Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The so-called antropause gave us time to think again about what we want from our cities
The streets have been strangely quiet in recent months, with coronavirus blockages imposed by governments around the world pressing the pause button in normal life.
And while many people have lost their shops and cafes, many have also enjoyed the temporary break from noise, pollution and congestion.
As cities begin to wake up from the so-called anthropopa, questions are being asked about how we can improve them more permanently.
And the assumptions we had about making our cities smart may also need to be rethought.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Drones have come of age in the pandemic as a means of providing supplies and medicines without much human involvement
Robots and drones certainly emerged during the global blockade.
The Boston Dynamics Spot robot was used to help reinforce social distance in Singapore, while drone regulation was accelerated in North Carolina to allow the Zipline to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and telepresence robots helped connect quarantined people.
Daniela Rus is head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her laboratory has designed a disinfectant robot, which is being used to clean Boston’s food bank.
She told the BBC that the robots made a “tremendous contribution” during the pandemic. “They helped to keep people out of danger and that is very powerful.”
In the future, she sees them taking on a broader role in smart cities “helping with physical and cognitive work”.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Cities collect large amounts of data through sensors, but is the smartphone really the best way to connect citizens?
Cities already collect large amounts of data using sensors built into the infrastructure and even lamp posts, observing a variety of metrics – from air quality and use of transport to the movement of people.
And probably for the first time, ordinary people became interested in this information – how many cars are entering city centers or how many people are gathering in parks has suddenly become directly relevant to their health and well-being.
Phil James measures what he calls “Newcastle’s heartbeat” at his urban observatory at the city’s university. He has seen incredible changes in the past few months.
“There were dramatic changes, of the cliff type. The number of pedestrians fell by 95%, traffic fell to around 40% of normal levels, with very low peaks.”
One of the most powerful things in this data was “the city council was able to see when national changes were announced as these changes were taking place in real time in the city”.
“When garden centers opened, we saw an increase in traffic as people bought potted plants.”
He hopes that this data will be taken forward to make permanent, post-pandemic changes to “pressing problems” such as air pollution.
Image copyright Getg Image caption During the blockade, cycling took off, while the streets were empty of traffic and people avoided public transport
“When there was 50% of the traffic, we saw a 25% drop in the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Unfortunately, he did not stay with us because the traffic has now returned to 80% of normal, so we are facing these barriers again..
“But as cities try to reduce carbon levels, the data helps to understand the magnitude of these problems. The data must and can empower policymakers and decision makers.”
Post-pandemic cities also need to consider whether they want to make more permanent changes in transportation using electric vehicles and bicycles, thinks Robin North, who founded Immense, a company that offers simulations of future cities.
“There is a great opportunity to redesign the transport system caused by the pandemic and the response to it. If we are to take advantage of that, we have to be able to plan and think about the future,” he told the BBC.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Skyscrapers began to define cities in the 19th century, but will they survive the 21st?
Some cities are already thinking about how they can change when the pandemic ends. Paris is experimenting with the idea of a 15-minute city – decentralized mini-hubs, where everything you need is within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.
The “ville du quart d’heure” is one of the pillars of Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s reelection campaign, transforming Paris into a collection of ecologically transformed neighborhoods.
And following the success of domestic work during the blockade, companies are beginning to question the need for large, expensive, centrally located offices.
“The skyscraper moment may be over. As a result of the pandemic, urban planners will have to rethink the idea of space,” said Professor Richard Sennett, an urban planning expert who helped redesign New York City in the 1980s. 1980 and currently chairman of the United Nations Urban Initiatives Council.
“What we are building now are fixed, immobile structures that serve only one purpose.”
What is needed, he explained, are more flexible buildings that can adapt to short-term needs of greater social distance, but also, in the future, to economic changes, which may mean that offices need to become points of sale or even residences.
Image rights Getty Images Image caption People have lost the city’s bars and gathered for a drink
For him, the biggest lesson of the pandemic is that cities need to be sociable places. He says that, not only because he misses having a beer in a city bar, but also because he saw how the technology worked better when used to help people communicate.
While tracking and tracking apps have had varying opinions and success, localized neighborhood apps that keep people informed about garbage collection times or allow a sick neighbor to rise in popularity – what Sennet calls a new era of “neighbors responsible for strangers”.
The sensors may be good at collecting city data, but in fact the smartphones that people carry with them are much more powerful, he thinks.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption When the bustle of bustling cities returns, what is the best way to monitor and understand crowd behavior?
“Using an app to create communication between people is incredibly useful. There has been a lot more use of social apps.
“The sensors can’t tell why a crowd has gathered. We can replace the cop on the corner with a camera, but what are we looking for?”
In San Diego, there are suggestions that smart street lights were used to spy on Black Lives Matter protesters, raising questions of civil freedom.
And actually, the data is pretty stupid, said Professor James. “I can tell you how many pedestrians are wandering through Newcastle city center, but I don’t know why they decided to do that today.
“A smart city needs to work with citizens, behavioral scientists, social policy makers. It shouldn’t be just about data and technology.”