Home People & Planet The digital transformation caused by the pandemic can be a powerful tool for inclusive city planning

The digital transformation caused by the pandemic can be a powerful tool for inclusive city planning

Ramola Naik Singru
The changes brought about by COVID-19 can be used to make cities more open, accessible and inclusive to all people
Senior Urban Development Specialist, Central and West Asia Department at ADB
The city of Tbilisi in Georgia seen from a mountain top

The world as we knew it has changed and so have our interactions with people and with the physical environment. Our vocabulary has expanded with phrases like “the new normal” and “WFH” – work from home – as we embrace the virtual reality of telework and the physical reality of work from home. Just as our lives have been changed by the pandemic, so must change the way we use and plan our cities. This is an opportunity for disruptive transformation.

Governments and organizations have learned altered modes for the way we can work, live and play. This can change the way our cities will be redesigned in the future. Equally important has been the change in our physical environment during this pandemic. We have seen bluer skies, greener grass and cleaner air. To retain the positive impacts of these changes, there are key lessons that can guide us.

People make cities and should be the planners of the spaces they live in. As we move forward into a transformed “normal”, participatory planning takes on an increased value to ensure an economic recovery that includes all elements of society. The pandemic has had huge economic effects on people’s livelihoods, especially the informal sector and on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. To bounce back better, their voice is critical in any transformative process.

An example of this can be found in Georgia, where a collective vision and prioritized investments have included the views of the young, elderly, women, persons with disabilities, and children, as well as business groups, civic organizations and government officials.

This provided a platform for engaging across national, regional and local governments to align strategies with local needs and achieve a balance in the competing priorities for infrastructure investments. Guidelines were prepared that translated international standards for accessibility and universal design for application in Georgia to the benefit of persons with disabilities, the elderly and young children. The government of Georgia also initiated reforms and adopted a new national standard on accessibility.

This illustrates how a bottom-up participatory approach can have far-reaching results. This approach addresses the needs of the most vulnerable people while adopting solutions based on the unique competitive advantage of each city. This supports a strong and resilient recovery and a “city for all”.

Each city has its unique competitive advantage and assets, be it human, cultural, natural, or infrastructure. These assets are the strength underpinning its future opportunities. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the rules of the game. People and businesses adopted e-commerce platforms to stay afloat, while educational institutes and students adapted to e-learning.

Each city has its unique competitive advantage and assets, be it human, cultural, natural, or infrastructure.

A disruptive transformation capitalizes on creativity and innovation in any sphere of work or the market. This will be the crux for economic recovery. People will need to re-skill themselves to the changing modes of work as new jobs will emerge while some will become obsolete. City spaces, offices, homes will need remodeling to accommodate repurposed uses with increased teleworking and time-sharing.

In such a dynamic future, cities will have to redefine themselves by enhancing inherent assets with flexible alternatives. For example, museums are providing 3-D tours and virtual reality experiences, outdoor open spaces are repurposed as multipurpose spaces for activities like yoga, sports, exercise, and walking tracks.

Another example are the small and medium-sized businesses that offer tourism services, but often lack resources. Government agencies and the private sector will need to collaborate to help these enterprises in meeting international quality standards.

Although the pandemic has dealt a big blow to the tourism industry, Central Asia is positioning itself to benefit from emerging tourism trends such as the demand for safe, sustainable tourism and authentic, experiential travel, once global travel recovers. In December, the 11 members of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program—a partnership to promote economic growth and development through regional cooperation—endorsed a long-term strategy to improve tourism in collaboration with multiple stakeholders.

The consultations with private sector tour operators, airlines, government officials, and tourism agencies were all conducted virtually through surveys, focus group discussions, telephone conversations and workshops. Such proactive and inclusive efforts will ensure that economic recovery is built on the region’s assets. 

Technology should make life in our cities safer, and better. The disruption has fast-forwarded the reality of a smart city while highlighting the digital infrastructure gaps and unequal access for citizens. Addressing these issues for increased digitization and innovative technologies will be critical for governments to ensure an effective response in managing the crisis. 

A cultural transformation is ongoing with citizens, young and old, showing agility in embracing the digital change – from contact tracing to online groceries and utility bill payments, to e-learning and socializing. Cities need to provide support in the use of apps for services, especially for the elderly, establishing systems for data collection and dissemination, and removing the barriers to entry for the disadvantaged and vulnerable groups for jobs and trainings.

Innovation challenges, incubator labs, and hackathons are encouraging the private sector to think differently in resolving some of the immediate and future needs to design cities with improved quality of life.

The dramatic changes forced upon us by the pandemic will have long-lasting impact. If addressed proactively, making cities more open, accessible and inclusive to all people will be one of them.

This piece was first published on the Asian Development Blog and can be read here.

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Ramola Naik Singru
Senior Urban Development Specialist, Central and West Asia Department at ADB

Ramola works on ADB’s Livable Cities initiative supporting key operational priorities for implementation of Strategy 2030. She is leading urban development lending and technical assistance programs on livable cities, green cities, urban infrastructure and services, tourism and regional cooperation. She has authored several publications including Creating Livable Cities: Regional Perspectives, GrEEEn Solutions for Livable Cities. Ramola leads innovation in urban planning by engaging with people to take ownership in shaping their cities, and connecting across sectors for building institutional capacities.

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