Covid-19 is showing us what resilience in cities actually is, writes Stephen Zoegall, director of global cities and infrastructure consulting, Accenture.
The pandemic has had disproportionately powerful negative impacts on cities, where population density has proven a liability. Now and in the future, cities will remain on the front lines of mitigation. Their residents and visitors will need to live, work and play in vastly different ways than before. In trying to respond to these evolving needs, city and municipal agency leaders are finding themselves in a position that many were not prepared for: as the world’s most intense incubators, exponents and exporters of innovation in resilience.
It wasn’t always like this. Until recently, resilience was a much-discussed yet still vague concept. In contrast to the aspirational nirvana of smartness in cities, resilience was the more pragmatic cousin, a state-of-being at the end of a logical sequence of actions. Nevertheless, it was a strategically and operationally multidimensional topic, workshopped extensively, and variously described across a plethora of frameworks. This is not at all surprising, because when you combine such a massively convergent concept as resilience with such a massively convergent domain as cities, complexity is on the other side of the equals sign.
"Citizens will need to live, work and play in vastly different ways than before"
However, Covid-19 has shown what resilience in cities really is. Our pain points have been laid bare, from back office operations through front office citizen services and everything in between. The question is what we do to mitigate impacts, and what we do next to build real resilience in our cities to future system shocks. This may vary according to local context but there are plenty of common denominators as to what we have to do.
Transit systems have been devastated by plummeting passenger numbers. Those not supported by stimulus funding are left with few and grim decisions. Hiking fares will pose socioeconomic equity issues, including for many essential workers. Slashing budgets will impose constraints on growth in future – and many departments have already seen their funding rerouted to health services. When employees finally return to work, travel methods could be transformed, with many citizens preferring the privacy of a car.
In response, there has been a flood of tenders from cities around demand management platforms. While the name varies by context, the basic principle is to use data to maximise situational awareness of assets, better predict and plan for demand volatility. In the short term this maximises efficiency of assets and service allocation. In the longer term this can be a foundation for additional tools such as Digital Twins, which can be used to simulate and then optimise decision-making. The promise of Digital Twins extends as the transport system expands, allowing for holistic simulations that can even help predict what happens, e.g., when e-scooters are added to municipal fleets.
The pandemic has also imposed disproportionately harsh financial burdens on cities. Rising unemployment, SME bankruptcies and homelessness are just a few of the effects of the pandemic, bitterly ironic given that cities are normally engines of economic activity and professional opportunity. City and agency leaders find themselves in an unprecedented position of needing to consider all options as they look down the tunnel at years of managing slashed budgets and deep deficits. How do you build economic resilience as you are managing austerity?
On the revenue side, cities are looking to new routes to revenue through new digital infrastructure. For example, 5G and rural broadband provisions have been woven into federal stimulus packages in the US, with the goal of providing an enabling platform for new growth and investment. In the years ahead, city leaders will also need to think laterally about the potential of public-private collaborations.
Over the last decade city agencies have been increasingly, if overall slowly, been migrating their back office to the cloud. When work-from-home became the new norm, digital transformation leaders were relatively well-positioned for remote working. With work-from-anywhere now on the horizon, virtually all public service agencies are not migrating but running to cloud. In the medium term, as many cities are still in the heat of transformation, many of them will face a massive influx of service requests, e.g. for building permits once capital projects are allowed to resume.
"How do you build economic resilience as you are managing austerity?"
Of course, this is not a panacea. Operational resilience in the long run will require new IT tools, new ways of working, new approaches to security, new communication pathways, and new collaboration models, such as local and regional government agencies exploring the possibilities of joint shared service models.
Finally there is the most important factor: citizens. The pandemic has underlined the importance of how cities serve residents and visitors – whether education, security, citizen engagement or others. Cities are no more or less than aggregations of communities, each with its own character and challenges. Post-pandemic cities have a long way to go to ensure the resilience of their essential citizen services.
Digital tools for enhanced communication – e.g., of stay-at-home orders – have great untapped potential. Cities across the US and Europe have started to deploy conversational AI to achieve astounding improvements in efficiency and productivity in handling citizen enquiries. If we can navigate privacy and digital divide issues, smartphones hold tremendous promise to be a key channel of communication between cities and citizens. Online portals can bring new depth to citizen engagement, e.g. in the development of multi-year strategic plans. Social listening tools can be integrated with 311 services to assess and respond to aggregate points of feedback.
A commonplace of parental advice goes, “Do not prepare the road for the child, prepare the child for the road.” The same holds true for resilience in our cities. We don’t know what comes next, but we have new insight and a massive toolkit to help us prepare for the road ahead.
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