Innovation is Central to the Smart City Vision for Healthier, Safer City Living

Pandemics past, present and future are all having a major impact on emerging strategies on how smart cities leverage technology to make public health institutions stronger, more resilient and more flexible.

Whatever definitions or specific approaches used by different advocates of the smart city ideal, they generally all agree that the true strength of the smart city lies in its ability to utilise technologies in tandem to produce a wide range of mutually supporting systems that will make life better for the average city inhabitant. Understandably, public health is a prime focal point for policymakers and urban planners right now as the world rides the ebb and flow of the current pandemic situation. Looking towards a brighter future, these figures aim to unlock the full potential of technology to make life in smart cities markedly safer and healthier. 

Critical technologies shaping public health in the smart city

Green infrastructure initiatives: The silver lining (or green lining, if you prefer) of the global devastation witnessed throughout 2020 so far is the subsequent drop in pollutants across major cities due to necessary periods of isolation and inactivity. This turn of events has already had a marked impact on governmental policy across various nations as we look to turn some of these temporary ecological benefits into permanent sustainability gains. Leading European cities like Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Milan are already building so-called ‘corona cycleways’ alongside free bicycle repair, cycling lessons and other initiatives, to get their respective urban populations cycling in greater numbers. This approach of proactively creating green infrastructure has the benefit of improving public health, lessening pollution and even creating thousands of new cycling-related jobs. As cycling becomes a more prominent part of smart city living, we can also expect greater integration of technological improvements along cycleways – such as charging points for hybrid pedal/electric bikes, wider WiFi coverage and additional smart traffic measures to further protect cyclists.

AI-enhanced video surveillance for public health monitoring: The advent of 5G networks is making the collection of data in a holistic, citywide manner much more realistic and cost-effective. Accordingly, prospective smart cities are investing heavily in video surveillance solutions that use AI to co-ordinate public health responses. With the connectivity issue of bringing together data from across a whole city rapidly diminishing, emerging AI platforms can track and analyse events in real time and formulate responses for situations ranging from road accidents to disease outbreaks and terrorist attacks. Interest in this approach is being backed with investment – predictions on the global smart city artificial intelligence (AI) software market suggest a 700% rise in value between 2019 to 2025, up from $673.8 million to almost $5 billion.

Wearables, drones and other tracking technologies: Understanding the spread of any viral incident or outbreak within a city requires the kind of comprehensive analysis of citywide movements of people and their behaviour. Similarly, technology has already proven invaluable in recent months for limiting face-to-face contact between people as a way of supporting self-isolation and containment strategies. In Japan, whose government recently passed a ‘super cities’ bill to speed up the integration of technology into its cities, initiatives are already in place to widen the use of wearables that monitor the condition of viral patients with mild or no symptoms, as well as drones for making deliveries of medical items and other necessities to isolated or otherwise vulnerable people. The overall aim is to provide cities with tech-empowered public health capabilities where medical aid, logistics, transportation and monitoring is all supported via interconnected systems aided by AI and other crucial technologies.

3D-printing: The effects of medical supply shortages have been well documented in coronavirus hotspots around the world, and 3D-printing may become the answer to preventing similar problems in the future. Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed announced last month that he would be launching a campaign to make the UAE a global powerhouse in 3D-printing so that it can quickly create essential supplies like facemasks in large quantities whenever necessary. The campaign will involve the expansion of 3D-printing facilities and production lines, as well as a new strategic virtual network for the government to collaborate with the private sector.

Getting smart with big city health issues

As the increasingly ambitious initiatives emerging around the world demonstrate, the integration and interconnection of new technologies may soon prove to be the key to unlocking a more responsive and resilient public health future for everyone. Technology is providing answers to our immediate needs in tackling the containment of viruses, but also long-term public health concerns around fitness, air pollution and more.