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Are smart cities more resilient?

Canadian communities explore data and tech possibilities to manage the impacts of COVID-19.

two people sitting on a bench next to a lake surrounded by caution tape

Published on May 11, 2020

As cities continue to manage the impact of COVID-19, there is a growing impetus to turn to data and technology solutions for collective protection and recovery. This pandemic is testing the resilience of Canadian communities in profound ways, and many communities are already stepping up.  The pandemic is calling into question the opportunities possible with data and technology – are smart cities better able to manage current and future challenges? 

Resilience means the ability of a city to withstand and recover from acute shocks and chronic stressors. Acute shocks like those we are living in now – pandemics, earthquakes or floods – can exacerbate pre-existing chronic stressors, such as lack of affordable housing, underfunded transit systems or food insecurity, and severely diminish the ability of a community to recover from them. 

Pre-pandemic, there was already growing interest by communities to invest in data and technology solutions to improve public service areas, drive sustainability efforts and increase overall community resilience. But these remain uncharted waters for many Canadian communities. Rapid innovations and increasingly sophisticated technologies become available all the time and it is difficult to determine what role they should play in city building and how they must be regulated to proect the public. Simply put, many elements of the smart city smart city like urban data collection and artificial intelligence (AI) are an immature regulatory space. Policies struggle to keep up with the pace of technology and AI capabilities.  

These concerns still exist in the era of COVID-19, but the severity of the pandemic prompts a sense of urgency to utilize all possible tools at our disposal to manage it. We’ve already seen early examples of positive tech solutions - companies re-tooling to produce face shieldsa slider device for safe in-store interactions and developing fast and portable tests. Many other examples of data and tech-based resilient solutions can be found on the Community Solutions Portal. 

Some AI driven tools aimed at managing the pandemic, interventions like contact tracing apps for example, are gaining traction. These apps can collate user mobile location data and health records to anonymously alert you of possible exposure to the virus SARS-CoV-2, and allow publich health authorities to paint a clearer picture of where community outbreak hotspots are happening, and act accordingly.

This opportunity brings new challenges for community leaders and municipal staff, among the most pressing, data privacy. As we move forward, communities must continue to look at how they safeguard residents’ data. Do we have the regulatory framework in place to protect the public? Is there a case to be made to work in a ‘sunset’ clause – data use for emergency situations with complete disposal afterward?  Or do tech driven solutions need to take a backseat to on-the-ground mobilization and planning? 

Meaningful and participatory governance should never be ignored. Technology can play an important role in how we manage our community stressors and future acute shocks. But it important to take the time to get this right and to have an 'open' approach that centers on transparency and public benefit. After all, technology is rarely a solution in and of itself. As communities implement new policies and strategies to increase resilience in the recovery from COVID-19, we will look to see how technology can be a helpful tool and the ways in which this crisis can teach us how cities should approach future challenges.  

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