The Covid Effect: how the pandemic is changing smart cities
The coronavirus pandemic has also impacted on urban development. A conversation with umlaut smart city expert Simon Müller.
Mr Müller, urbanisation and digitalisation have been the key drivers in the development of smart cities over the past few years. What has changed since the arrival of the coronavirus crisis?
The megatrend towards urbanisation is currently going into reverse. This is mainly due to the fact that the large conurbations favour the spread of the virus on account of the high physical and social density of people living in them. With people now working from home, it is often no longer necessary to be physically close to your workplace. As a result, some sections of the population are giving up urban life for the advantages that come with living in rural regions, such as lower rents and being close to nature. However, in the mid to longer term, the trend towards urbanisation will indeed continue.
Digitalisation, on the other hand, has been driven ahead by the crisis.
The coronavirus crisis has underlined the importance of digital progress and the use of intelligent networked technologies for towns and cities – especially in situations of crisis. The pandemic has accelerated the transition towards smart cities and left us with no alternative but to make rapid progress in the area of digitalisation. Smart solutions have had to be developed within a very short space of time.
Can you give us some examples?
In the field of smart healthcare, there has been increased use of technologies that allow a remote diagnosis to be made, such as telemedicine. Diagnoses could be made in real time without the need to increase the number of physical contacts that a person is exposed to. In the area of smart community, home schooling and the home office have become well established, bringing with them completely new working environments and technical solutions. Visits to the authorities had to a large extent to be done using digital alternatives – an important step in the direction of digital administration. And there has also been a measurable impact in the area of smart mobility.
To what extent has mobility changed?
During the national lockdown, there were fewer cars on the roads. The number of people using public transport, car sharing and train services also went down. This was shown by a study commissioned by the German National Ministry of Transport, "Bicycle Monitoring 2020". Around 30 percent of those who took part in the survey said that they were making more journeys on foot instead. 25 percent were using their bike more often. There are a number of reasons: for example, the fact that journeys to work are often no longer required, meaning that there is less commuter traffic, the desire to stay healthy and keep fit, and better protection against infection with the coronavirus. The study showed that the use of first and last mile offerings has also increased dramatically. For example, as a user-centred and demand-driven response to the pandemic, e-scooter providers Lime and Tier in Düsseldorf are offering a flat rate to use their scooters, as an alternative to using public transport.
What trends and challenges will future mobility solutions have to face?
A key determining factor can be found in the area of bicycle traffic. Currently it is almost impossible in most cities to maintain the required distance on conventional cycle paths. During the pandemic, sections of some streets or even entire streets were therefore temporarily converted into pop-up cycle paths. This is a good first step, although in many places it is not enough. There is an urgent requirement for further expansion of the urban cycle network. Pop-up cycle paths need to be established as long term solutions and need to be expanded nationwide into so-called "cycle motorways" or "cycle priority routes". This was also shown by the aforementioned study: it was established that 73 percent of Germans want to keep the pop-up cycle paths even after the pandemic. A further challenge: Germany is supposed to be taking a leading role in the area of autonomous driving. The "Law on Autonomous Driving", which was adopted in May, means that driverless vehicles will soon be moving from research into our everyday lives.
What developments have there been in the area of public transport and car sharing?
For public transport and car sharing, it is important that hygiene measures are integrated into the service being offered so that people can use these services without worry as we move out of the pandemic. The supposition that fewer people are using public transport remains true. This means that there will in future be more cars on the roads. The result: more congestion in the large conurbations. This increases the drive towards and the necessity for interconnectivity and for automated driving, as well as intelligent traffic management systems. An additional challenge for municipal authorities, town planners and urban developers is the expansion of so-called intermodal mobility hubs.
Could you explain?
Intermodal mobility hubs are urban hubs where people will in future be able to change their mode of transport in a simple and straightforward process. Public transport, first and last mile offerings, car sharing and other services will be seamlessly linked up with one other at these hubs.
What support is umlaut offering with these challenges?
We have already implemented many successful transdisciplinary projects in the area of smart cities – for example, in the healthcare sector, future mobility, the energy sector and citizen participation. Through the use of location analyses, for example, we have been able to help our customers to set up new cycle paths or intermodal mobility hubs in urban environments. By making use of comprehensive crowd data, we have been able to provide accurate statements on the traffic situation and thus recommend courses of action for the mobility solutions of the future. We also have a great deal of experience in the development of innovative business models for new market roles and mobility systems. Together with urban society and the relevant stakeholders, we are developing tailor-made visions for smart mobility, along with the associated strategy concepts.
A look into the crystal ball: do you already have some post-Covid scenarios in mind?
The pandemic is a formative and exciting period for the cities of the future. The rules are being rewritten and the foundations are being laid for the development of new smart cities. For the players involved, it is important to use AI and IT to develop lighthouse projects and solutions tailored to target groups that will point the way into the future. This may, for example, be attractive and intelligently networked public spaces or sustainable infrastructures. If we are able to overcome the challenges, then the smart city can become a success factor for a way of life that focuses on community and sustainability.