Reimagining smart city design post-pandemic

Dr Harpreet Seth, Head of Architecture Studies, Heriot-Watt University Dubai looks at how urban planners and the design community will now need to depend on technology more than ever

Since the advent of the pandemic, governments at various levels across the world have been implementing smart city technologies to help combat its impact – using it to track the spread of infections and to support the execution of medical strategies.

In addition to demonstrating the value of smart technologies, these new applications are helping shape the future of smart cities. The pandemic prompted governments and authorities to repurpose existing digital infrastructure in many innovative ways that were difficult to imagine previously.

Urban planners and the design community will now need to depend on technology more than ever in ways we never visualised prior to the pandemic. As we reimagine our built environment, we need to find creative ways to reduce the many points of contact between people and surfaces.

Some of the key and immediate changes to the concept of smart cities post-pandemic requires accelerating digital transformation and envisioning new design approaches. These will not only help us adapt to the new normal but also create new modes of social interactions essential for our wellbeing and make our cities more resilient.

  • Embracing automation. Even before the pandemic began, we had already started to see and experience automation in the form of touchless faucets and sensor-operated doors, especially in hotels, malls and airports. Now that we have been facing a pandemic for over a year, it is obvious that everybody wants to avoid touching anything unnecessarily. In terms of design upgrades, it is office buildings and even residential properties that should prioritise replacing doorknobs, light switches, thermostats, and other touch operated objects with motion sensors and voice controls, in order to reduce avoidable human contact.
  • Feeling safe with cleanliness and hygiene. Without a doubt, cleanliness and hygiene is now an integral part of feeling safe. As we re-evaluate our built environment – especially public places – architects and designers are adopting new design considerations in the form of anti-bacterial surfaces and anti-microbial fabrics that will eventually become more common in new projects such as hotels and spas, restaurants, cinemas, malls, and museums. Educating people and encouraging a shift in their attitude will remain vital to ensuring their safety.
  • Striking the balance between live-work-play. With a lot of individuals still working from home and some companies allowing their employees indefinite remote working, people’s leisure and recreation needs will need to be reimagined as well. The design community are already seeing a rise in the demand for repurposed living spaces. From reducing tactile contact (sensor-based controls) to integrating fitness (home gyms) and work (digitally enabled workstations) into their homes, none of these are going to be possible without the aid of smart technologies. Live-work-play is the new design typology that has become more prominent over the last one year. Hence, the need for balance and taking a pause between each facet of live-work-play will continue to grow into the near future.

Shaping the future of our cities

The smart city discourse has conventionally revolved around the subject of sustainability. While it is important to remain focused on our original objective of creating smart cities that are efficient and sustainable, adopting a holistic approach to digital transformation and resilience planning is also crucial.

Although it is positive to see the roll-out of vaccines across the world, reclaiming a world as it was prior to the pandemic could be a few years away. It is hence important to make urban resilience a top priority. Architects have a great role to play in influencing changes to housing, mobility, work, and recreation, so that we are more prepared in thwarting or managing future crises. Smart city technologies can help us make our cities more habitable, resilient, and sustainable – and this is exactly what we need to create a safe and prosperous future that is responsive, not reactive.

The pandemic is also a lesson on why cities need to partner and collaborate with national governments to follow a consistent set of policies and synchronised actions. Though most cities can lean on their national governments for help during major crises, that is not always the case, even in developed countries. Cities must become more independent and innovative, enrolling all stakeholders in their crisis response and recovery planning – and that’s where smart city technologies will play the role of a critical enabler.

While some governments might relegate smart city priorities to the backburner as short-term economic recovery plans take precedence, few governments such as the UAE have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to boost their digital investments, especially with respect to smart city components. By incorporating pandemic preparedness and reviving the economic health of their cities, such governments are definitely going to reap the plural benefits of investing early in smart city technologies.

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