Throughout history, it has been shown time and time again that during large-scale crises, innovation surges unexpectedly. Sometimes this rush of invention is due to people being forced to change their lives. In 1665 the Black Plague swept through the streets of London, killing 15% of the population. While Sir Issac Newton was in lockdown at his home just outside the city, he came up with the Laws of Motion and Gravitation which changed the course of science and are valid to this day. Sliced bread and the car radio were invented during The Great Depression in the 1930s when masses of people lost their jobs and suddenly had time on their hands.
Other inventions have risen out of necessity during desperate times. During World War I, stainless steel was invented in the hunt for metal alloys that would stand up to the heat guns were subjected to during repeated firing. Over the years of World War II, many of the products we take for granted today came into being, from nylon, originally used for parachutes, to radar, to ball-point pens used to write at high altitudes as they did not leak.
The global recent pandemic crisis that we are living through right now has also sparked numerous innovations and inventions. As would be expected, urban environments have been the hardest hit by the COVID virus. The high population density in cities means that the virus has a smorgasbord of humans to infect. Many cities around the world that have already embraced smart technology to improve the daily lives of their citizens have been at the forefront of innovation to try to combat the spread of the virus.
Let’s find out about some of the best and brightest new smart technology being used in cities to help us get through these troubled times.
Smart Technology By Using Real-time Tracking
Many of us voluntarily install COVID tracking apps that collect position data to keep us informed if someone’s COVID positive. Depending on the city or country using them, the apps are having a varying success rate in helping to stem the spread. However, in Singapore, the government has upped the ante and given contact tracing wearables to all their citizens. This allows them to monitor the movements of anyone who does not own a smartphone. Digital check-ins using the wearables or Singapore’s tracing smartphone app are compulsory when entering certain “high-risk” zones such as supermarkets and shopping malls. Privacy protections are in place as the data is stored locally on the device. It can only be accessed by the authorities in the event that a person tests positive for the virus.
Seoul, South Korea has taken a similar approach. Two government departments use a system called the Smart City Data Hub. This single-platform system collects and analyses data from multiple sensors and cameras spread throughout Seoul to trace contact between individuals. The authorities are also able to track down contact cases by evaluating location data from cell phones, and credit card histories. These measures, which would be considered a serious invasion of privacy in some countries, are widely supported in South Korea. The experience Koreans had in 2015 with the MERS Coronavirus outbreak convinced them quickly this time around that virus containment in this situation is more important than privacy.
In Newcastle, in Northern England, the local university has developed a real-time monitoring system to measure the impact of social distancing restrictions on pedestrians and public transport use. To do this they use data collected from thousands of sensors and cell-phones of individuals who agree to share data. High-traffic density periods can then be predicted, and steps can be taken to avoid situations of crowding. On the sinister side, this technology also has the, as yet unused, capacity to label and identify violators of the restrictions.
Robots, Drones, And Smart Bus Shelters
In Singapore, they have come up with an innovative way to tell people to socially distance themselves at the local parks. The four-legged robot, officially known as Boston Dynamics Spot robots, fondly shortened to Spot, has smart cameras to monitor and analyse the number of people present in the parks. It also loudly reminds people to socially distance themselves while they are there. Spot has four legs, rather than wheels so that it can cross any kind of terrain.
Along robotic lines, many cities around the world are deploying drones to help the police control behaviour of residents. During the first strict lockdown in Nice, France last year, drones were sent out to look for people in the streets and remind them over loud-speaker that they should be at home. In Turin, Italy police have been using drones to check on numbers of people in city squares and streets, even at night. The drones are equipped with thermal cameras to identify individuals out after dark. Drones sent out in other cities in Italy, such as in Treviolo in Northern Italy, can measure a person’s temperature from afar and send the information back to their controller. This lets the officials cover ground much more quickly than if they were on foot.
How about a COVID-free bus shelter? Well, Seoul has you covered! The glass closed-in shelters will only let you in once they have measured your temperature. If you are deemed healthy, you can step inside, where ultraviolet light sterilisers and air-conditioning are hard at work to keep the air virus-free. Give yourself a squirt of hand sanitiser, charge your phone or laptop for free, and follow the bus in real-time. All from the safety of this smart shelter.
Is Smart Technology A Necessary Evil?
All this smart technology certainly seems like a complete invasion of our privacy. Every move of every city resident must be tracked, registered, and analysed to make all of the technology function efficiently. In some countries, such as South Korea, the public has accepted these measures whole-heartedly. They have learnt from recent bitter experiences what an out-of-control pandemic can do to a population. In others, people are far more suspicious of having their movements monitored so closely. They feel as though their freedom is being challenged. The human collective consciousness is short. The last global pandemic, over a century ago, has long faded from our historical memories. Even stories told by survivors of it are lost in time. Our challenge is to understand what is at stake if we let this virus run rampant through the world population.
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