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Employees working from home. Seniors and others living in quarantine. Shops, restaurants, and theaters closed. Grocery workers, taxi drivers, and delivery people on the front lines helping to combat a deadly scourge along with first responders and medical personnel.
City life during a pandemic looks a lot different than beforehand. Yet, these challenges are not new. As experts remind us, cities have been shaped by outbreaks for hundreds of years. The difference today is that we have new technologies and the lessons of the past to draw from for reimagining urban spaces to better cope with outbreaks and other crises.
Sara Jensen Carr, assistant professor of architecture at Northeastern University, has pointed out that, for example, American cities have had to contend with disease outbreaks throughout their past. She outlines the history of America's response to epidemics in her forthcoming book, The Topography of Wellness, due out later this year. Measures to limit the spread of disease have included housing with more natural light and air circulation and wide-open public parks meant to give city dwellers more room to spread out.
In other words, cities have already been shaped by epidemics. And the current crisis is likely to do so again.
Spreading out, of course, is the primary directive of health officials worldwide in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But unlike in earlier outbreaks, city leaders have an opportunity to enlist technology to help.
“There's a great opportunity to mobilize innovations, especially digital ones," Michele Acuto, professor of global urban politics at the University of Melbourne School of Design, tells me. Moreover, Acuto argues, measures enacted now could help cities become more resilient in the face of future crises. But only if cities can level the digital playing field.
Cities need more bandwidth, and not just for those who currently can afford it, Acuto says. He points to statistics showing that only about half of the world's population has access to the internet and a disparity in connection speeds across the globe. “Speed is 20 times faster in South Korea than Nigeria," he says, for example.
At the most fundamental level, Acuto says, “Mobile apps only work for those that can afford a mobile, and a data plan that goes with it."
Add to that the problem of constrained access even for those who can afford it, as housebound residents soak up capacity. “Current pressures on the digital infrastructure of our cities are showing fundamental limits," Acuto says. “Half of bandwidth goes for video, and only recently, Netflix and YouTube agreed to lower video quality to ease pressure on these systems."
Universal connectivity, however, could help not only in the current crisis but also in those to come. “Cities have the unique opportunity to recognize the power of communities and the voice of everyday concerns for urban dwellers in crisis," Acuto says. And, he says, technology will play a crucial role.
For instance, digital technology could help with what Acuto calls sound, community-oriented crisis communication. “It's encouraging that bottom-up 'data collectives' and community support groups are emerging fast and effectively," he says. Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, for example, lists groups in the U.K. helping communities share information and coordinate volunteers, such as for deliveries, via social media.
Location data will also reshape cities in response to crisis.
This month, Google and Apple announced a partnership—unusual for the two arch-rivals—to embed so-called contact trace capabilities in future versions of their iOS and Android mobile operating systems. The technology will use Bluetooth radios built into smartphones to register proximity to other phones. The system will then let users report becoming infected to the system, triggering alerts to users who have been near them.
The city-nation of Singapore has already launched a Bluetooth-powered contact tracing app called TraceTogether.
An app called Safe Paths under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology goes a step further, actually mapping the routes of infected individuals using GPS data onto anonymized Bluetooth data.
Even so, says Acuto, these so-called digital experiments could help cities become more resilient in future crises. “For instance, we can learn now what shifts in mobility and community patterns mean not just for health but also climate and sustainability."
Cities have been shaped by outbreaks for hundreds of years. Today, however, we can draw from technology to create a better tomorrow.