This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential Guide: Digital transformation in the public sector

Data insights will define post-coronavirus city planning

Who would have imagined that in 2020, the majority of people would work remotely and buy online? Cities are going to have to change how they are set up

The coronavirus lockdown is easing, but city planners will need to think carefully about how to limit the impact of a second wave of infection, speakers at a recent virtual conference warned.

As long as there is no readily available vaccine for Covid-19, cities will need to balance the health risks with pressure to open up businesses. Risk planning using digital scenario tools will be among the software that city planners and policy-makers will need if they are to plot a path out of the lockdown to a new normal, where citizens and businesses can adjust to living and working while minimising the risk of a second wave of infections.

Although the UK’s “R” reproduction number has fallen and death rates have dropped significantly over the last few days, experts are preparing the public for a possible second wave and hotspots of infections, such as those that occurred in South Korea recently.

Speaking at the Bentley Software Resilience in Action virtual conference, Lou Celi, CEO at ESI ThoughtLab, said: “While things are calming down, we know there could be a second wave. With city leaders needing to close down businesses, services and roads, the pandemic could be a catalyst for change as cities emerge from the crisis. There are already irreversible changes in the way we work and live in cities and it has transformed citizen behaviour.”

Robert Mankowski, vice-president for digital cities at Bentley Systems, said that what the pandemic has shown is that around the world, the impact of Covid-19 has varied. “The pandemic is both a global and local phenomenon,” he said. “Some cities have fared better than others.”

For instance, some cities were more prepared than others for home working and some businesses had not previously needed remote working, he said. “There was no culture of working from home at an airport – they don’t have the VPNs [virtual private networks].”

Given that office workers have been able to work from home, policy-makers and city planners are assessing post-pandemic economic recovery, especially if people will be encouraged to work from home because of the risk of a second wave of infections, according to Kirk Arthur, director, business development, worldwide public safety & justice, Microsoft.

He said data from simulation technology such as digital twins can help city leaders understand how the city lives and and breathes and how people do their jobs.

“Covid-19 has accelerated the need to transform services,” said Jamie Cudden, smart city programme manager at Dublin City Council. He said Dublin is looking at how to use emerging technology to transform city services to deliver better outcomes for citizens.

“There is so much to consider,” said Cudden. “The first thing is how we move people around, because public transport relies on a high density of people in close proximity to each other.

Discussing the changes in people’s commuting behaviour, Cudden said: “We’ve seen a decrease in cars and a huge increase in walking and cycling. There is a great opportunity to come up with a sustainable future, and perhaps rely less on cars.”

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Previously, he said, there had traditionally been a lot of resistance to investing in cycling, but now people are accepting that it has a real future. “A lot of families got on their bikes,” he added. “The focus on micro mobility and a sustainable future will be long-lasting.”

Arthur said: “You don’t necessarily need expensive buildings for people to do their jobs. But if reducing the risk of a second wave will mean that people continue to work from home, the nature of business districts and city centres will change.”

Cudden added: “Cities rely on commercial rates. What will remote working mean for the income of the city? I think we won’t see the same rush hour that we had before the pandemic. It will probably be more staggered – what does that mean for retailers, pubs and business districts?”

For Cudden, bricks-and-mortar retailers will be heavily impacted by reduced numbers of people traveling to and from their home and office, and this will accelerate the shift to e-commerce.

“Traditional retailers will have to see how they fit in the future to ensure cities remain attractive places,” he said. “We can use data to understand people and flows and make evidence-based decisions.”

Such insights would help city planners put infrastructure in place to support more sustainable transport in Dublin, such as a temporary cycle infrastructure, Cudden added.

The speakers acknowledged that although remote working has been a success, internet availability will limit where people can choose to live.

Cudden said: “It is not good enough that when you are working from home, suddenly your broadband goes off. This reinforces the need for good connectivity.”

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