The Local Smart City Experiment: What Covid-19 is teaching us about urban living

Camilla Siggaard Andersen
28th March 2020

2020 is  an extraordinary year. This year, people across the world will experience for the first time, first-hand, a completely different lifestyle to the one they had come to rely on. For better and for worse, the Covid-19 pandemic has created a new temporary reality, and we’re all learning to adapt.

Common to this experience, is a renewed reliance on digital communication tools. At the moment of writing, a quarter of the world’s population is in lockdown, with only phones and computers to stay in touch with family and friends. Video conferencing apps are booming, and local data networks are struggling to cope with the surge in online traffic. We have all become digitally dependent overnight.

Concurrently, we are experiencing a renewed reliance on people and community. Local human networks have come under pressure, as neighbours stand side by side to protect and help one another. I never knew the people that live in my building as well as now, and I have never been more aware of the people around me on whom I depend, and vice versa. We have all become socially dependent in our immediate geographic location.

Despite the enforced separation and isolation, these shared experiences create a feeling of togetherness that is proving to be stronger than the prevailing “us” and “them” narrative. Instead, it is all of humankind against the virus.

I am fascinated by what we stand to learn from this reality. All across the world, researchers are preparing to study the impact of social distancing and self-isolation on society~`. In doing so, we will look to data to reveal insights and a sense of meaning, and our findings will be used to shape the new normal post-pandemic. The challenge is that data never presents an objective truth.

The mathematician Richard A. Tapia said: “We don’t know how to measure what we care about, so we care about what we measure.” Time and time again, this observation proves true, and it is one of the great challenges of evidence-based policymaking. In the case of Covid-19, I hope that we will seek truths that reinforce the power of community across every physical and digital aspect of our lives.

In order to explain this opportunity further, please allow me to digress into a wider narrative, which has shaped my urban innovation practice to date.

A few decades ago, the French anthropologist Marc Augé introduced the concept of “non-places” as a by-product of “super-modernity”. Non-places are defined as spaces that lack any kind of cultural meaning and identity; they could be anywhere and belong to anyone. Major transportation corridors, such as airports, highways, and metros, and international hubs, like superstores and chain hotels, often fall in this category. They are spaces where few people belong.

Non-places were born out of the globalisation of cities, which saw greater connectivity across further distances as the key to unlocking economic growth. To create a thriving world economy, local communities were fragmented by six-lane roads, small businesses were outpriced by international conglomerates, and individuals found themselves travelling for hours to connect home and work.

With 20th century infrastructure, we have connected ourselves to a point where it is often safer to fly between countries than to cross a road between two communities. Marc Augé : explained, “Seen on the individual scale and from the inner city, the global world is a world of discontinuity and interdict.”

In this century, the implementation of telecommunication infrastructure has further enhanced world-wide connectivity, albeit ubiquitously.

Digital mobility has created new ways to access the far and wide. On the one hand, the internet has brought us global forums like TED and Coursera that help spread knowledge to further humankind. On the other hand, fake news flourishes unchecked on most social media platforms, and our personal data is openly harvested for political gain. We have come to learn that digital spaces can be as exclusive and biased, or inclusive and diverse, as physical spaces.

But the internet is also inherently categorised as a non-place. We do not, as a species, belong in cyberspace, and that is why a key criticism of “smart cities” has been their lack of character and sense of humanity. Instead of using digital technology to recalibrate our relationships with one another and the systems that sustain us, we have added new layers of obscurity that move us further apart.

With all our best intentions, we have engineered a world of physical and digital non-places. We have created online and offline spaces that host collections of individuals, often in anonymous environments that fail to support even our most basic human needs. With all the physical and digital connections that surround us, we have never felt more alone.

Perhaps, this is not a bad time to stop and think.

Looking past the dread of the pandemic (and appreciating the very real challenges that many people face), there is a lot to learn about urban living from these extraordinary times of self-isolation.

Speaking from my own experiences, I am learning how to use the same space for different activities throughout the day. I am learning how to structure my time around my physical needs for food, air, and exercise, instead of around my company’s traditional work hours. I am learning to enjoy mornings and evenings without the commute. I am learning the names of my neighbours. I am learning to collaborate with co-workers from anywhere in the world. I am learning to appreciate living in a neighbourhood where everybody’s home.

Together, these lessons make me feel better mentally and physically, while my strain on the environment and its resources has declined. Simultaneously, I am no less productive than I used to be.

Reading other people’s accounts of self-isolation, I know that I am not alone in searching for the silver lining of a grave situation. And the opportunity I see, is the early manifestation of a new type of urbanism: the local smart city.

Where the global smart city is about maximising long-distance connectivity to the point where you can buy a melon from Africa to be delivered in the UK while flying over India, the local smart city balances the near over the far to create an overall more sustainable system. Here, the immediate environment and resources are strengthened by our global connectivity, and our sense of identity is intrinsically tied to place. The local smart city is every bit as productive, connected, and vibrant as the global city, but it is also more communal, sustainable, and resilient.

In many aspects, how we live these days mirrors the key components of a local smart city vision: There’s less traffic and, as a result, the air is cleaner. We prioritise destinations that are within walking distance from our homes. We know who our neighbours are, and we look out for vulnerable members of the community. We use digital technology to stay productive and access news and services beyond the neighbourhood. We are simultaneously connected to the near and far. How do we take these and other benefits beyond the pandemic by translating them into a form that becomes a choice, not a restriction?

I know that studying the next generation of urban living while a quarter of the world’s population is in lock-down is not ideal. But we’ve never had a better chance to discover and understand what a local smart city feels like.

Camilla Siggaard Andersen, Design Lead, Arup Studio

Scroll to top of the content