It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to suggest that Covid-19 has created inflection points that will change behaviours forever. Nevertheless, right now the collection and analysis of huge volumes of data are accepted as key to bringing the spread of the virus under control – and those communities with the connectivity infrastructure and technologies to do this best have been seen to fare better than those that have struggled to keep up.

From healthcare apps that enable access to services to the mobilisation of city-wide screening systems. Governments and public service providers are seeing the concepts and theories of connectivity benefit materialise, with health and socio-economic paybacks that can be associated with the digitisation of urban life. In particular, the argument for smarter, safer and more digitally integrated cities seems more persuasive.

Real Wireless has been involved in a number of smart city projects in recent years and, until recently, we have identified four main barriers to a more general adoption of smart city strategies. First, public unease about infrastructure that implies any kind of surveillance culture. Second, the availability of reliable, universal and affordable connectivity. Third, standardisation of connectivity infrastructure that can ensure the interoperability of a plethora of systems and devices. And finally, a business case that convincingly underpins such significant investment.

Most of these barriers have been eroded over recent years and months. The business case for investing in high-quality, interconnected network infrastructure for cities now seems glaringly obvious. While the use of tracking apps, thermal cameras, IoT sensors and AI are not in themselves enough to defeat a pandemic, as recent events in China have shown, their application and integration in urban settings can lead to accurate real-time data on the life cycle of outbreaks, enabling better management, the mitigation of risk and the preservation of higher levels of normal economic activity.

Even a small percentage reduction to the significantly greater economic damage from Covid-19 to regional economies makes the price of strategic investment in smart city infrastructure seem trivial.

While levels of surveillance and monitoring in China are often held to be extreme, the pandemic has demonstrated that if the need for specific data becomes sufficiently compelling – i.e. sharing particular data is evidently in the best interests of the individual – most citizens are prepared to sacrifice their privacy to a surprising degree.

This is already apparent where the concepts of ‘smart city’ and ‘safe city’ collide. For example, since 2009, Mexican operator Telmex has partnered with security firm Thales in a state-sponsored safe-city initiative that reduced auto-theft by almost 60 per cent and overall crime in parts of Mexico City by more than 50 per cent. Telmex used its network to link some 15,000 CCTV cameras, panic buttons and loudspeakers – not only to reduce crime, but also to alert citizens in the event of natural disasters like earthquakes.

Similarly, edotco has led the way among developing nation towercos by deploying small cells on street furniture in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Bangladesh, not just to monitor traffic congestion but also to help prevent crime and terrorism.

These approaches have proved popular with both state and citizens. There are hundreds of similar examples globally.

In March this year, as the current crisis gathered pace, the EU Commission asked mobile operators to share data with the Commission to track virus spread and determine priority areas for medical supplies. Similar initiatives have been reported in Africa, MENA and Latin America. This approach has been taken to the next level in China, Taiwan and South Korea, where personal smartphone location data is also used to trace the contacts of individuals who have tested positive, or to enforce quarantine orders.

This does not imply a general acceptance of everyday surveillance – nor should it. Equally, the ownership of personal data needs to be managed carefully during a crisis; there is a real danger that, for example, personal data could become a commodity when the crisis has passed, undermining confidence in service providers.

However, the present situation – and much of our recent technical and advisory work in this area – demonstrates the value of smart cities to efficient urban planning and government. It also shows how smart cities could save lives.

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