UrbanTech: What has been your experience of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Urban Tech initiatives?
Katerina Zalamova: There has been an explosion of initiatives for co-creation and collaboration in the searching and design of solutions to the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. EU programs were reshaped to highlight technologies that can accelerate the digital adoption of private and public institutions up to city level. I’ve participated in the private initiative of the ExO community about the Future-Of-Work in Spain. There was a call for sustainable green solutions from City of Barcelona where we also present a project. Lastly, CREA IDEA LAB participate in the DIGI-B-CUBE call with an AI project about early detection for respiratory diseases.
From our perspective, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Urban Tech initiatives is positive accelerating the transition from understanding about the need of smart cities to implementation of smart cities strategies. And, we understand smart cities strategies in its wide definition which includes not only digital transformation and technological adoption but new social and communities structures and new economic models.
UrbanTech: A lot of technologies invented to make better, attractive and more liveable cities are driven by collaboration between cities, business communities and academics. Working collaboratively means solutions have a greater chance of success, sustainability, and scale-up. Thinking about the dynamics within the urban tech eco systems, what has the most impact on collaboration between cities, business communities and academics?
Katerina Zalamova: Cities are faster to boost policies and today their political power starts to become recognised. This power is coming from the fact that in many places the national political structure grows further from the real daily life of the people bringing distrust and inefficiencies. Then, collaborative dynamics building local ecosystems and networks of them is becoming more and more efficient.
Cities becomes motors for the transformation at local and global levels because of their position to be in direct involvement with the social, environmental and economic challenges. They are pushed to understand the innovative solutions, technologies and to test new ideas. Today, the municipalities understand and foster open-mindedness as key for successful collaboration in their ecosystems and between different cities.
We resume that there are two key properties for achieving the most impact on collaboration between cities, business communities and academics: an open-minded stakeholder’s ecosystem and the political power of cities to execute the needed transformation through testing and implementing ideas and solutions.
UrbanTech: For many years’ cities work together to make better cities. Innovation, inspiration and exchange of best practices and people are promoted by the European Union.
Katerina Zalamova: In our studies about the key characteristics for the success in implementing smart cities strategies and replicating solutions on a large-scale, we observed an important need for an integrated view at the stage of the conception of the strategies. Today, the CREA IDEA LAB methodology, Cities Building Futures, provides for the municipality a conceptual process for this integration. We advocated not only for technological integration and interoperability but also for a unified stakeholder’s framework which regulates the role of each stakeholder, its ownerships and the access to its properties such as sensors, services, data, etc.
We have been observing that important challenges rise from the luck of deep understanding about the interrelationships between cities in shared cities initiatives. CREA IDEA LAB has participated in two EU projects about replicating smart cities solutions between cities. In both cases, there was an important amount of issues to be solved about citizen engagement and social organisation around the solutions. In some of the cases, these issues became significant obstacle for the implementation.
We define the benefits of shared cities initiatives to be mainly:
UrbanTech: Looking forward, there is a recognition that amid the human and economic tragedy that is the COVID-19 pandemic, there are silver linings. One of which is that cities and businesses alike have been forced into making quick decisions, experimenting and adapting. This break from the traditional long-term planning approach has brought agility and adaptivity. Looking into the future, which urban initiatives are driving collaboration in the urban tech ecosystem?
Katerina Zalamova: We can say that urban technologies that are driving collaboration are related to the Data Economy, Circular- Doughnut Economy and lastly, the Virtual Economy. We have been speaking a lot about the importance of Data in the decision-making around the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, we evidenced the human impact on nature during the Lockdown. Lastly, we have been totally absorbed in the Virtual Space for keeping the employment and the culture. For example, many museums opened virtual tours and adopted virtual visits strategies.
Then, the collaborations on a city level which drive innovation and developments, in our opinion, are related to the basic public services such as transportation, health, public security and covering basic needs like connectivity, electricity, food supply, etc.
UrbanTech: Responding to the crisis has entailed taking radical policy decisions at an unprecedent speed, in order to ensure the safety of populations worldwide. Nevertheless, the current health crisis is by no means the only crisis threatening our urban societies. Other “slower” emergencies equally pose our cities at risk, such as the climate & pollution emergency and the global housing crisis. Consequently, learning how to address these will be determinant to ensure there is a safeguarded future for the generations to come.
Katerina Zalamova: Cities are built to stay. They are not a short few months projects. Then, we need to use their long term perspective in defining their real problems and the solutions for what seems the issues of the moment.
In our methodology for city development, we advocate for building on top of diversity: recognising and exploiting the uniqueness as similarities have been exponentially amplified creating new challenges. Uniqueness has an internal limiting condition which we suggest to be used as a control mechanism for long term negative impact.
Why this is important? In our accelerated reality there is no enough time to estimate and foreseen the negative impact related to the exponential behaviour. Then, we need an intrinsic mechanism which can condition this phenomenon. For example, if we think in tourism, we need to foresee the exponential impact of the touristic fame. Can an attractive place, built to manage 500 visits, support an exponential growth to 5M visits? At first glance, the answer should be No. But, if we are interested to understand the impact of this touristic phenomenon from positive and negative perspectives, maybe we can make it work (e.g. Exponential City case).
If we put on exam what are the global challenges of today from a realistic and objective points of view, we can find that all of them relate to us and the survival of our society and culture. We can see for example that the UN Agenda 2030 is a useful starting point for the cities to choose their identity as the leaders of tomorrow.
Thanks to the shift from physical events to online events because of the COVID-19 Lockdown, we can see an acceleration in building and adopting new culture, social knowledge and economic models. These processes of change running in this current moment as we speak are redefining the “slower emergencies” and the roles of the organisations and us as citizens.
One of the most relevant results from the COVID-19 pandemic is the wide acceptation of our reality as Changing. We all have known about it but now we accept it and start to treat it as a norm. Then, the conditions, in which we will position a given challenge and search for solutions, change.
More by intuition, we understand that there won’t be any longer a definite solution but we should search for processes.
For example, Cities Building Futures methodology doesn’t give an explicit solution or design for a city development. It offers a framework for defining these processes, the interrelationships between them and the general lines of their future impact. We help municipality’s teams to imagine and examine different futures designs for their cities. Can I find a solution to health emergencies and become the Healthier City? If my city becomes futuristic, how will it look like, will it have the same issues or less, or more?
Although, cities need to respond to the current daily challenges, it is risky to adopt solutions just for this exact problem. We advocate for decisions and solutions which address the challenges in a long term perspectives. This will bring additional guarantees against reappearance of the same issues in the future.
Why is this important? Someone can believe that because we are living in a Changing Reality, the issues won’t reappear once they have been solved because the conditions are changed. We don’t support this idea. Based on the physical laws, we suggest to expect that the issues also change over time. Then, a solution made to resolve an issue in a given moment may not adapt well to its evolute form in the near future. For that reason, we suggest to examine challenges and solutions from a long term perspective such as minimum 10 years.
Can we be sure that we won’t experience something similar to COVID-19 in 10 years from now? No. Then, should we run for solutions about the COVID-19 of today or should we thinking about it like a situation which is independent from the illness itself? How much should a city invest in solving the illness and how much it should invest in resolving the issues coming with the illness? In our opinion about this specific case, a vaccine won’t help. The city needs to think in a structured holistic way to adapt and prepare about all the other issues related to mobility, food supply, citizen protection, etc.
The basic point in our Cities Building Futures methodology is the city identity expressed under the Smart City Brand. We advocate that this identity is the key to ensure there is a safeguarded future for the generations to come. Identity which makes the citizens proud of their city. Identity which inspires the people to build a legacy for the next generations, a city to stay for ever. This motivation helps to put the daily needs in long term perspective and work for sustainable solutions which embody in themselves the change as an intrinsic characteristic.
UrbanTech: What are the innovative new green solutions we should create?
Katerina Zalamova: Adopt the nature as a city infrastructure will be the best way for green transformation of cities. This vision requires a specific classification of the green solutions. For example, is the Sun part of the nature and so part of the natural infrastructure or is it a renewable source of electricity and should be part of the utilities infrastructure?
It is a trend to speak about prosumers. We’d like to bring this term also in the debate about food supply infrastructures at a city level. It is a fundamental urban design if your food is locally produced or not.
More than technologies, we suggest there is an important need for innovative social-cultural green solutions such as community’s structures and business marketing models.
UrbanTech: You have mentioned integration of data and systems. Is there a technical limit to integration?
Katerina Zalamova: There is no technical limit for system integration if a purpose model is applied. In our opinion, there is a misunderstanding of the term system integration envisioning one unique technological solution. We apply the term system integration in a discrete manner. In our way of integration, we are integrating the results not the actual elements which can operate autonomously or semi-autonomously. For the success of this way of integration, a holistic data model is crucial. For this reason, we talk about the technological integration as a data-and-systems one. The data model and the final integrated system become one where the data flows interrelate to the specific systems and technologies.
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