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By Imogen Watson | Senior reporter

June 30, 2020 | 9 min read

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?

Lockdown community spirit

“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.

Craig says that Bristolians’ volunteering spirit has been second to none during the outbreak and that, within 48 hours of the city asking, nearly 9,000 people had signed up on the Can Do Bristol website to help the vulnerable and shielded.

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."

Although founded in the US, Nextdoor now serves 11 countries, including the UK, Australia, Germany, and Canada, and so it has had a wide-angle lens on the pandemic. "What you saw in Bristol, we also began to see globally – that incredible spirit of wanting to help others," she continues.

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.

“We’re starting a discussion very shortly with the whole city about how they can engage in the recovery going forward. Because if we’re going to deliver on the climate emergency agenda, if we’re going to tackle race inequality in this city, then it’s all shoulders to the wheel. It can’t just be on the institutions alone. Every citizen has a role to play in that.”

Failed tracking

From the beginning of the outbreak, there were hopes that governments would be able to boost their response to the pandemic through smartphone tech, such as track and trace apps. We’re just not there yet, it seems.

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.

While it might be ahead of the UK and US, StopCovid France has only been downloaded by 2% of France and Germany’s Corona-Warn-App by about 15% of its population. And after just 20% of Singapore's population downloaded its app Trace Together, it is developing a wearable tracking device. Unless used by a large percentage of the population, the apps will not function effectively.

“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’.”

McQuivey predicts that, considering how rollouts have been handled, there may be a backlash. “We have to figure out how to do this because we can’t go another five years with people constantly wondering what is being tracked, how is it being used, who has [the data]– and then suddenly hit the brakes. It’s probably OK if we have a little backlash right now.“

5G concerns

Despite the hype from telecoms brands, the reaction to 5G has been a mixed bag to say the least. In England, conspiracy theorists burned phone masts under the belief that the network threatened the health of those nearby. And when fingers pointed to it as the cause of coronavirus, MobileUK was forced to publish an open letter to customers asking for help to stop vandalism and assure consumers that there is no “scientific evidence of any link“.

“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.

“People will get their backs up until we have a whole story about how smart technology can actually benefit. There are ups and downs. It’s not that straightforward. But I would say, fundamentally, we’ll get smarter.“

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!“

As the world gets used to working remotely, she says getting 5G right is crucial.

Will self-driving cars take off?

While futurists have long supposed we’d have flying cars by 2020, reality is still grounded. And just like 5G, driverless and automated travel has been met with skepticism. Some people are wary of trusting their safety to a driver without a brain.

“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.“

It did lead to a backlash, he admits, after a number of accidents. “It caused people to say, wait a minute, let’s put the brakes on here. What’s interesting is that the automakers say they're finally ready,“ he says.

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.”

While driving has been a non-essential activity over the past months, it will be interesting to see whether lockdown has encouraged people to be more trusting of technology.

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.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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