Redefining Cities

Emerging trends, new technologies and outlook in light of COVID-19

Safe city solutions incorporate a wide array of technology-driven subsystems. Integration and interoperability of these subsystems is fundamental to obtaining better intelligence from various sources and sensors. From CCTVs to crisis management centres, technology will enable law enforcement, emergency services and local decision-makers to optimise their response to expected as well as unexpected situations. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up opportunities for technology adoption at the city level. A widespread use of smart technologies is being witnessed to track people’s movements in cities, to measure compliance with the rules of physical distancing. Apps too are being used to monitor infected people.

Key trends and technologies

  • Artificial intelligence (AI): Leveraging smart city big data and AI applications will help empirically prioritise specific locations that are proven hotspots. There will be greater use of AI and deep learning in public transport. For instance, airport technology specialist Veovo is introducing physical distancing solutions that will help monitor crowd density and maintain safe distancing. Their virtual queueing and passenger density management solutions use movement monitoring and machine learning to offer real-time and predictive passenger density and movement insights for better live situational awareness and future planning at airports around the world.
  • To make it easy to comprehend World Health Organization guidelines, Wobot Intelligence has come up with a hygiene-tracking solution comprising eight different modules to help businesses work smoothly. This Delhi-based AI-powered video analytics solution start up has devised a software-as-a-service (SaaS) tool to be plugged into the existing CCTV cameras of a client. Once the cameras are integrated with SaaS, the client can use the readymade modules for ensuring personal safety, workplace safety, premises sanitisation, physical distancing and hand wash compliance.
  • Internet of things (IoT): Emerging technologies have played a significant role in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. Among them, IoT – particularly when combined with other emerging technologies such as cloud, blockchain, 5G, and AI – has been used in a wide range of applications during the virus outbreak. Enterprises can leverage IoT in combination with different technologies to deal with disease outbreaks, but this is fragmented and still requires additional infrastructure to connect the components of data collection, processing, analysis and storage. A total epidemic response programme covers all systems, including healthcare, surveillance and epidemic tracking. IoT solutions form the technology backbone that can support all these systems.
  • As a use case, Agra has been working with Gaia Smart Cities, an IoT start up, to leverage its technology platform, including a COVID-19 self-assessment app, built on Microsoft’s Azure, to track COVID-19 cases. The platform enables citizens to provide self-assessment of their health risk and helps city administrators track responses by pin code and take preventive action. Bhopal too responded to the pandemic with an innovative solution. Beyondsmart Technologies, a Bhopal-based start up, has developed a smart restroom monitoring (SRM) system which consists of smart supervising equipment for public washrooms to ensure cleanliness, hygiene and physical distancing amidst the pandemic. The SRM device monitors the cleanliness level in real time through IoT and keeps a log of the daily tasks at the command centre.
  • Drones: As physical distancing and lockdowns become the new normal, the world (authorities and enterprises) is looking for a “no-touch” medium for businesses and day-to-day operations. Drones have shown a lot of promise in running day-to-day operations with minimal risk, and drone deployment has been steadily increasing in the fight against COVID-19. Varanasi, for instance, has deployed drones to spray sanitiser in COVID-19-infected parts of the city under the Smart Cities Mission (SCM). The city is also making use of CCTV surveillance and GIS technology through a dedicated command and control centre set up under the SCM to keep a close watch on crowd movement during the lockdown period. In a new initiative, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) launched the Government Authorisation for Relief Using Drones portal in May 2020. The portal provides conditional exemptions to agencies involved in drone operations and opens up avenues to use drones for non-defence-related applications in the country. The MoCA has granted exemptions to 13 consortiums, including those of SpiceJet, Google-backed Dunzo and drone maker Throttle Aerospace, to operate drones on an experimental basis without requiring operator permits and unique identification numbers till September 30, 2020.
  • With conventional strategies failing to check the spread of COVID-19, government authorities are tapping the power of drones for applications such as monitoring crowds through surveillance, enforcing physical distancing norms, spraying disinfectant and delivering medicines. Encouraged by the government’s focus on easing the norms for flying drones, more businesses are now seeking to develop drone-based capabilities such as B2B and B2C deliveries, medical supplies, and movement of packages via air, indicating the tremendous potential for commercial drone applications in the country.
  • Digital lifestyle: Cities are reaping the benefits of a digital-only lifestyle in the form of sudden adoption of e-government services, e-health and teleconsultation, remote work, online education and e-commerce resulting in a huge drop in traffic levels. These, in turn, are dramatically decreasing congestion, fatalities and air pollution. Post-COVID-19, traffic levels are expected to reach only 80-90 per cent of the pre-COVID-19 levels, as digital lifestyles become more permanent, driven by both public and private initiatives and incentives. The result will have lasting positive effects on the environment.

Challenges in implementation

  • Security and privacy: One concern relates to the security and privacy of citizens who live in smart cities and drive on roads equipped with intelligent transportation system (ITS). While building these AI and big data systems, researchers need to make sure that they de-anonymise (anonymous data is cross-referenced with other data sources to re-identify the anonymous data source) the data required. Various access control techniques should be used to ensure that the data maintains its confidentiality, availability and integrity. In the future, smart cities will generate a large amount of personal data about citizens in the smart city.
  • AI and big data: Another challenge in creating various big data and AI systems is the amount and availability of data needed. Most big data and AI applications require a large quantity of data. Partnerships must be developed between the public and private sectors to create data sets that can then be leveraged to build these smart city models. When various AI-assisted solutions are developed, special attention needs to be paid to keeping these fair and without bias.
  • Legislation and policy: Smart city and ITS technologies are rapidly on the rise but legislation and policies are lacking and may fall short for a long time. Formal policies for physical distancing are necessary and must address several issues including secure data collection, video surveillance and user/ resident consent.
  • Deployment cost: The cost of setting up smart cities and deploying ITS is massive, ranging from infrastructure costs to operating costs. For instance, attaching devices to electric public lighting not only needs municipality collaboration but also isolation from other critical systems, and this requires both time and effort and, in turn, increases costs. Enforcing physical distancing may add to overall deployment costs due to the need for particular devices and sensors (for example, drones equipped with body heat sensors for crowd detection).

The way forward

The world will continue to move towards open platforms and data to drive technology-enabled mobility services. COVID-19 has the potential to accelerate both the development and deployment of open platforms and data. For example, incorporating physical distancing into a mobility-as-a-service platform would be one way of ensuring that travellers are provided with all available and safe mobility options.

Apart from privacy-related legislation, other policies that encourage innovation, competition and private investment in physical distancing enforcement and ITS technologies are essential. Such policies should include incentives and support for partnerships between the public and private sectors and the removal of government barriers. They should also highlight societal benefits of large-scale physical distancing.




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