This article about digital transformation and cities is part of the series
‘One Year After: Urban Learnings from a year of pandemic’
— by anteverti team
During the last year, we have questioned ourselves more intensely than ever before about the role that technology should play in the face of global and local challenges. On how we should govern the digital world. On what gaps technology can — and should — help close. And, above all, on how tech can be useful to prevent and mitigate future crises.
What have we learned from the intersection between the pandemic and digital transformation? Although we live in a complex and rapidly changing scenario, we must be able to shape it, guiding our policies towards a more resilient and sustainable digital future. To contribute to this, we have identified four trends and dynamics where the way forward is clearer today than it was a year ago — and the opportunities they entail.
Never before have we been so aware of the need to ensure the resilience and security of the global technology infrastructure
To cope with the emergency physical distancing, we have relied on digital connectivity in all spheres — education, work, affectivity, leisure … This dependence, however, has made us aware of the importance of security and of the robustness of connectivity infrastructures to sustain our day-to-day life, which depends more and more on solutions that we take for granted — and on physical infrastructures that are not exempt from vulnerabilities. Our use of these systems can also be fragile, raising questions about how to ensure safe, accessible and reliable operation.
What challenges are we facing?
↳ It is time to get serious about cybersecurity.
What if the next virus attacks the global internet infrastructure? The fragility we have experienced has created the expected momentum to think seriously about the security and vulnerability of technological systems at all levels – from domestic connectivity to the physical infrastructures of the global network, throughout the technical systems that support economic activity and public systems.
↳ Transparency is essential in complex societies.
Can we hope for greater control and accountability of technology systems? Facing the unknown has forced us to become familiar with public information flows on epidemiological data, from which we asked for clarity and transparency. Thus, we have confirmed the need to be able to trust the data and information systems that sustain our societies.
↳ We can still turn the Web into a space for democratic debate.
Network security also implies that we have to be able to trust this space to strengthen the deliberative capacity of our societies. During recent months, however, we have witnessed the rise of dynamics of confrontation, populism or polarization in the network and in public debate — mostly under the amplifying effect of social media. Finding ways to make social networks and information platforms contribute to more constructive environments is one of the great democratic challenges of our time.
What priorities should public and private actors set themselves?
→ With the recovery funds of the European Union on the horizon setting new paths for the economic transformation of the productive system, investments will have to be oriented towards strengthening the European technology sector and making it less dependent — to ensure more solid infrastructures in the face of rising geostrategic competition. At the urban level, this requires the strengthening of digital capacities and public services’ technological sovereignty. At the same time, however, this will entail the need for cities to better align their Smart City strategies with its industrial fabric, putting issues such as data governance and systems transparency on the agenda.
From global to local, digital transformation should not be ‘the’ goal, but an enabler between challenges and solutions
During the pandemic we have been looking for answers in technology. At first, some of the most successful countries in containing the virus seemed to rest their strategy on technological solutions and, to a greater or lesser extent, governments have sought answers in mobile applications, artificial intelligence, big data… Despite the efforts, many factors have been responsible for the fact that the available capacities of emerging technologies and the real capacity to implement them have not converged.
All of this makes us wonder how to better couple digital transformation with addressing today’s main challenges.
↳ Flattening the curve of global warming?
The world has experienced a sudden and unforeseen emergency that made it urgent to “flatten the curve” of infections. That challenge can be quickly translated into the fight against climate change — it is urgent to face an ambitious strategy to “flatten the curve” of greenhouse gases, and we know that the technological system and the economic and industrial sectors will be fundamental.
↳ Accelerating the modernization of public health systems.
The complex balance in the management of the pandemic has been based on public health’s workload —which has uncovered the fragilities of a crucial system under strong, intense pressures. If something has to come out stronger from this pandemic, it is the public health system, and it will be essential to harness all scientific-technological possibilities not only to make progress in terms of treatments, but also in terms of primary care, patient follow-up, health data management, telemedicine for chronic diseases…
↳ It is time to rethink those global sectors that have local impacts.
When will something like pre-pandemic normal return to tourism, culture or macro events? Throughout the pandemic, technology has been key to avoid a complete blackout: museums have managed to make their collections accessible from home; big conferences –such as the Smart City Expo World Congress– have been able to reinvent themselves through virtual or hybrid editions; operas and theaters went online to broaden their audiences. These are valuable lessons that were unexpected a year ago – but will survive the pandemic.
→ In this context, public institutions must assume leadership to mobilize resources, capacities and aspirations. They can lean on the possibilities offered by scientific-technological progress, and rely on a receptive citizenry that demands a commitment to digitization in the concrete and daily aspects of life. There is a willingness in the economic fabric to turn the force of digital transformation into real changes – but a long-term horizon is required. In this effort, it will be key that public institutions accelerate the adoption of public innovation models and systems based on data science and systems integration. Likewise, the disruptive episode of the pandemic has brought to the table the urgency of all economic sectors to ask themselves how to adapt their business models to digital.
Towards a rights-based digital society: much debate, ‘new’ gaps and some progress
Today we are more aware than ever of the social effects of technology — which are interlinked with rights, accountability or the safety of our daily activities. But also with the fact that availability and access to technology are not enough, and that exploiting the potential of digitization is much more complex than simply appealing to «online education», «telework», «distance culture» or «electronic administration».
All this has sharpened some of the pre-existing challenges in this long-distance race towards an inclusive and rights-based digital society.
↳ The centrality of data in a digital society.
The emergence of tracking apps or reports on mobility during confinement through tracking of positioning data have ended up involving the general public in the debate about data privacy and rights. And we must take it more seriously.
↳ Digital inequality is not a theory.
Is it enough to think in terms of access? Not really, and the digitization of much of our daily activity during the pandemic has made the elephant in the room evident. We perceived that technology adoption and internet penetration had been sustained over the past few years — yet the reality has been much more uneven, and online education is a good example of this. On the other hand, we have found that there is not a single digital inequality, but rather many manifestations of it defined by a variety of factors – rural environment, housing conditions, race, functional diversity … – that have in common that they all segregate.
↳ Managing and legislating in troubled waters.
How to adapt to the speed of digital change? Before 2020 we already knew the difficulties involved making local institutional action keeping pace of changes derived from an increasingly global digital society, but the pandemic has represented the greatest episode of disruption imaginable. The regulation of issues such as teleworking, the taxation of large technology companies or gig labour has revealed an enormous complexity, and finding new balances is urgent to make progress in that regard. Meanwhile, ensuring equitable access to the internet and digital infrastructure is more important today than ever before.
What opportunities does this scenario open up?
→ On the one hand, it is time to make a virtue of necessity and renew the regulatory frameworks and public management models with respect to digital reality — an effort that had been carried out slowly but now requires a great deal of capacity to overcome contradictions. It is also urgent prioritize those who the digital transformation is leaving behind. Those projects that try to realistically overcome digital inequalities will be the litmus test of the resilience of the technology sector, and a vector of inclusion and territorial cohesion for cities and countries.
‘Incoming video call from Grandma’: daily life is today more digital than ever before
Getting connected was easy — doing it well was not. We have met with friends and colleagues through video chats, our grandparents have gotten used to video calls, we have bought through our mobile phones, subscribed to content platforms, carried out online procedures… It remains to ask ourselves if everything that has happened is a perfect switch and, above all, how much of our daily lives we want to substitute digitally.
Meanwhile, the mass technological adoption we have experienced opens up new challenges, consequences and unforeseen effects.
↳ Comfortably numb, constanly online.
How much is enough in a digital life? Together, home and the digital sphere have become the absolute epicenters of our professional and learning activities and our leisure and human interactions. The border between productive time and free time is now more blurred than ever, and the idea of claiming disconnection as a right is something that we must reflect on. Otherwise, the price we might have to pay in terms of social cohesion, community fabric and collective mental health can be high.
↳ E-administration: we still have a usability problem.
We have witnessed fails in government websites when people have tried to apply for financial assistance, the impossibility of making a –digital– appointment to make –digital– inquiries and requests; the justice systems’ inability to adapt to the new scenario… It is now clearer than ever that the e-administration has the obligation to put the user at the center.
↳ And what about life in the city – and human relations?
Cinemas, theatres, bookstores, cafeterias, restaurants, offices, trade fair organizations, shops, museums… all of them have been subject to the acceleration of digitization in some way, and are exposed to the obligation to explore how to take advantage of it. Rather than thinking that everything that happened this year puts the cities we knew at risk, we must consider that it forces them to reinvent themselves.
What does this acceleration of digital adoption mean in terms of opportunities?
→ All of this process is an invitation for cities and companies to rethink the services and processes that organize our daily lives. From an urban management perspective, opportunities are opening up to support the creation of new businesses, as well as to make procedures more usable, easy and accessible – and not only when it comes to online procedures. Companies and businesses will have to embrace the digital sphere to survive, developing hybrid experiences, innovating through virtual or augmented reality and relying on digital distribution.
On the other hand, this context of rampant digitization is a perfect excuse for cities to rethink their economic model, redefine their comparative advantages and their value proposition — and proposing new strategic approaches to harness them.
Let’s take advantage of what we have learned
The pandemic has changed the rules in all areas, and has further consolidated technology as the absolute axis of the functioning of our societies. In spite of everything, if there is any lesson this period has left us, it is that, beyond the advantages they entail, technology and the digital world will never be able to replace the nature of human relations, nor try to completely catalyze the community life that defines the origin of our cities.
With that in mind, as we overcome the pandemic, we must see technology as an enabler that help us reconfigure a more resilient, more sustainable and more inclusive urban landscape. We know what it is a stake, and the knowledge generated throughout this year is a valuable advantage on which to rely to successfully complete the road ahead.
All images featured in this post are licensed under the Unsplash License as royalty free photos.
Want to keep reading about the urban impact of Covid-19?
Want to speak
to our experts?
Drop us a line!
About the authors
Pilar Conesa is a Smart City pioneer and the founder and CEO of Anteverti. She is also the Curator of the Smart City Expo World Congress — as well as its interational spin-offs.
With more than 30 years of experience in high management positions in ICT companies and public organizations, she served as CIO for the Barcelona City Council and as General Director of Public Sector and Health at T-Systems.
She is the President of the Business Council of BITHabitat and a member of the Advisory Board of Digital Future Society, the General Council of Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Board of Trustees of EADA Business School. She is a regular keynote speaker and has been selected as jury member for several international awards – World Smart City Awards, Reinventer Paris, Le Monde-Cities. Pilar is the first woman to be awarded the honorary prize of 'La Nit de les Telecomunicacions i la Informàtica' of Catalonia.
Manu Fernández is a Ph.D. holder from the University of the Basque Country since 2015, and an expert in urban innovation and public policies with over 20 years of professional experience. He is the Deputy Director General of Anteverti and also serves as the curator of the international events organized by the Smart City Expo World Congress.
Manu has led consulting projects related to local sustainability and the analysis of urban economies for several public institutions at the municipal, local, national, and international levels in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He holds a degree in Economic Law from the University of Deusto and is the author of the blog 'Ciudades a escala humana (Human-scale Cities)' and the book 'Descifrar las smart cities (Deciphering Smart Cities)'.
Sergio García i Rodríguez is an expert in strategic communication, internationalization, and new digital narratives with over 10 years of experience working for international organizations, the press, and the private sector. Since 2018, he has served as the Head of Communication at Anteverti, the executive editor of their knowledge platform, CitiesToBe, and a senior consultant.
Sergio's projects have included assisting Seoul in designing its new Smart City Brand, conceptualizing the narrative of the New Urban Agenda of Catalonia, and creating various concept stands for the city of Barcelona at the Smart City Expo World Congress. Before this role, he led and implemented strategies and initiatives at the UNDP, T-Systems, and Agencia Efe. He holds a master's degree in International Studies, a postgraduate degree in Digital Content, and a bachelor's degree in Translation.