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I’m sure we’ve all seen the pictures. Trafalgar Square deserted in London; the Spanish Steps abandoned in Rome. The coronavirus crisis is forcing citizens across the globe to reconsider how we work in, move through, and think about our cities.

While most urban areas currently remain in strict lockdown, tentative plans are being put in place for how these arrangements can be safely relaxed, and eventually lifted. There is widespread talk of a ‘new normal’ – and reports indicate that social distancing measures will have to stay in place well beyond the end of lockdowns.

This presents a huge challenge for cities: how can we safely monitor and enforce these strategies that are vital for protecting public health? Especially in densely populated urban centres which are more susceptible to second or third waves of the virus.

There’s no doubt that smart city technology will have a huge role to play in getting cities functioning again, while still ensuring that inhabitants stay safe and the infection curve continues its downward trend.

Social distancing

South Korea, one of the countries initially worst-affected by Covid-19, has made great strides in containing the disease in its cities. Technological innovation is at the forefront of this success story. Drive-through testing clinics and automated body sterilisers are just some of the creative solutions the nation is using to fight the virus.

But perhaps the most controversial method is through ‘track and trace’ apps, which map and publicise infected patients’ movements. While these apps are undoubtedly useful in the battle to control the coronavirus, there’s a low-ceiling to their capabilities when it comes to actually proactively maintaining social distancing.

They offer limited potential for enforcement or to provide real-time, dynamic guidance to citizens on following the guidelines. There are also legitimate privacy concerns with continued use of these apps – which is why their use is rightly being closely considered by governments and other public authorities.

This is where smart city technology can pick up the baton. Smart cities are based on extensive use of sensors to collect data on as many aspects of a city as possible. Indeed, these data platforms are already being used to guide transport networks, maintain public safety and security, and tackle environmental issues.

And they can also be crucial in managing widespread social distancing – which is the key to getting cities back on their feet again.

DAS monitoring

Let’s take the example of DAS. Its primary use is to monitor traffic flows and pedestrian activity in cities to make them run more smoothly and securely. However, its capabilities could also be tuned to offer a citywide view of the densities of people, particularly around key civic amenities.

To assist with the crisis-response, DAS could be used to identify locations where there are concentrations of people above a certain threshold in real-time – and deliver alerts to enforcement officials. This would help target resources where they are needed most and prevent the worst cases of social distancing measures being flouted.

Alternatively, DAS could also be used to ensure key amenities – public buildings or services like gyms and shops – are not overwhelmed. Live status data on the traffic around these key points could be used by cities to deliver information to citizens, advising them on the best time to venture out to stagger demand. This ensures access while also minimising friction and potentially the need for enforcement action at all.

Crucially DAS data is completely anonymised. No personal information needs to be captured or stored, instead DAS relies purely on ‘acoustic signatures’ created by people’s movement.

Finding the balance

South Korea has demonstrated that smarter cities are safer cities from a public health perspective.

But as we enter a period of prolonged social distancing, solutions like DAS offer comprehensive monitoring capabilities without the intrusive surveillance of track and trace apps – which may not be the best tool for the task.

Undoubtedly, one of the lasting impacts of coronavirus will be the intensification of digital infrastructure in our cities. But we should be mindful of how we implement technology as we respond to the crisis – and finding the right balance between public safety and privacy is essential.