Human history has taught us that pandemic outbreaks occur every now and then, disrupting human activity, posing a big hurdle to national health systems and imposing heavy consequences on world economies. While it has been a long time since such an outbreak affected the world economies so hard, this Covid-19 outbreak allows us to think about the role played by smart city technology and city management in order to anticipate, evaluate, monitor and act in the recovery of future cities.
That is why this month, we are dedicating a series of posts to interviews with prominent scientists and thinkers who have dedicated their lives to the ‘resilient cities’ topic. How does technology help in managing future and current pandemic outbreaks? What sort of technology is there to anticipate and manage future outbreaks? What are their expectations for tomorrow?
Matthias Weis is the Managing Director of [ui!] Urban Lighting Innovations GmbH, which designs and implements independent, complete solutions for the digitalisation of public infrastructure in a forward-looking manner on national and international levels. He has been working intensively on the digital transformation of infrastructure since 2012. Overall, he can look back on more than 25 years of experience in the fields of street lighting and energy. In 2016 he received the Digital Leader Award from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and in 2017 was named one of the 100 most innovative people in Germany by the business magazine “Handelsblatt”. Matthias Weis was born in Heidelberg in 1974.
Matthias spoke to us about resilient cities and pandemic outbreaks.
With existing technology, would it be possible to better anticipate and contain the COVID-19 outbreak to avoid the tragic outcome that has plagued some affected countries?
Certainly "yes". There are sufficient technological solutions, both in hardware and software, that could help to contain such a pandemic, and which are also available. The question, however, is whether the prerequisites for their use can be created at the necessary speed and the appropriate investments made - which is often very difficult when the situation has developed as rapidly as has been the case in the past few weeks where the fundamentals have not been done beforehand.
Digitisation, which has progressed overall, would certainly have helped a lot.
Can you name any interesting projects in the ‘resilient cities’ domain that could foster better disease detection and help communities prevent and manage disease outbreaks better?
In principle, it is essential for every municipality, in every crisis situation to have a sound and transparent data basis at all levels. This is the only way to make the right decisions at a reasonable speed and only in this way can the overall “city” structure withstand extraordinary loads. Here the current situation (worldwide) shows a clear need to catch up, which must now be compensated for as quickly as possible.
This affects the health systems of cities as well as the economy, public security, mobility, infrastructure and, last but not least, planning and administrative processes.
Cities that are already very resilient in this sense also have more information and transparent data in all areas. This gives you a more comprehensive picture: you can identify developments and trends in all areas much earlier and thus react more appropriately.
I am aware of many projects that support the above - both in Germany and internationally. Their common ground consists in improving information and data, making situations and relationships transparent and creating resilient added value for the city, urban society and infrastructure.
It appears that some countries have used smartphone tracking methods to collect information and anticipate virus outbreaks (although this can be considered a sensitive issue, especially when it comes to privacy issues). Can you name other technologies that have been used worldwide to curb virus spread? Have they been effective?
As can be seen from the media, temperature measurements are carried out in some countries to identify feverish people. This is often done in the access areas (e.g. factory premises, airports). The technology itself brings with it a certain degree of inaccuracy. As it has now turned out, a corona infection does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with fever and not every person with an elevated temperature necessarily has corona. For this reason, this method is certainly suitable for contributing to containment, but cannot be a guarantee.
As is well known, the mentioned smartphone tracking option aims to understand the contacts of infected people in order to make quarantine measures more individual and to be able to track infection chains better. Independent of a special app, smartphone data is also evaluated in some countries to determine whether quarantine measures and contact bans are being observed and to see how effective they are. This is completely anonymised data and can be done while respecting data protection and the personal rights of everyone.
There is a close correlation between more authoritarian regimes and the use of technologies to effectively control the spread of diseases (such as temperature measurements, controlled access to urban areas and transport, mandatory quarantine regulations, restrictions on the movement of people and goods, etc.). How do you see the role that democratic regimes play in adopting these technologies and policies?
Responsible handling of such measures should be a central component in any democracy, including data protection as a matter of course. This also includes open communication and a transparent presentation of the facts. The art, however, lies in shaping a democratic decision-making process that does not lead to endless discussions. After all, it's about time that you usually don't have, especially in crisis situations. This has to be as clear to everyone involved as the fact that, ultimately, even in a democracy, not everyone can be pleased.
Do you think some lessons have been learned from this recent outbreak and cities will start to adapt better and invest in smart technologies?
The current situation is already accelerating digitisation in many areas, including also in cities and municipalities. In the end, this affects all levels - from the way work is designed to internal processes and public infrastructure. The current situation inevitably makes it clear that there is still a lot of potential and investments to be made.