Are smart city technologies the answer to improve urban resilience?

Cities are always striving to incorporate innovation into their urban planning, looking to make as smart a city as possible. And now, with the additional challenge of climate adaptation, cities must also focus on urban resilience. So how can cities ensure that their resilience and smart city solutions complement each other? Conversations with our partners and during events like the Smart City Expo and Barcelona Resilience Week led to the following insights.

by Pieter Bult, Nienke Swankhuisen & Sebastiaan van Herk

Over the years, the concept of a smart city has evolved from focusing on ICT use in the city to a more human-centric approach. Where most cities are looking for long-term solutions, a common complaint is that they are being sold technology solutions with a short-term impact. An integrated solution with a focus on the long term is required, especially when it comes to making a city climate-resilient.

In some cases, technology is seen as the final solution, until it becomes clear that it doesn’t fully address the root of the problem. Therefore, technology should be seen as a tool for problem-solving, the means to an end, rather than the end itself. This also means that cities don’t run the risk of becoming too dependent on big firms or technologies and lose decision-making power. That being said, smart city technologies can, of course, improve urban resilience in multiple ways.

Involving smart city solutions with resilience

Looking at the disaster management cycle, there are four different stages: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery, and smart city technologies could play a role in each one.

In the prevention phase, risk mapping can lead to more adaptive planning. While risk maps are not new, the vast increase in the amount of data available (from various sources such as satellite images and volunteered geographical information from smartphones) certainly presents a new challenge in terms of channeling and filtering the information. Technology enables easier citizen engagement during the prevention phase, which raises awareness and more support for resilience measures. However, how to arrange and increase citizen engagement and use citizen’s input are some of the key challenges.

To provide citizens with early warnings and to give feedback on the adaptive planning, trendwatching and forecasting are essential. Developing a resilient city therefore usually comes with an interconnected network of sensors which enables a very high-quality monitoring of threats. Apart from the monitoring as a smart city technology, new communication services can accommodate a modern warning system. Old warning systems like local sirens are being complemented by ICT based systems like warning messages to mobile phones, possibly connected to an app that tells citizens where to go and what to do.

During and right after a natural disaster, live mapping can improve the situation assessment and decision-making by emergency services. However, good coordination and training are necessary as data doesn’t directly improve the emergency service. It’s also important to avoid over-dependence on ICT, as it the system is not infallible and might not work when either its digital or physical infrastructure is under threat.

With the help of smart city technologies, the recovery phase after an impactful event can lead to more effective rebuilding based on the concept of build back better. One of the examples is the city of Hoboken, New Jersey which was hit by Hurricane Sandy. Instead of putting things back they way they were, the mayor Dawn Zimmer decided to rebuild smarter. Together with Special Envoy for International Water Affairs Henk Ovink, a design competition called Rebuild by Design was instigated.

Teams of experts in different disciplines came up with ideas like more trees in the urban landscape, permeable sidewalks to allow water to drain, and a volunteer group that is creating a “mesh network” of linked Wi-Fi spots to serve as an emergency communication system.

A development concept for Hoboken, which includes barriers, pumps and a belt of parkland to soak up water (plan by the OMA team).

Challenge driven approach to improve resilience

To summarise, smart city technologies can be very helpful and add to the resilience of a city. However, there are certainly obstacles for urban planners, emergency services and all others involved to effectively use these technologies and all the data available.

That’s why Bax and Company has developed a challenge-driven approach to help cities to improve their resilience. We understand the importance of accelerating innovation when it comes to problem-solving and that technological development is not the purpose in itself. With the challenge-driven approach, we assess cities to determine their specific problems. We can then provide an overview of trends and ways to find (technology) solutions which will actually meet the demands. Furthermore, we connect cities so they can share knowledge and experience via City2City learning. Get in touch to hear more about cities we have already helped and in which way we can support you.

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