Technology in the time of Covid
How will digital innovation help cities navigate these uncharted waters?
Digital Innovation in cities has been an area of focus for years. Over time, how we understand the term has also gradually evolved, with the pace of change accelerating notably as we sped towards the 2020s. Where previously the cutting edge was about online forms and e-documents, now it’s big data analytics, AI, blockchain and autonomous vehicles that are the themes being explored by public and private sectors alike. The applications of new technologies is different in cities compared with business, but the same point is clear to all – ignore these developments at your peril.
Cities have been heeding this, embracing technology to achieve faster digital transition. But plotting the course to adoption of such tech has suddenly become more difficult in recent months. Our arrival in the 2020s has been marked with the emergence of Covid-19 and the lockdown (or at least heavy restriction) of nearly all movement in Europe. The profound social, economic and even environmental impact of this needs no repeating. As we try to keep the proverbial ship sailing through these choppy waters, we are now more familiar than ever with the idea of pushing work, rest and play into online and digital formats. Business presentations, yoga classes, meeting up with friends for a drink; all of these things have exploded into the digital space and in ways we would probably have rejected as impossible at the start of the year. Likewise, comprehensive digital channels for citizens to access services have become essential in these times, and there’s no longer any excuse to consider these as a “nice to have” add-on
Interestingly though, in the early stages of this shift to interacting digitally not physically, this explosion of digital working has largely been based on pre-existing technologies. Our new-found ways of working are not based on radical advancements in digital technology, but largely on a rapid change in behaviours and expectations around the use of existing technologies. The huge take-up of existing services by new customers (and hence the rapid growth of services like Zoom, Netflix, Google Classroom) has been the main shift – people in large numbers adopting, or being forced to adopt, technologies that were already freely available.
This enforced shift means many organisations have achieved more digital transition in the last few months than they did in last few years. There is now the running joke that no longer is it Chief Executives, CIOs or Chief Digital Officers that are the principle architects of digital transition in organisations and cities, but COVID-19!
But after mobilising rapidly to stabilise our situation as far as possible, the future of digital strategy in cities is now more uncertain. Digital innovation in clearly a core part of how cities can adapt to the “new normal” that we are all moving towards. But what that digital component looks like may not be as clear as we think.
One of the challenges cities have often had with digital innovation is where to prioritise. The biggest gains have often been made by the most mundane of projects. Over recent years, it’s the basics being digitalised that have made the biggest difference to citizens – updating core services for a digital world, rather than introducing cutting edge technologies. This is particularly true for cities that are not in the digital vanguard at the bleeding edge of new tech trials. Making core information available online, enabling digital delivery of services, or online interaction with staff and data are some of the core things that every city needs to deliver, before looking at automating their entire transport system or shifting their waste management to be based on AI. But there have always been “digital magpies” attracted to new developments and latest technology opportunities, and sometimes with less heed to the value or impact of those aspects. This will become even more scrutinised in the coming times.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a valuable place for pushing the boundaries of digital innovation and experimenting with new opportunities. It is this cutting edge innovation that shows us all the art of the possible and helps to expand our horizons and push things forward. But in our immediate future, it will be harder for cities to prioritise such things in the face of such unprecedented social and financial challenges. Cities may now find that they need to deprioritise some of their flagship digital projects in order to shore up the essentials.
IT departments have already been overrun at the start of lockdowns, with huge portions of the workforce suddenly needed to access systems remotely. As they scrambled to give staff laptops for home working, and bolstered their VPNs (virtual private networks) to cope with ten-fold increases in users, city ICT and digital departments have needed to necessarily focus on ensuring operational continuity. This has pushed opportunity projects or non-critical developments onto the backburner. Any innovation has had a very different focus: it’s been about finding ways to keep the ship afloat in rough seas when the maps and charts are out of date, rather than designing an innovative new type of sail that increases performance in calm waters.
On the “soft” side of digital transformation, the view is also hazy. People have had to adapt to a massive change in the way they work and the way they live. Digital transition requires not just new hardware and software, but also new ways of thinking and behaviour from individuals; new ways of interacting and incorporating new tech into how we live or work. With such radical changes to our behaviours being forced upon whole populations, how much capacity will people have for adapting to further innovations?
Combine that with a challenging economic situation, rapidly evolving public health issues and rising evidence this shift to digital working is widening the digital divide and increasing inequality, and it’s a complex outlook. It is many of the poorest and most vulnerable that don’t have ready access to the internet and therefore are disproportionately affected by this sudden move to relying on digital services. When the sun starts to emerge from behind the cloud of Covid, all this makes the prioritisation and plotting a new course for digital innovation all the more difficult.
On the one hand, many people are far more competent with digital communication and virtual working than they were a just few weeks ago; but on the other hand, will this enforced shift stifle people’s appetite for further changes in other areas of life or work? Will the move to digital working and digital socialising translate into a thirst for even more digital innovation as we emerge from this crisis? Or will in fact, this enforced digital transition simply lead to some sort of “digital saturation” making people unwilling to countenance any further increase of digital solutions in their lives?
As we start to look beyond the initial Covid-19 peak in many of our countries, the challenges of reviewing and re-prioritising our digital strategies may prove to be a complex one. These are uncharted waters and the waters are murky. The need for digital innovation is clearer than ever – technology is helping us through this crisis in ways that wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. But getting the balance right for the future relies on understanding people’s capability – not just for delivering technical change, but for accepting the behavioural changes that must necessarily come with that digital transition. Steering such a course will require a steady hand on the tiller.
But cities across Europe have shown their ability to respond to the evolving local situations and focus their efforts where there is greatest need. Support for communities at local has often been better coordinated and much more quickly delivered than that sent down from national level. City authorities are in touch with their local context and the needs of their residents and are well placed to provide support. When the wind changes, local authorities and local partners can normally respond more quickly. Hopefully, we also can harness digital innovation in the right ways to help with those responses as we move towards calmer waters.
The URBACT Secretariat encourages exchanges of information and ideas in times of Covid 19. The views expressed here should be understood in the context of information available on 25 May 2020.