Smart Resilience in the time of COVID-19: A Conversation between Connected Places Catapult and Resilient Cities Network

Tower Bridge of London lit up at night, against a dusky skyline with boats on the river in the foreground.

R-Cities’ Femke Gubbels connected with Dr Amy Hochadel, Director of Global Business Growth from Connected Places Catapult (CPC), to discuss the challenges of COVID-19 and its pressure on the digital transformation, as well as the potential for smart urban resilience.

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COVID-19 has truly accelerated the digital transformation of cities. Not only are many people working from home and increasingly reliant on IT, city governments have had to shift how they deliver services under lockdown restrictions. Yet, despite efforts to rapidly digitize processes and systems, a city cannot truly become technologically inclusive without considering barriers to access. Organizations themselves have also had to radically change the way they operate and engage with partners digitally.

RCities: Connected Places Catapult has been working with public and private actors to create tools using digital technology for connected places for a long time. Since the start of the pandemic, how have you adapted your work?

We have adapted how we use technology to connect, both internally and externally.

Internally, we have looked to tools that can help us connected virtually, such as Miro (a scalable, secure, cross-device and enterprise-ready team collaboration whiteboard for distributed teams), MS Teams, and SharePoint. This helps with collaborative working. In addition, we have set up quick, daily video check ins to ensure everyone’s wellbeing, and weekly webinars from senior management and updates from other teams to keep the organization connected. We have recently started virtual coffee meetings, where we are encouraged to chat about things other things than work with colleagues.

Externally, we have had to rescope and shift some of our projects to adjust to this new connective way of working. For example, we have introduced online collaboration in the Urban Links Africa project. Here, we are funding seven innovative new solutions to key urban challenges in Kenya and South Africa. A critical part of this was collaboration between UK SME and South African / Kenyan organizations. As travel was no longer possible, we rapidly developed an online collaboration platform. By joining this platform, you can:

  • Connect with the innovation community, browse and connect with investors, accelerators, incubators, and workspaces;
  • Raise your profile with thought leadership activities including receiving and posting articles about your solutions, events, and jobs; and
  • Create collaboration rooms to connect to other innovators and work remotely using tools such as Zoom, chat function and Miro.

CPC: Have you experienced a similar shift at Resilient Cities Network?

R-Cities: A core pillar of our work is facilitating knowledge exchange between our network of member cities. When the pandemic took hold, the demand for faster, real-time sharing skyrocketed. Because COVID-19 unfolded across regions, Chief Resilience Officers (CROs) across our member cities who were observing the transmission rise wanted to speak with fellow CROs whose cities had already gone into lockdown. The fact that the crisis affected the entire globe created a strong spirit of solidarity in the network.

We supported this by creating the mechanisms to share information in real time, both closed channels and public-facing forums such as the Cities on the Frontline Speaker Series, in partnership with the World Bank Group’s City Resilience Program. The purpose of the series is to share knowledge to help cities respond to the pandemic and to plan towards recovery with resilience. It was designed as a platform for open and honest learning conversations between practitioners in cities and partners supporting them. Over 5,500 participants from around the world have attended the events, with a significant portion of the attendees being from city governments.

We also launched Cities for a Resilient Recovery, a coalition of cities and resilience practitioners committed to taking leadership roles, embedding resilience in recovery from the pandemic, and supporting each other through the recovery planning process by sharing knowledge, providing subject matter expertise, and facilitating both collective and individual action.

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CPC: We are also keen to foster knowledge exchange and keep the world connected through forums such as dynamic and interactive webinars. We are running a strong series of webinars across our agendas. And using such tools as ‘break out rooms’ we are ensuring conversations are still occurring across stakeholders.

We were quick to set up a ‘support hub’ for UK SMEs, which gathers information and opportunities for them during this time.

We have also been creating a new series of webinars to foster knowledge exchange. One example is our innovative procurement webinars, done in partnership with the UK Embassy in Brazil to exchange best practice in innovation procurement. The report can be found here.

We have really been focused on understanding what COVID-19 means in terms of digital transformation, not just for organizations, but for larger systems, such as places. As such, we started our “post pandemic places series,” where we explore the possible future for our places.

CPC: How does digital transformation play a role in your work with cities?

R-Cities: Digital transformation is a critical part of urban resilience. We know that increasingly it is digital solutions that will support and enhance infrastructure development in cities. These types of solutions enable resilience by helping to integrate, amplify, and innovate diverse public and social services that are key to cities’ well-being. Technology offers a lot of promise, but also carries risk and inequities that must be examined and addressed.

To explore this opportunity digital transformation can bring, we partnered with Visa on a joint program called Resilient Cities Shaping a Digital World. Through this effort we are supporting cities in Latin America and the Caribbean who are solving challenges around digital inclusion. The cities identify specific technology challenges they would like to address, then work with a group of experts and collaborate with local stakeholders to bring ideas to life, testing, enhancing, and implementing digitalization strategies. This is all in an effort to make their cities more resilient and inclusive.

For four months during the pandemic, we worked with The Resilience Shift on a project called Resilient Leadership in Crisis, aimed at learning lessons for leadership and resilience when dealing with a major crisis. Over the course of 16 weeks, we interviewed five CROs from our network and seven CEOs from the private sector, each for half an hour every week. All participants were closely involved in steering their organizations’ pandemic response. The role of data featured regularly in those conversations. Salvador, Cape Town, and Pune noted how the use of data in decision-making during the COVID-19 crisis had impacted and improved their abilities. The reliance on often complex health data underscored the importance of deeply understanding the nature, implications, and limitations of the information. Cape Town observed that one of the largest missions early in the crisis was to set up a data-led approach to managing the outbreak. The system helped them identify where service overlays are compared to outbreaks of the disease. However, it is too late to start thinking about data when you are in the midst of turbulence – in Cape Town, the success of their approach came off the back of two and a half years of investment in data science and a robust corporate data strategy.

R-Cities: Data also seems to be a strong focus in your work to improve the market in urban innovation. Can you share some examples of digital transformation from CPCs portfolio?

CPC: A year ago, if you had asked anyone what was the biggest shock they foresaw for their city, and the majority would answer, “climate change, new technology or political upheaval.” Not many would have predicted a pandemic. We have started to explore the idea of “smart resilience” the premise of a data driven response, at a systemic level, to ensure and maintain readiness and capacity during times of shock. In short, we asked, “how is a place’s smart infrastructure resilient to shocks?” Currently through a partnership with Smart Dubai, we are looking at how to create a tool for places to use and assess their smart resilience.

Before the pandemic, the use and sharing of data to improve places has proved central to much of our work. This can be seen in one of our largest projects, Sharing Cities. We have been working with six cities to produce a better, common approach to making smart cities a reality. Through fostering international collaboration between industry and cities, the project seeks to develop affordable, integrated, commercial-scale smart city solutions with a high market potential. You can find out more about the project here.

An urban canal shows sunset at dusk, in a modern city of glass and steel, with beautiful mountains in the background.

R-Cities: What do you think the future will hold for digital innovation in a post pandemic world?

CPC: Disasters are often starting points of truly radical innovation. This pandemic holds that opportunity. It is certain that we will start to see changes in the way we plan the places we live, the way we move around these places, where and how we work, our cities, the houses we live in, our wellbeing, and the importance of the innovation economy.

We have spoken to key players in these areas and created a series of podcasts that look at what the future could look like in a post pandemic world.


Lastly, what are the three things you feel cities need to consider as they begin to recover and rebuild amidst COVID-19?

R-Cities:

  • Resilient governance. As we have seen throughout the pandemic, cities that had existing Resilience Strategies, Chief Resilience Officers embedded, or had at least made some effort toward investing in an understanding of resilience seem to have fared better in their ability to respond to the crisis with some immediacy.
  • Strategic communications. Ensure that there is a multimedia strategy for ongoing communication with city residents. A lack of official information from city government in times of crisis can lead to increased uncertainty, rising anxieties, and the spread of misinformation. It is important to be credible and responsive, even if there are uncertainties to acknowledge.
  • Digital infrastructure. Having access to data and being able to track in real time the delivery of services and supplies can save costs by reducing inefficiencies in the system. However, it is also critical for cities to be on top of the digital divide, where access to technology, especially in vulnerable communities is like to be more limited. In these cases, a matching analogue approach is also required to ensure all communities are accounted.

CPC:

  • Ensure smart resilience: If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how one system can directly impact another. The effect of less people using public transport impacts our city centers. It is therefore crucial that departments start to share information on their smart systems, to coordinate responses and adjust to shocks that will occur.
  • Consider transport systems: The idea of a 15-minute city is one that is catching on again, with cities ensuring that people are able to cycle, walk to their destinations. Cutting down on air pollution is critical, not only in a time of a respiratory disease, but to ensure the health and wellbeing of citizens. We now know the harm that air pollution caused us.
  • Plan for the transition to a net zero for a sustainable economic recovery: We need to ensure that we build back better after this.

About Connected Places Catapult
The Connected Places Catapult (CPC) operates at the intersection between public and private sectors and between local government and transport authorities. We convene the disparate parts of the market to help innovators navigate the complexity of doing business, creating new commercial opportunities and improving productivity, socio-economic and environmental benefits for places.

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Smart Resilience in the time of COVID-19: A Conversation between Connected Places Catapult and Resilient Cities Network