dance, and sleep interchangeably, saving energy, space and time. Of course, it takes time to introduce architectural robotics. Yet the sooner the need is recognized by all stakeholders – cities, employers and individuals – the sooner we can make this solution an actionable living plan. As Bob Dylan’s 1965 album was simply titled, we’re now Bringing It All Back Home.
Second, we need to use technology to make human interaction safer and more efficient.
Today, news coverage is dominated by headlines about relaxing rules of confinement. The choice is often presented as ‘all or nothing’. What if, instead, residents of communities could play an active role in managing their movement for their safety and the safety of others?
Imagine, for example, a traffic-GPS system, akin to WAZE, that would help citizens to avoid crowds. Using smartphone applications, residents could schedule appointments and check congestion traffic to markets, gyms, or parks. They could schedule their movements to minimize busy times, but as their movements would also be tracked, they would provide the same benefit to others. Smart communities could incentivize such pro-social behavior by rewarding actions that reduce crowding via ‘e-bates’ or tokens.
Accordingly, peak congestion at popular activities would be mitigated by technology and incentives. I’m a swimmer who swims three times a week, so I would upload my planned one-hour swimming time on the pool website, which in turn would be integrated into a city-level big data management system. Through my small actions, together with similar steps by many others, the entire movement ecosystem of a community could be optimized to diffuse density, and increase people’s safety and health.
As part of such a tokenized economy, pro-social activity could be rewarded. Residents might receive a tax deduction based on their level of participation. Discounts could be offered by gyms, restaurants and other merchants for off-peak usage. Community specialists would define public spaces as higher-risk vectors of virus transmission, such as restaurants, theatres, cinemas, parks. Residents would share information on their planned presence in those areas, which would in turn allow for people to manage their own engagement, with the aim of minimizing congestion.
Happily, much of the required technology for pro-social organization already exists. City dashboards are one example. They can be accessed via the internet or mobile devices. Yet more can be done to improve their usage. For a ‘WAZE of people’ to work, visually engaging dashboards should provide real-time data and be extended to more facets of daily living. One example that could serve as a model is the Live! Singapore project by SENSEable City Lab at MIT, which among other things provides a dynamic and visually accessible understanding of people’s movements in real time.
Third, communities can share and learn from one another – revive the ‘sister city’ concept.
When mutual understanding and the sharing of information are essential, I turn to my circle of sisters (friends) for support, hope and optimism. Communities need sisters, too. It is time to draw from the old idea of sister cities as a way to rethink how the modern society can adapt to a post-Covid-19 era.
Sister cities, or partner cities, were founded in order to promote a sense of solidarity across borders. One of the earliest sister cities was initiated by women of Coventry, UK and Stalingrad (today Volgograd) in 1944. Coined during the second world war as a friendship bond, this partnership was created as a way to exchange visits, friendships, literature and information.
Today, sister cities can be re-thought as a partnership with the aim of improving information exchange and offering support to better manage all human needs, including those posed by the pandemic. They can be an important building block to improve camaraderie when confronted by common challenges. Open dialogue always leads to a safer and improved life.
One smart sister-city model to consider is the Indian government-backed 20-20 Initiative, pairing the top 20 best performing cities with the 20 poorest ones, thus creating a mutually connected network striving to improve living conditions. Stronger sister cities (like Varanasi) may be in a position to offer support, ideas and experience to weaker ones (such as Amritsar). The message of ‘you’re not alone’ or ‘we’re in this together’ is powerful and can promote a much-needed sense of belonging and shared future.
In times of a pandemic, smart sister cities can create lateral efforts to tackle a disease, exchange best practice and form a ‘pas de deux’ of a positive momentum with a sense of mutual responsibility. Stronger cities could also share key technologies or know-how to address challenges, such as pandemic mitigation, in weaker cities.
In sum, the pandemic is forcing change, but also accelerating trends already underway. Old norms about working and commuting are giving way to more flexible arrangements, including work from home. Rather than resisting change, we should welcome it and help everyone to adapt. Technology offers ways to reduce congestion, which in times of pandemic we should embrace, promote and incentivize. And more than anything, the pandemic reminds us that we are social beings. Our actions have impacts on others. The more we can partner and work together—as individuals and as communities—they better off we will all be.
Featured Image by Anna Devís and Daniel Rueda, Curiocities, Rainbow Wall