How can humanity’s greatest invention adapt to unprecedented challenges?

In a world being reshaped by crisis, cities have a new imperative to use technology and design to preserve the greatest attributes of urban life, while also becoming safer, more healthful, and more resilient.

3 minute read
A car on a street with people walking on the side.
Confidential Client

Keeping close through digital communication.

In the wake of the remote-work revolution, cities are exploring new communication platforms and technologies to better connect local governments to people and communities in order to provide accurate and actionable public information. Helsinki, Finland, has developed digital cultural services to help its most vulnerable residents, coordinating personalized health and well-being services for every individual over the age of 70. In other parts of the world, online municipal feedback platforms such as “Be Loud Boulder” and “Speak Up Austin” allow residents to feel heard while giving city officials valuable data about what needs fixing.

Confidential Client

A renewed focus on data.

As technologies such as digital twinning and sensors reach an urban scale, cities are discovering new scenarios where data can be used to inform and improve the citizen experience in important ways. Smart city tools are providing real-time data, for example, about sanitation, energy use, and blocked bike or bus lanes while also minimizing the number of city workers who need to be out in the street.

Cities are rolling out contact-tracing platforms and data-sharing apps to prevent future pandemics. Partnerships with local non-profits and data-driven companies like Esri have helped St. Paul, Philadelphia, and Baltimore optimize their food distribution programs. While not a panacea and not without controversy, urban data continues to show promise for the planning, design, and maintenance of future-ready, resilient cities that work better for all of their inhabitants.

A person riding a bicycle on a sidewalk next to a sign.
Santa Ana South Main Corridor | Santa Ana

Building community from a distance.

Accessing basic necessities like food should never have to be an arduous ordeal. The “15 Minute City,” an urban environment designed to fulfill residents’ needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from home, is a concept that Gensler has promoted since 2007, and it was recently embraced by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Gensler’s Cities & Urban Design practice is currently revisiting this urban planning concept through the lens of equity.

Tight-knit, mixed-use neighborhoods build community whether or not people can physically gather. Flexible planning frameworks, like Leeway Urbanism in Hong Kong, can build resilience against climate change. Neighborhood social networks like NextDoor have proven to be essential as they allow neighbors to better connect. They allow neighbors to better connect in all kinds of ways. In the future, new IoT technologies will enable more neighborhood-scale shared amenities, including cars, security systems, and workout facilities.

In these challenging times, data, technology, and design are being leveraged for their optimal purpose: improving the human experience. The concepts currently being tested could set a new standard for urban technology, ensuring that the smart cities of the future will also be human cities.

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