InsightsJuly 2, 2020

COVID-19, Technology, and the Rebirth of Cities

H.E. Dr Talal Abu-Ghazaleh

COVID-19 has hit cities particularly hard. As big cities like New York, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Sao Paolo, and many others around the world turned into hot spots of COVID-19, the well-heeled are reported to have left them in large numbers. And tragically, their older, disadvantaged, and poorer inhabitants, who had nowhere to escape from their overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, have become the main victims of the disease. As the virus spread rapidly, hospitalization and death rates exploded, overwhelming public health systems. To control the disease, offices, businesses, and travel were shut down, with devastating effects on city economies, and tourism dried up. While cities are gradually opening up, people in these cities have been living in isolation and fear, with an uncertain future. Many big cities around the world are reeling from the multiple and unprecedented shocks caused by the pandemic.

With office buildings and businesses closed down, working from home has become the norm. Innovative technology solutions have been deployed successfully by many cities, companies, and businesses to create relatively smooth workflows, even with remote and dispersed working arrangements.   

As these innovations and arrangements have become widespread, a new dynamic between work, home, and office seems to be emerging. It would be interesting to watch whether this new dynamic will persist after the crisis, leading to a new norm with far-reaching implications. Recent surveys indicate that it is likely to persist as companies see cost savings in the new arrangements, and a significant proportion of people prefer to work from home even after normal conditions are restored. If sustained over time, this new norm would have important implications for how cities are organized and function.

These developments have led some to speculate about the future viability of large, densely populated, and more vulnerable urban centers in the age of increasingly frequent occurrences of pandemics such as COVID-19, SARS, HINI, and Ebola over the past several years.

Similar speculation about the future of cities arose after other major shocks in recent years, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York badly in 2012.  The long-term negative effects of climate change and rising sea levels have also given rise to doubts about the future of cities.

In fact, recent experience, as well as historical evidence, show that such speculation and doubts are overblown. Cities have a way of not only coming back but thriving and growing again after overcoming even bigger adverse shocks and negative trends. London built back better after the Black Death in the mid-fifteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, the appalling living conditions in the city resulting from the initial excesses of the industrial revolution were greatly ameliorated after repeated crises. Once again, London recovered and rebuilt after the destruction caused by the Air Blitz of the 1940s. So did New York after the flu pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the unprecedented attack on 9/11.

Other cities around the world have survived and grown over the centuries after overcoming ravages caused by epidemics, wars,  foreign occupation, famine, earthquakes, and other natural and man-made disasters.

Paradoxically, cities have survived and sustained themselves due to some of the same attributes that make them more vulnerable. Most cities have high population density and a concentration of human capital and talent. Cities also abound in wealth and resources, art and culture, institutions of learning and research and provide health, education, and other services. All these advantages make them attractive for living. But these assets and the physical infrastructure of cities are often packed in limited spaces that make them more vulnerable to shocks. 

Cities must also rely heavily on new technologies and innovations to devise solutions to the many complex and large-scale challenges they face. But, technological change can also render established industries obsolete, draining cities of income and jobs.

With large and diverse populations, cities, in general, also tend to have high-income inequality. Different segments of their people often have unequal access to assets, services, jobs, and opportunities, making them more amenable to social conflict, crime, and unrest. Finally, cities also tend to experience high mobility of people and resources, making planning with flexibility both necessary and more difficult.

Many of these elements have come into sharp focus in how different cities have responded to the current COVID-19 crisis. But there are a few key elements that have made the greatest difference between rapid recovery and long and painful struggle.

Three key elements have been central to success: timeliness and rapid mobilization, fast and wide deployment and use of technology and effective leadership.  

As in any war, leadership in the war against the global pandemic is critical to success. A good leader is said to be one who not only does things right but also does the right thing in all situations. In a war, a good leader sees the gathering storm, tells it like it is to the people, prepares them for sacrifices, builds trust through clear and consistent communication and inspires by exemplary personal conduct.

Leaders in some countries and cities saw the gravity of the threat posed by the novel Coronavirus early and acted quickly, with effective use of technology for communicating with people, for enforcing health safety guidelines, and for testing and tracing. They got ahead of the virus and controlled it.  As a result, their people have seen low infection and mortality rates.

Unfortunately, many others equivocated, dithered, and delayed the initial response. They also fell behind in the use of new technologies in important ways. As a consequence,  people in those countries and cities have been following a long and painful path out of the pandemic with tragically unnecessary human suffering and high loss of life.

However, it is remarkable that people in cities across the globe have, for the majority, responded well in adopting and adhering to public health guidelines. This has helped many cities to flatten the curve and arrest the uncontrolled spread of the disease.

Equally remarkable has been the way the research and scientific community,  both in the public and private sectors, have come together to work hard and collaborate in an unprecedented manner, to initiate research and organize trials to rapidly develop therapeutics and vaccines, using new and innovative techniques.

Digital and other relevant technologies have been crucial in mobilizing the global effort for data collection, for modeling and monitoring the path of the disease, for managing the supply of safety gear, medicines, and equipment for hospitals, for testing and tracing, and for developing potential vaccines and drugs. It must be said, however, that even though technology has been central to the global response to the pandemic,  its uses remained far less than optimal in comparison to its full potential.  

There are some hopeful signs that the world is beginning slowly to emerge from the pandemic. It is therefore time to think about the way forward based on what we have learnt from the crisis.

In the case of cities, with some good exceptions, this crisis has exposed significant gaps and shortcomings in their public health systems. Most cities have also been slow in adopting new technologies to achieve the adaptability and nimbleness required to face sharp and deep crises like the present one. Most cities were thus caught flat-footed and found themselves unprepared, despite almost two decades of trying to become smart and resilient by using digital and other technologies. The rapid spread and devastation caused by the Coronavirus has clearly shown that even some of the most advanced cities were neither smart nor resilient enough to see the imminent threat early on and then to cope with and contain it effectively.

On the other hand, one positive from this crisis has been the acceleration of technology adoption by cities, companies and people for managing the disease and its impact, maintaining supply chains, remote working, and online shopping. And most experts view these trends to continue beyond the current crisis.

As cities enter the reopening phase, these trends provide a favorable foundation to plan carefully for a future that is likely to be more challenging than anyone hitherto conceived. Clearly,  piecemeal progress through discreet projects in different sectors pursued thus far cannot be the answer to the growing and interrelated challenges of frequent pandemics, climate change, and environmental degradation that lie ahead.

In looking ahead and planning for the future, Cities have available to them the strategic framework of the inter-related set of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals adopted by world leaders in 2015 at the United Nations who committed to a holistic and integrated implementation for a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient path to the future we all want. The New Urban Agenda adopted at Quito in 2016 provides cities with a clear roadmap for actions at the local and regional levels.

Cities will thus need to learn to rebuild strategically and comprehensively, taking an integral view of all the key dimensions of smart and resilient systems and societies. The challenge should be seen as not just to “build back better” but to “build back better systemically,” keeping in view the interlinkages among challenges and the responses to them.

Thus, one important lesson from the current pandemic is that a public health crisis can easily and quickly morph into a major economic and social crisis with untold consequences, and vice versa is equally true.    

Another key takeaway from it is that penny-pinching and ideological resistance to having strong and resilient public service systems can result in trillions in public expenditures when a crisis of this magnitude hits and overwhelms weak and inadequate systems.

But, perhaps an even more fundamental lesson from how this pandemic has unfolded is that in times of crisis, societies ultimately end up paying far more heavily in lives and treasure for the inequities and the inequality existing in their midst than if they were to address them in a timely manner in normal times.

These systemic issues call for a fundamental rethinking of national and social priorities. But, cities can contribute to national priority setting by playing their traditional pioneering role as incubators of new thinking, creativity, and economic and social reform and thus serve as catalysts of change at the national and global levels.

To this end, cities must become truly learning organizations and be on the cutting edge of technology for sustaining agile and nimble systems and processes.

They need to seize the limitless opportunities and avenues offered by the adoption and creative application of new and emerging technologies such as:  Big Data, AI, 5G, Robotics, IoT, Block Chain,  facial and voice recognition, micro and laser computing, 3D printing, biotechnology, materials science and others, to create truly seamless, smart and integrated knowledge-based networks encompassing all aspects of their functioning. They need to rebuild and recast legacy systems and processes and be smart and resilient in all their operations.

Cities can also reinvent themselves as well-evolved social organisms that are not only more productive and creative but more equitable and more inclusive in serving their citizens, environmentally more sustainable, and, at the same time, have an uncanny ability to anticipate and the capacity to respond to any challenges that come their way.

Each of the technologies mentioned above requires separate attention and analysis on its own to amplify how it can contribute to the rebirth of cities as well integrated, smart, resilient, and sustainable centers of urban living. But, due to the limitations of space, a few examples are highlighted here to illustrate what can be done with them.

Many current applications have shown that the torrents of data streaming out of city sources and systems can be used to build AI-based accurate predictive models for infection and mortality risk assessments and for anticipating emergencies. AI tools are also being applied for virtually reading radiographic tests and diagnosing conditions without human intervention. Still, AI is in its infancy. It opens up tremendous and very broad possibilities for cities to become more intelligent and resilient in preparedness and response across the urban landscape to emergencies like COVID-19.

 A fleet of rolling robots is being used to make home deliveries of food and medicines in a small city outside London.  In some places, robots and drones are helping to monitor the implementation of health safety guidelines. Yet, like AI, the many more potential applications of robotics in manufacturing, in delivery of services in transport, and in performing hazardous tasks is far from fully explored.

The  Internet of Things (IoT) can help achieve better integration between systems and processes through continuous communication. Here again,  it is only the beginning, and the possibilities of its applications are only now being imagined and invented.

Block Chain provides a platform for cities and counterparties to be held accountable, become more transparent, and build trust by ensuring that contracts are honored faithfully and projects are implemented fully. This will help transform city and business relationships.

These uses and applications are just the beginning of a long and potentially limitless transition to technology-based systems and solutions that can turn future cities into truly smart, resilient, and nimble organisms.

The current rollout of 5G will extend the capacity of the digital infrastructure manifold and thus create an entirely new environment for vastly more ubiquitous use of all these technological advances.

Before concluding, perhaps it would be useful to suggest to relevant research and academic institutions to develop, on the basis of the lessons learned from the current crisis and those from the recent past, dynamic online manuals of good practice or virtual guidebooks of do’s and don’ts for cities to follow in crises of different nature and origins. This could be a great service to humanity.

In the same vein, and on a somewhat lighter note, here is a final thought:

As some will recall,  after 9/11, New York introduced an interesting public service message which said: “If you see something, say something.” In the aftermath of  the chaotic COVID-19 messaging,  perhaps, one could envisage a variation on that  public service message which would admonish us all thus: “If you know nothing, say nothing, save lives.”

H.E. Dr Talal Abu Ghazaleh is the chairman and founder of the Jordan-based international organization, Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organization (TAG-Org), a leading global provider of professional and educational services with more than 100 offices worldwide. Recognized as one of the most influential leaders in the world with outstanding contributions to education, accountancy, Intellectual Property, business administration and management, commerce, ICT, science and technology, law, and other fields, Dr Abu Ghazaleh is a builder of institutions with a sense of history and a vision for the renaissance of the Arab and Islamic worlds.

More News


May 29

Green Cities Sao Paulo


Reflections from the 2024 Gala