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Authors: Vanessa Koh
COVID-19 has brought new insights into the long-term sustainability of our smart cities and frenzy urban lifestyle. While countries around the world are investing in boosting their healthcare sector and keeping their essential system running, the ongoing pandemic has got the majority questioning the new normal.
On top of being a key challenge to global health governance, the virus has proven to be a litmus test on preparedness and infrastructure.
The promise of better opportunities, accessibility, and improved quality of life attracts people to cities. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs reports that by 2050 more than two-thirds of the global population is expected to live in urban areas.
Covering a mere two percent of the world's land, the high population density in cities complicates the management of outbreaks, especially a highly transmittable one like COVID-19.
Moreover, the shortcomings of the modern economy have created real tension between addressing the immediate needs that come with the crisis and investing in more sustainable infrastructure.
The past few months have proven that crisis-led technological solutions can bring about a better future. Technology leaders and smart cities stand in a unique place to ensure sustainable living and development. This is especially true in the case of a pandemic which requires thorough monitoring and immediate response.
Countries such as China have been effectively tapping into artificial intelligence (AI) technology and big data to aid front-line healthcare workers, facilitate real-time contact tracing, and screen potential cases.
Adaptation of digital technologies that promote teleworking, web-based community building, virtual services, and even 3D printings of healthcare essentials proves that smart city mechanisms are not only capable of learning from a crisis but also learning in a crisis.
Blockchain technology has revolutionised the way data is transmitted and protected. Its adoption in cities throughout the world has led to advancements in urban management systems thanks to its interconnected and immutable nature.
Industries such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals, food, and agriculture have been able to upscale its supply chain management while allowing authorities to monitor and allocate resources effectively.
Blockchain technology has not just been a hot-button topic in sustainable urban design but a promising solution world leaders are investing in for a better future. The United Nations Office of Communication and Information Technology (UN-OICT) has been developing a cutting-edge blockchain-backed solution to support the Government of Afghanistan in its rebuilding efforts.
As a part of the "City for All" initiative, the UN-OICT has turned to blockchain technology to solve infrastructural challenges in the nation and to bring about an effective land management system, strategic urban infrastructure and improved municipal finance.
By providing real-time information on basic necessities, blockchain technology is transforming public service, which includes automating energy supplies, managing water consumption, monitoring air quality levels.
This provides the authorities with greater control over resources, improves demand-supply efficiency as well as address fundamental problems in their urban planning while ensuring data integrity.
Looking into the next phase of recovery, it is important to factor in environmental sustainability when putting together a post-pandemic package.
The economic slowdown during the quarantine period has resulted in a significant drop in urban pollution, providing the need to reassess the impact of human activity on the planet.
Longer-term measures to minimise carbon emission and curb energy consumption as well as the inclusion of a smarter disposal system can ensure a healthier urban environment.
According to the Ericsson Mobility Report, ICT-enabled solutions can curb the global greenhouse gas emission by 15 percent by 2030 if implemented effectively. With comprehensive computation and effective smart-grids, it will be easier to determine pollution hotspots, take proactive measures to identify sources and keep an immutable record on the progress for future planning.
For instance, smart meters implemented by Building Cities Beyond (BCB) Blockchain in Yatai City, Myanmar has not only refined energy management but also regulated energy consumption behaviour, improving the overall energy efficiency in the city. With the smart meters, hotels in Yatai City are able to identify users who are environmentally savvy and provide rebate discounts as a token of encouragement.
On top of that, cloud-based software applications can effectively receive, analyse, and transform data into real-time intelligence that changes daily lifestyle and curb energy consumption. Tech giants such as Apple, Google and Amazon are all releasing a range of gadgets that changes the way homes manage their power usage.
On the other hand, waste is a key developmental and environmental issue for all countries across the globe as it is almost an unavoidable result of human activities. Waste in cities affects air and water quality, breeds hazardous health issues, and affects the public space.
An intelligent disposal system has the power to redefine waste management in urban areas. With the help of sensors and decentralized blockchain networks, local authorities can achieve a sustainable waste management system by generating an interoperable tracking facility.
The increased visibility of an open network will result in heightened accountability among consumers, companies, and waste management industries.
As we recuperate from the ongoing pandemic, it is important to define what tomorrow will look like and take stock of our preparedness to face future global crises. Being built on complex and interconnected frameworks, smart cities are well-positioned to be the agents of change and reshape global culture.
Having said that, sustainability requires a collaborative effort — and the responsibility to preserve a better future remains squarely on the collective shoulders of humanity. Even with advancements in technology and resource management, the looming reality of a rapidly increasing urban population means that innovators, policymakers, and the everyday man must adopt a different mindset and approach to daily life to ensure sustainable living.
All journeys start with the first step, no matter how small. Let us do our part together.