28 May 2021
COVID-19 and smart cities: Challenges and opportunities
This article addresses new challenges and opportunities for smart cities during the Coronavirus pandemic. Smart cities can effectively and rapidly curtail virus transmissions by seamlessly collecting data and analyzing population movement patterns. The Malaysian government has introduced the Malaysia Digital Economy Blueprint to transform the country into a digitally driven, high income nation, while aiming to be a regional leader in the digital economy. Recently, private companies have donated smartphones with data packages to underprivileged students. Some have also teamed up with the NGO Teach for Malaysia to donate laptops for children in need. Official organizations have focused on incorporating technology into schools in Malaysia. Programs such as the Mobile Internet Unit (MIU) provide internet access and ICT education to schools, assisting children to contribute towards an ICT-equipped Malaysia in the future.
Photo credit: Peng Liu
Smart cities unveil new challenges and opportunities during the Coronavirus pandemic. The unprecedented health crisis has shocked many people around the world and scores of countries have accelerated digital solutions. As the COVID-19 shock has increased global interest in building smart cities to cope with pandemic, countries have jumped into the race to build smart cities post-pandemic. However, what aspects of smart cities increases its resilience to disruptors like COVID-19 and what makes them more vulnerable?
Although many countries suffering from safety issues during the pandemic have begun to pay attention to smart city projects for urban digitalization, the smart city roadmap within respective nations should vary according to their unique geographical, social, and cultural situations. For example, in Malaysia, the smart cities like Penang have embarked on its own city plan according to the Malaysia Smart City Framework in 2019, and could be a good example to show how a city can cope with situations such as pandemics.
COVID-19 has become a catalyst to reveal how vulnerable urban infrastructure is to pandemic shocks. In extreme situations during the pandemic, differences between country responses were evident. We could see stark contrast between cities which had strong digital infrastructures and relevant regulations vs. the cities which did not. Thus, it is no surprise that the demand for smart cities with digital infrastructure have grown, in recognition of its potential to tackle the potential risk of the next pandemic.
Smart cities may provide several benefits in managing pandemics:
It enables the effective quarantine by leveraging digital infrastructure. It is important to track confirmed COVID-19 patients and their close contacts to curb the spread during the pandemic. Singapore, for example, has responded successfully using smartphones and portable tracking devices. South Korea has capitalized on its digital technologies like surveillance camera footage and cashless transactions to track patients with suspected or confirmed infections. In that respect, smart cities like Penang could investigate its existing infrastructure and technologies to develop and cope with future pandemic. The city is encouraged to intensify its capacity to collect relevant data and analyze the population movement patterns to stop the virus from spreading more quickly in the future.
Smart cities bring innovation in transportation through big data information. One of the key features about smart cities is its ability to manage traffic effectively by analyzing movement patterns. By analyzing big data from traffic movements of cars, bicycles and pedestrians, the government can quickly take necessary measures such as implementing social distancing at targeted hotspots. In addition, smart cities can provide optimized routes for commuters since the use of micro-mobility has increased compared to the use of public transportation during the pandemic. As Malaysia’s smart city plans including that of Penang tend to focus on transport issues, it is possible to effectively manage city traffic, which helps to curtail the spread of local infections.
Digitalized smart cities help to boost virtual interactions. Work meetings have been replaced by virtual ones, and school classes have also been conducted online. Smart cities equipped with digital infrastructure can adapt quickly to this shift in society. The smart city of Penang, Malaysia, focuses on contactless systems including cashless payments, therefore, it can provide good examples for contactless solutions if it capitalizes on this infrastructure.
Smart cities, however, must resolve several challenges to better play their role in a similar crisis that may happen in the future:
Privacy issues in the use of personal information. To enable smart safety measures based on the big data, personal data that contains private information may be collected. Therefore, it is imperative to gain citizens’ trust in smart city technologies. Public discussions should be conducted on the use of personal information, and a certain consensus must be formed on why this is needed. Although Malaysia has no restrictions or provisions that allow the government to collect personal data, smart cities like Penang may encourage people to voluntarily provide their personal information for public safety.
It is important to think about those who are left behind in a contact-free society. Although faceless services are widespread in the smart cities, it should be considered that not everyone is familiar with digital devices. There are people who cannot keep up with rapid digitalization. Therefore, alternatives should also be prepared for those who are not familiar with smartphone apps or non-face-to-face services.
The coronavirus pandemic has become an opportunity to evaluate how much smart cities have matured. Many countries are already preparing for the post-COVID-19 era. The next calamity that may be upon us is climate change as along with the negative health effects of environmental pollution. Therefore, smart cities which incorporate digital technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) may be even more desired in the future, for their potential to offer adaptive solutions.