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Life 2.0: Creating pandemic-ready smart cities with COVID-19 learnings

Change is a constant. Right from the metal to machine age, till the era of digital revolution, we have seen several changes impacting our lives. In the information age we are in today, the pace of change has notched up manifold.

The rigorous changes in our lifestyle has invoked us to think of ways to build a more sustainable society, the one that will be able to withstand the rapid evolution of our surroundings.

The Smart City project is one such step towards it. The model of the project varies from one geography to another, depending on various political, social, and economic factors. Whether the existing smart city model is agile enough to handle a pandemic like situation, is the question that now arises.

Circumstances conjured up by the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated an overhaul of the very definition of a smart city. We need to understand that smart cities, with all the focus on digitisation, are still vulnerable to known as well as unknown disasters.

A thorough reassessment of risks is required to evaluate a city’s readiness and preparedness in the face of crisis. As of now, the disaster recovery programs of the Smart City project primarily focus only on known natural calamities such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions, hurricane, tsunami, and so on. However, despite our readiness to tackle any kind of natural disaster in a smart city model, we are woefully lacking in our preparedness against sudden breakout of epidemics and pandemics such as COVID-19.

In a way, the pandemic has provided a new perspective to the way we plan our infrastructure. We need to draw learnings from this ongoing situation and apply those to situations on ground to build effective and long-term solutions. The case now rests on our capability to reinvent and refine our smart City models to accommodate for an uncertain situation, as we face today.

We propose a shift to an upgraded smart city model – Smartp City (p = pandemic ready). The renewed framework will improve our disaster recovery programs and help create self-sufficient cities that can withstand a complete lockdown. The Smartp City blueprints must consider the following ways to deal with an uncertain situation:

  • Touchless delivery of goods and food items –

    An effective way to deliver orders without direct human contact. A thing that emerged out of the COVID-19 crisis, and is expected to stay for a long time to come. Drones, for instance, can be leveraged to establish contact-less order pickup and drops.
  • Smart supply chain set up –

    Trigger more industrial automation to reduce dependence on manpower, by activating alternate ways of outbound logistics, and by increasing visibility on inbound supplies.
  • Touch-free inspection of patients –

    The pandemic situation has necessitated the need for medical intervention without close proximity. Developing touch-free facilities at local clinics, in addition to the existing online consultation apps, can help achieve the objective. The data these systems thus capture on critical health indicators, can facilitate predictive recommendations, such as home quarantine, isolation, or admission to the nearby First Response Hospital.
  • Wireless inspection of civic violations –

    With the growing need for social distancing, surveillance methods for law and order maintenance also need to evolve. Manning a traffic signal, for instance, is a challenge in the current times and also puts authorities in danger. Activating ‘pandemic drones’ across high-risk areas to monitor violations of civic norms, such as social-distancing, can prove to be effective.
  • Tackling cybercriminals and fake news –

    Now more than ever, we understand the perils of fake news. We have to leverage technology to tackle the problem if we want to suppress it effectively. While there are a few new age companies that are doing a brilliant job of fact checking, a central registry of official information will automatically help curb the menace of fake news.
  • Online education and examination infrastructure –

    The COVID-19 lockdown has shown us that one can be located anywhere in this world and still be productive. The learning can be applied for our education system also. Establishing technology infrastructure for schools and universities should become a permanent fixture in the Smartp City model, in order to facilitate e-learning and e-examinations.
  • Touch-free sanitation and waste management –

    Make provisions to invest in touch-free sanitary hygiene bins and rubbish disposal technology to reduce infection, and to maintain high levels of cleanliness during lockdown situations.
  • A blockchain-enabled citizen tracking system –

    Till now,tracking the movement of people infected by COVID-19, or the potential carriers, has been a lacklustre affair. Gaining a clear visibility on the testing infrastructure has been the biggest challenge. A decentralised Blockchain network to track people’s movement, health records, etc., can provide useful insights in such situations.
  • E-Voting Infrastructure –

    For long, we have been demanding an online voting system to accommodate the rapid movement of citizens from one state to another, or even outside the country. A Smartp City model cannot ignore the need. The new model must address the caveat by establishing effective backend system to ensure no duplication or manipulation occurs in votes cast online.
  • Smart intensive care units and isolation wards –

    Hospitals play an important role in providing the first response to a crisis situation. The pandemic-ready smart City model will have to prioritise essential medical care with the use of technology. The model must enhance the readiness of health facilities by increasing bed capacity, ventilator systems, and isolation wards among other things, to help hospitals handle rapidly increasing service demands.

While creating a pandemic ready model, based on the learnings we have gathered, will definitely accommodate the plethora of changes we are witnessing today. However, the most imperative aspect to keep in mind is agility and flexibility. If the upgraded smart City models are in sync with the current times, but fail to adapt to new situations, the entire effort will still fall flat.

This article was first published in IoT Now