Author: Claire Chandler
The definition of Smart Cities and what it means to be a Smart City or region has shifted after the COVID-19 pandemic as many problems have come to surface that need to be addressed in order for a city to improve the quality of life and safety for its citizens. Last month, Dr. Diana Bowman talked with other industry professionals on two panels, to discuss how the pandemic has changed the way cities and regions should use technology to help its citizens.
In a panel discussion for “La Movilidad Urbana del Futuro,” an event held by the Convergence Lab and the Instituto Mexicano para la Competividad, Bowman discussed her thoughts on Smart Cities after the pandemic.
“To me, when I think about a smart city,” Bowman said, “it is about how we improve quality of life for the citizens of that city and people who spend time in that region. Definitely as I have been thinking about mobility and smart cities, it has changed a little bit, in terms of what type of solutions does that look like.”
Bowman noted that one of the main changes she’s noticed during the pandemic is the way we see mobility, “we learned that there are other ways we can move, some of them are healthier for us as individuals, but also for our planet,” she said in a discussion with Debate, a news outlet in Mexico.
Some problems she defined in the discussion are how to help an aging population stay independent through public transport; as well as keeping pedestrians safe, considering the Phoenix region has a high number of pedestrian deaths each year. This mortality rate can cause some to feel unsafe and avoid walking.
Another problem she pinpointed, that came to the surface during the pandemic, was the lack of broadband internet access. This led to issues as more and more people were working, and learning, from home. In a panel event for the Thunderbird School of Global Management, Bowman discussed the accessibility of broadband and how it creates a divide between those who have internet access and those who don’t.
Through rapid 5G deployment to areas with no access to the internet, she said they “are trying to make that as easy and trying to break down potential barriers so those who are in cities and have better access, don’t have a competitive advantage to those regional and rural citizens.”
“One of the things we noticed very early on, ” she said, “was obviously the equity in terms of access to broadband, which had huge ramifications for education, and workforce. We had to pivot very quickly in terms with our partners to think about how do we actually provide access for lower income families around education. We had a great partnership at the state level with CISCO who actually provided access to the internet through public libraries.”
From those valuable partnerships she saw the value of community spaces, like libraries, where many can come to access things they may not have at home (computers, internet, etc.) This led to what she calls, “an opportunity to rethink about space.” She said this pandemic shows more and more that “people want space” and “access to parks, areas they can cycle, walk and enjoy the sunshine.” These spaces will improve community health overall as outdoor time improves mental and physical health, especially during a pandemic where everyone is shut indoors.
“We’re all socially distancing.” She continues, “One of the things we so often forget when we are thinking about Smart Cities and smart regions is the role of parks and urban areas that provide not only great relief for mental health in terms of being outside and the sunshine, but also promote health and wellbeing in terms of recreational spaces.”
Another side-effect from the pandemic, besides the shift of how we think about mobility, is how we see working in general. Remote work during the pandemic has changed how many work in general, something she thinks will stick around for a while after we return to normal life post-pandemic.
“It’s horrible that we’ve had to go through what we have had to get to that point, but the idea that people who have caregiving roles or have other responsibilities may actually have a different workplace I think is potentially a silver lining. It goes to the point of flattening the curve- we don’t have those peak traffic volumes from 7-9 o’clock or 4-6:30, and potentially this is a way to still have mobility, or mobility in different ways but reduce some of the consequences. I think that’s really exciting.”