Key Insights

Expert Views: Lessons From the Pandemic

ESI ThoughtLab

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a watershed event for cities across the world. According to ESI ThoughtLab’s survey of 167 cities in 82 countries, 81% of cities ranked the pandemic as the biggest disruption in 2020. It was even more impactful in advanced markets like North America (98%) and Europe (92%).

Experts participating in our Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World global study shared their perspectives on how the pandemic changed cities, both temporarily and permanently, and what were the biggest lessons drawn from the crisis.

What main lessons did cities learn from the pandemic? How should they change their social, environmental, and digital priorities as a result?

Aseem Joshi, General Manager of Smart Cities, Honeywell: The current global health crisis created an additional, and unexpected, strain on many cities and is a likely catalyst for greater technology adoption in cities. It’s also created the twin challenge of pandemic response while keeping essential operations running. As the number of infections rose, cities needed to establish procedures to effectively test at-risk citizens, quarantine and hospitalize where necessary, and trace contacts for confirmed positive cases. Cities that had City Operations Centers ready, with clear standard operating procedures established, had a head start, as they have been able to harness and repurpose the tools they offer to fight the pandemic.  

Jarendra Reddy, Director, Urban Solutions, Hatch: The pandemic has taught us both low-tech and high-tech lessons. It has laid bare issues of social and economic vulnerability, increasing our focus on public health, diversity, and inclusion. It has underscored the importance of a city’s social fabric; the seemingly intangible benefits of a neighborhood—and neighbors—are now strikingly tangible. And we re-commit ourselves to these enduring fundamentals, empowered with greater technological prowess to manage just-in-time communications, understand volatile shifts in demand, and contain wastage by redeploying resources in semi-real-time.

Gerald Uche Maduabuchi, Director of Sales, Panorama Data Solutions Ltd: Top politicians, government officials and privileged families in some African countries usually travel to advanced cities for medical treatments, but the global lockdown caused by the pandemic forced politicians to face, like the public, the “beast of the poor healthcare system” they helped to create. The lesson learned should be the need to look inward and build smart healthcare; focus on enabling healthcare workers such as doctors, clinicians, and nurses to use ICT to increase their ability to diagnose and treat diseases; provide preventive care; and reduce the costs of healthcare for the city.

Eugenie L. Birch, Nussdorf Professor and co-Director, Penn IUR: We need to align our planning and health systems more closely, especially in managing crises such as the pandemic, but we can also draw parallels with other potential crises. In the health arena, we can use smart city digital capacities to do so, especially in the realm of communications, contact tracing, information,  scheduling vaccinations, etc.

Which smart technologies and solutions were most effective during the pandemic? Where should cities place their technology bets as we enter a post-pandemic world?

William Baver, Vice President, Smart Platform, NTT: Cities need to invest in technologies with a long-term view—we are now going through a global pandemic, but we do not know what challenges we will be facing next. The ability to be agile and readapt to changing situations and contexts will be key. That is why NTT believes in the importance of data, which once collected and analyzed can be leveraged to address different issues across a myriad of use cases and can provide insights in line with the specific needs of the time.

Andrew Caruso, Director, Urban Solutions, Hatch: Beyond obvious advances in virtual collaboration, district-level public health monitoring, and an explosion of e-commerce platforms, technological responses to the pandemic have also accelerated two unique economic transformations. First, the pandemic fueled the growth and adoption of individual-scale, on-demand, app-based commerce (ride sharing, deliveries, etc.). Second, for technology-tracked, behavioral-based business models (i.e., insurance based on miles driven and/or driver behavior, etc.) it opened a conversation about sharing benefits between supplier and consumer as consumption behavior radically shifted.  

Gerald Uche Maduabuchi, Director of Sales, Panorama Data Solutions Ltd: Cities should bet on using digital, cognitive healthcare systems and electronic diagnostic tools to enhance their ability to improve clinical performance and service. It is vital to build isolation centers in every community, improve on locally made ventilators, combine structured health information systems data with unstructured community data to improve planning, surveillance and response to future disease outbreaks and epidemics.

Miguel Eiras Antunes, Global Smart City, Smart Nation & Local Government Leader, Deloitte: New and emerging technologies will play a vital role in the way cities function. Take the case of digital twin technology to allow cities to use advanced modeling and simulation capabilities to test new solutions in a digital environment. We will see a truly hyperconnected era in cities with the convergence of IoT, 5G, cloud, and edge computing. For instance, today’s smart cities might have sensor networks of a few thousand connected devices. Imagine a scenario where millions of such devices can be connected in a city center, measuring temperature, humidity, air quality, flood levels, pedestrian traffic, and more.

Ton de Vries, Senior Director, Business Development, Bentley Systems: Addressing environmental concerns are critical for our global future. In response to extreme weather events, rising population, and inadequate drainage, cities around the world are at risk of flooding. The damage to property and infrastructure is costly, and floods have an impact on human safety, the economy and more. In response to these threats, cities are striving to improve their flood resilience with data-driven planning, development, and operations. Some cities are accomplishing this using digital twins to improve the resilience of current infrastructure and to support ongoing development and future planning.  

How will working, living, travelling, and socializing in cities permanently change after the pandemic ends? What will city leaders need to do differently to meet the evolving needs of residents and businesses?  

Jarendra Reddy, Director, Urban Solutions, Hatch: The pandemic has undoubtedly reaffirmed the importance of mixed-use, “15-minute neighborhoods” offering live-work-play environments within walking distance from one’s home. Some are also pointing to the rise of the “Roaring 20’s”—a period of social and economic vibrancy in the United States following (among other things) the 1918 flu epidemic—as an example of a potential reinvigoration of our social fabric in a post-pandemic world. But the pandemic has also radically reoriented ideas of being “present” in the workplace across several industries. And, while the net effect of the pandemic on work-related travel is unclear, one can anticipate it will further polarize both sides of the argument: some arguing for continued digital engagement, and others doubling down on the importance of face-to-face relationship building.

Gerald Uche Maduabuchi, Director of Sales, Panorama Data Solutions Ltd: It will depend on the leaders. The few African countries with a people-oriented, selfless government will use technology to improve their city hygiene, healthcare, isolation centers, parks, road networks, the online marketplace, logistics and delivery systems, street numbering systems, digital connectivity, and transportation. After the pandemic ends, with Africa recording fewer casualties than other continents, I predict a return to the status quo, back to square one or business as usual in Africa, especially in countries divided by ethnicity, a primary stimulus for corruption.

Miguel Eiras Antunes, Global Smart City, Smart Nation & Local Government Leader, Deloitte: The pandemic will have a long tail, and cities will take some time to bounce back. We will continue to see slower economic growth, a broader focus on public health infrastructure, and cities struggling with backlogs and pent-up demand. But we will see an emergence of an adaptive governance style that focuses on data-driven decision-making, adopting emerging technology, and implementing innovative policies. The post-pandemic era will be mainly characterized by digitalization, including the normalization of virtualized work environments, rise in telehealth services, and hybrid learning environments in education.  

Access to data proved crucial during the pandemic. What types of data will cities harness in the future, and how will they change their analytical methods and systems for driving value from data?

William Baver, Vice President, Smart Platform, NTT: The ability to share and leverage data between private and public players is extremely important for municipalities in order to inform citizens. To drive value from data, cities need to learn how to gather and analyze multiple data coming from different sources with the goal of generating insights and use them for both real time and predictive analysis, while still safeguarding citizens’ privacy. Having data on the status of a current situation is valuable but having insights on how that same situation will look in a couple of hours or days, that is where we can really harness the power of data.

Aseem Joshi, General Manager of Smart Cities, Honeywell: Cities today have access to a variety of data, much of which was repurposed to address the city needs during the pandemic. Location information used via contact tracing apps (where done in a manner that respects citizens privacy) can help minimize potential spread. Similarly, video feeds from existing cameras deployed in cities were analyzed to detect crowding patterns by counting not recognizing individuals, enabling cities to adopt strategies (e.g., adjust store opening /closing timings) to reduce crowding incidences, and measure its effect. Cities and their partners will continue to innovate to develop new technologies and repurpose existing ones to get better outcomes.

Gerald Uche Maduabuchi, Director of Sales, Panorama Data Solutions Ltd: Without reliable data, the government cannot assess how badly the pandemic is spreading, hurting people and the economy, nor properly monitor the recovery processes. Accurate and timely economic, disease transmission, and control data are crucial for informing policy decisions.

Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World is an in-depth global study designed to create an evidence-based roadmap to make cities safer, more sustainable, and resilient. The research reveals lessons learned from the pandemic, centered on the social, environmental, and economic imperatives that matter most, and based on objective quantitative analysis that shows which investments and technologies will be most effective for achieving their goals.