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Will our cities be smarter after lockdown?

The Drum 30 Jun 2020 07:00
Will cites be smarter after lockdown, or will consumer fears hold digitalization back?

As businesses sped up their digital adoption during lockdown in order to help urban citizens endure disruption, cities themselves have had to evolve too. Now, as we wait to emerge on the other side, can we expect our cities to have become smarter?

In March, the world as we knew it took a lengthy hiatus as people settled into lockdown. As city dwellers adapted to this ’new abnormal’, so too did cities. Brands and councils worked around the clock to find ways to help communities cope.

Now we are looking forward to resuming urban lifestyles. But while the lockdown has been a welcome shove towards digitalization, it has also revealed major faults, not least dysfunctional track-and-trace apps. Will this interesting chapter pave the way for smart city, or has it just reminded us that there is still a long, long way to go before metropolises modernise?

“One thing I have seen, and which everybody cannot ignore, is the spirit of the citizens of this city who have just wrapped their arms around many of those who are feeling quite vulnerable,” says Bristol’s deputy mayor Asher Craig, who has responsibility for communities, equalities and public health.

Of course, this willingness to muck in hasn’t been unique in Bristol. Maryam Banikarim, head of marketing at neighbourhood app Nextdoor, says they’ve seen similar responses across the world. “From the outset of the pandemic, we saw an immediate need around the world for trusted information,“ she says. “People needed hyper-local trusted information pretty quickly, so we turned to the Red Cross, the NHS, and the World Health Organization to make sure people were getting the information they needed."

Going forward and out of lockdown, Craig says Bristol is looking to ensure its citizens are part of the recovery journey, and that the council has been looking into donor principles and deliberative democracy.

Failed tracking

Three months later the uptake has been so slow across the board that it's too early to tell whether they actually work. The UK government spent more than £11m on its centralised coronavirus contact-tracing app, originally scheduled to launch in mid-May. That project was scrapped in favour of an alternative designed by Apple and Google – which even now, is months away from being ready. And as the US looks to reopen its economy, the country has an array of apps that are still buggy and under-used.

“My initial hypothesis was that this would accelerate the rate at which people would sign up for tracking because the mortal risk of being exposed to the virus is real,” says James McQuivey, the vice-president and principal analyst at research firm Forrester. “But because it hasn’t been handled well and might even be perceived as covert, depending on who you speak to, we’re now seeing a move in the other direction, a slowing-down where people are saying, ’wait a minute, there are other things already tracking me that I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with’.”

5G concerns

“I’m getting emails all the time from people with genuine concerns,” insists Bristol’s deputy mayor Asher Craig. “One generation says I don’t see any problem with that, but I want to make sure that it doesn’t look so ugly. And then you’ve got the younger generation with their fears and concerns about 5G.

But rather than the supposed health concerns surrounding 5G, NY Collective founder and chief exec Nicole Yershon points out there are actually many health benefits. “If you look at 5G from a healthcare perspective for future cities, you have a doctor in one country and another doctor in another country using a robot and being able to stitch someone up,“ she says. “They’re not even in the same room, but you’ve got the technology so that they’re not lagging behind with their suturing!“

Will self-driving cars take off?

“In the earliest days, there was a surprising move on the part of municipalities in the US to compete with each other to be the most ahead of the self-driving car curve,“ says McQuivey. “So that competition meant that these cars were rolling out faster and the systems were advancing too quickly, purely from a technology perspective.“

Futuristic ‘driverless pods’ have been piloted in Bristol, with plans to ferry people around the city centre in the future using radar, sensors, and vision processing. “We pride ourselves on being a smart city, but obviously Covid-19 has set back a lot of things,” says Craig. ”It’s like peaks and troughs. I don’t think we’ll necessarily be buying a driverless vehicle to get from A to B, but it’s useful for the airport shuttle. That’s automated, but people don’t equate that fact. When people don’t know what they don’t know, then it’s fine. But when they find out, all hell breaks loose.”

Our future cities panel spoke with executive editor Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

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BristolAsher CraigNextdoorMaryam BanikarimMcQuivey
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