What's next for cities after the coronavirus pandemic?

What's next for cities after the coronavirus pandemic?

The rest of the world needs to catch up with Thailand, writes Kenth Hvid Nielsen

A dancer checks her mobile phone. Infrastructure digitisation is part of smart city development. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)
A dancer checks her mobile phone. Infrastructure digitisation is part of smart city development. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for us on all fronts. It has shaken our confidence in cities to be resilient and sustainable. Across the globe, Covid-19 has threatened cities and communities, endangering not only public health, but also disrupting the economy and the fabric of society.

The impact Covid-19 has on cities has highlighted the need for urban planners and municipalities to re-evaluate what a city needs to be resilient in the 'new normal' -- whether it is reconsidering public infrastructure that would minimise contact, facilitating increased sanitation, coping with heightened demand for essentials, or even managing the effective delivery of municipal services in these circumstances.

While it is still too early to draw conclusions around the pandemic, Swiss business school Institute of Management Development (IMD), who publishes the annual Smart City Index, found that smart cities, or cities that have successfully incorporated digitalisation into its urban planning, actually demonstrated greater effectiveness in handling the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Thailand is making positive progress towards establishing smart cities. Under its Thailand 4.0 model, the country is working to achieve 100 smart cities by 2022, a goal that is well on its way to completion especially now that the Digital Economy Promotion Agency (Depa) and the City Possible global network inked an agreement.

However, the rest of the world has some catching up to do. The world will only become increasingly urbanised. Since 2007, more than half the world's population has been living in cities, and that share is projected to rise to 60% by 2030. With the world increasingly urbanised, it is critical to understand and tackle the systemic challenges cities face, which has been brought to light by the pandemic.

This time each year we reflect on World Cities Day how we can build more resilient, sustainable cities. However, over the last 12 months, much has happened that makes this year stand out. Our view of cities and of smart cities in particular, has been confronted with the reality of a life-changing crisis. But where do we even begin with the painstaking process of transforming cities?

Smart water: A key building block for modern cities

Water management is one of the most pressing and urgent smart city conversations. Access to water is directly linked to our quality of life, but water as a resource has proven critical today, with the rampant use of water for handwashing and cleaning of public spaces and homes in our fight against the coronavirus.

Water demand has skyrocketed in the past few months and has begged the question of how we can better manage this scarce resource and ensure there is enough for everyone.

The key is smart water which refers to water and wastewater infrastructure that effectively manages this precious resource -- and the energy used to transport it. Digitalisation can make our water management more pre-emptive and predictive, ensuring we are constantly monitoring the conditions of our water systems and attending to each change in time, and addressing any issue before it happens.

Water solutions providers have been increasingly integrating intelligence into its technology, and utilities around the world are increasingly leveraging real-time sensors and data analytics to support their daily operations.

For example, water loss occurring along the water system due to leakage -- or non-revenue water (NRW) is a key issue for many cities' water management. While the issue has been gradually resolved in a number of cities in Thailand, utilities in Asia have every reason to worry about water losses -- they lose up to 65% of their production daily, with most utilities averaging a 30% loss.

A key factor contributing to wear and tear in water pipes is excessive pressure, which comes from a constantly high-water supply. With digitalisation, water utilities can use technologies that intelligently adjusts water flow according to demand through the use of remote sensors. This reduces any excess water pressure, which in turn limits water leakages and losses, minimising cost and energy.

A smart city approach to water management also ensures one of a city's most critical infrastructure operates more reliably and robustly than already ageing systems. Through the Internet of Things, advanced real-time data collection and sensors, water networks can access information that allows them to operate in a more predictive manner, reducing downtime and avoiding serious business and environmental consequences.

Such predictive and intuitive models enable innovation at a large scale and hold the potential to revolutionise the way water is sold, distributed and consumed. And the same goes for wastewater in terms of how it is collected, treated, re-cycled or and discharged.

An environment conducive to infrastructure digitalisation

Technology is at our fingertips to empower our cities. However, we need to create a conducive environment for technology to thrive. The first step is to have an integrated approach to operations. For example, streamlining the city's water operations and processes enables us to fully monitor and assess data collected from different touchpoints in the entire water system, providing us with a clearer picture of the state of the city's water management for better analysis and prediction.

Secondly, we need to drive investment towards research and development, so that new knowledge and technologies are constantly tested and feeding into the upgrade of a city's smart operations. In Thailand, the government has dedicated significant commitments into supporting its intention of rapidly transforming this country with digitalisation. For example, the government is pumping investment into digital start-ups, with Depa funding 200 million baht to starts-up and SMEs.

Another key area is people -- we need to prepare the next generation of smart city leaders. Smart cities will demand for a whole new set of skills to adequately manage the city's infrastructure to ensure effective and efficient operations. We need to look to educational institutions to mould the next generation of urban planners, engineers and architects.

Lastly, collaboration between the public and private sector can accelerate the entire process of transforming smart cities. Governments have the access and power to effect change, while corporations are driven by a commitment to be part of the solution and offer first-hand knowledge of what is needed from governments to unlock private-sector investments.

Cities to reboot economies during the new normal

The pandemic has presented us a chance to focus our attention on what should be changed, re-evaluating the way cities are built, maintained, and lived in, and ensure that our already constrained public resources are going where it matters most.

Notably, water plays an essential role in the everyday lives of people, communities, and business. Without investment in water infrastructure, smart cities have limited room for development.

This will not be the last of such traumatic economic and social crises to come, and our cities are due to be transformed whether we like it or not. We should be ready for the next challenge.

Kenth Hvid Nielsen, General Manager of Grundfos Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand & Vietnam

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