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Rebuilding tomorrow’s smart cities with a people first approach

Cities need to invest in its number one asset - its people - in the wake of Covid-19, writes Michael Proman, Managing Director, Scrum Ventures.

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As the global pandemic rages on — hitting almost 60 million worldwide cases and producing a record number of hospitalisations — urban cities have been, and continue to be, the epicentre of the carnage. Empty storefronts, shuttered offices, schools and event cancelations have all fuelled a massive suburban flight, leaving many to wonder what the future may hold for these urban centres. With cases surging and the distribution of successful vaccines still months away, many would argue that we still have yet to hit rock-bottom.


But there is reason to be optimistic and we must seize this dire moment in history as the time to reconsider the meaning of smart city technologies. In order to change the trajectory of our world’s cities, we need to place more of an emphasis on innovative solutions that address generational problems and systemic inequalities. Simply put, now is the time to invest in cities’ number one asset: its people.

 

As a diverse representation of communities, people (not products or even property) have the power to ignite change. It’s an empathetic mantra that helped the Biden-Harris ticket capture voters earlier this month in The United States, but it’s more than just a political strategy. It is a recipe that cities must put front-and-centre when thinking about what really matters when investing in technologies, and begs the question: how do you make people’s lives better?

 

When looking to create a more sustainable, equitable and inclusive future, three critical areas are most significant to address in cities, which the incoming US president will prioritise: mobility, housing and healthcare.


Smart Mobility

 

In recent years, cities have invested heavily in public transportation and ride-sharing technologies given their reliable, accessible and affordable value-proposition (not to mention, the environmental impact of reducing carbon emissions). Unfortunately, Covid-19 exposed vulnerabilities in these services while creating heightened interest and record demand in biking, scooters and, yes, even used-cars. While the post-pandemic world will be a hybrid of traditional and emerging mobility sources, the biggest growth area will undoubtedly be derived from alternative energy — particularly, electric (and autonomous/robotic) vehicles as well as surrounding infrastructure, including batteries and charging stations.

The post-pandemic world will be a hybrid of traditional and emerging mobility sources

Implementation of these technologies must reach traditionally underserved communities, and to do so, municipal leaders need to extend the conversation to key private-sector audiences. Target’s partnership with Tesla, ChargePoint and Electrify America is a blueprint that could be replicated at scale. Additionally, parking infrastructure has unquestionable potential to maximise productivity and help retain the vibrancy that has migrated outside city limits in recent months.

 

Smart Housing

 

Like juggling in a wind-tunnel, city leaders must balance diversity, affordability and technology when reimagining what housing means in a post-pandemic world. Continued research surrounding diversity reinforces the need to steer capital to underserved neighbourhoods while also revisiting zoning policies that enable equitable, healthy and sustainable communities — the latter of which is being deployed in Minneapolis via their 2040 initiative. Moreover, technology will manifest itself in numerous ways through both new construction and preservation of existing infrastructure, including green technologies, mixed-use spaces and energy efficient buildings.


Perhaps the most noteworthy development in this area is the recent emergence of dedicated funds and investment platforms aimed at reinvigorating underserved communities and minority-owned businesses. This is precisely the mission of the Oakland Black Business Fund, which launched earlier this Fall and is heavily supported by San Francisco-Bay Area corporate partners.

 

Healthcare

 

The economic recovery from Covid-19 is a top priority for the Biden administration, and that starts with fortifying a healthcare system that is currently in crisis. From telemedicine to predictive analytics and wellness initiatives, we need to re-examine existing limitations — especially those that only speak to portions of cities. Putting the patient experience first, technology providers have the unique ability to own the next chapter in how cities drive healthy and active lifestyles. In fact, some would argue that the pandemic has disrupted an otherwise status-quo system that was hesitant to make the material changes that were so badly needed.


As next-generation products and services flood the market to address patient needs, the biggest X-factor will undoubtedly be the growth of 5G. Because healthcare is so data-driven, 5G’s impact on the industry will be disproportionately heavy. As the New England Journal of Medicine previously reported, due to imaging and electronic medical records (EMRs), each patient soaks up roughly 80MB of data each year — collectively, that’s 30 per cent of all data being stored. With faster and more precise delivery, cities will be able to remotely monitor patients and respond in real-time, which should reduce hospitalisations and create newly realised cost savings for an already overburdened and underfunded system.

5G’s impact on the industry will be disproportionately heavy

Technology can play an invaluable role in transforming cities — making them more liveable and resilient for everyone, but perhaps the largest impact the new administration will have on cities has very little to do with technology and everything to do with social equality. In a poll taken earlier this summer by Pew Research, three out of four Biden supporters viewed racial and ethnic equality as an important position for backing his campaign and exit polls from his Presidential victory reinforced this narrative. Thus, it is this macro-level theme of social equality that should give everyone greater optimism when assessing the next chapter of smart city technology — a future that takes a people-first, inclusive approach to rebuilding and reinventing urban communities.

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