The Cause of Wonder and Worry Over Digital Cities Post Virus


The disruption caused by the coronavirus may have opened doors that many have been waiting for. Preliminary studies support that we experienced a faster technological revolution during the last three months than ever before. Forced to adapt, and to ensure the liveability of urban fabrics, policymakers are reviewing data protocols and legislations, giving way to tech-powered urban health solutions. However, many of those amendments will stay post virus. The precedence gained as a legacy will offer cause for both wonder and worry for our urban future. 

Faced with the viral outbreak and the speed at which COVID-19 is spreading, a tech-powered revolution is underway. Numerous labs, corporations and governments across the globe have pledged money, tools, equipment and facilities to come up with solutions, vaccines and cures. To achieve this, collaborative platforms -which were previously considered lengthy and tedious processes were set up at record speeds. We see the rise of novel solutions, of voluntary data sharing and the emergence of citizen science. Corporations, which usually move at turtle speed, were quick to catch up. Alibaba Group and Tencent incorporated coronavirus trackers in their existing Apps, like Alipay, WeChat and DingTalk to track infected people, seek medical assistance and provide analytics. Governments have also been observed turning towards corporations like Facebook, Twitter, and Google for support to help track whether people are maintaining social distancing. And recently, we read about the extremely controversial and bold joint move by Apple and Google — totalling together over 99% of the mobile operating system market share – in view of using Bluetooth technology for contact tracing. The importance of data has never been hammered this much in popular media, rendering it more obvious that it will be key in navigating this pandemic.

© Felix Fokoua
© Felix Fokoua

This shift towards voluntary data sharing across those platforms is extremely interesting as previously people were reluctant to do so. This apprehension is linked to the profit-value that have been attached to data which large ICT corporations were observed to capitalize on. In this regard, such data ownership is seen as a ‘fuel’, key to running marketing engines with a capacity to collect financial gains. Besides this, there were also cause for concerns regarding privacy, extortion, sabotage and even terrorism; all fuelling a strong psychological barrier to data sharing. So, what changed in this short time span to circumvent this psychological barrier? This worry may vary across geographies depending on their levels of tech ‘infusion’, it provides an interesting question: Do we, in times of distress, readily trade personal data -even if we are not assured of its privacy and security, to receive the comfort that we are contributing to the safeguard of the community? Is it a case of individual sacrifice for the larger good?

The protocols for this tradeoff are being drafted and accelerated for implementation. With its premise of enlarged datasets and more accurate predictions, those will undeniably assist in containing the viral spread. Questions, however, remain as what happens to all this data once the pandemic is over, and going further, how will those established protocols lead to new innovative solutions? Dwelling in those questions will be key to the urban fabric, as in seven years 41 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices are expected to be connected to the internet. This includes 70% of the vehicular fleet in just another 3 years. In fact, this drive is largely accelerated by investment potentiality. The market share for IoT products will represent a total of $ 11 trillion in 5 years, with $ 140 billion for the healthcare sector alone. Those estimates were however computed before the coronavirus. With the pandemic, as our way of life is being disrupted, ICT products are exploding, boosting their popularity and use. ZOOM, for example, witnessed a rise of 1,500% in share price, rendering a market share of $42 billion. Demand for solutions aiding in remote operations for maintenance and production is also on the rise.

With COVID-19 bringing a boost to data-driven solutions, this will lead to new exciting ventures for the urban realm, and we may see the re-emergence of the Smart Cities concept, which peaked in 2015. Three major problems were, however, observed with Smart Cities. First, the concept was criticized for failing to respond to contextual solutions as ICT corporations, in their majority, were pushing for off-the-shelve generic products, without regard to societal and cultural urban dimensions. Second, the privacy of data remained a concern due to clear legislations, allowing private corporations to capitalize on data sourced from privately financed tech-solutions in the public realm. Third, the concept was fragmented in its approach between existing and emerging cities. In the first case, we witnessed a technological monopoly, creating an unfair and unjust competition between large corporations and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). For emerging cities, we saw how intelligent branding and marketing hyped property development, without addressing concerns of data democratization, societal equity, or economic inclusivity. It was an unfinished concept; a work in progress, which was crafted to reap monetary rewards too early…

The re-emergence of the Smart City, coupled with new data-sharing behaviors, will demand that ICT corporations, in conjuncture with urbanists, data scientists, developers and legislators revisit legislations and processes in order to ensure a socially and technologically inclusive and resilient concept. A better, smarter, city is needed. For this, the need to revisit concepts hailing more intricate, complex and connected networks; not only technological, but also on human scale, mirroring the ideas of urban theorists like Nikos Salingaros, Carlos Moreno and others.

© Felix Fokoua
© Felix Fokoua

The associated fears pertaining to privacy in current and future Smart Cities can be addressed through appropriate safeguards across data and IoT networks. This can be established through Blockchain technologies and Quantum Cryptography – which have for long been known as abstract concepts but are now slowly being accepted with established legal frameworks. Even though reverse engineering concerns are still live, the prospects are exciting for the city. Legislation amendments — which often move at a much slower pace than technological progress, will now have to follow swiftly; perhaps even at corona-speed.

Another interesting aspect that COVID-19 underlined is the rise of machine learning and its impact on policy making. Two companies running Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm managed to provide early detection of the coronavirus, beating the World Health Organisation (WHO) and leading to early warnings sent to the customers of those companies. Subsequently, the knowledge gained through AI-powered computer modeling led to city lockdown, aided in the crafting of national policies and impacted on global supply chains in a matter of weeks. Prior to this, never have we witnessed -at this scale- the power of computer predictions on policy making. But imagine if this could be taken further. What if AI-driven diagnosis and predictions could be equipped with execution capabilities?

Does it give rise to autonomous cities, unveiling incredible opportunities in the process? It could very well act as the missing link across different industries, especially in helping them overcome both internal and external challenges like human/computing resources, integration, overload of information and critical decision making. Eliminating human governance lethargy, autonomous cities could see safer operational environments where dangerous, risky, laborious and time-intensive activities are handled seamlessly. With this comes reduced operational costs, increased efficiency and the achievement of goals at a much faster rate. Additionally, with clear agendas for climate change solutions, for example, future autonomous cities could use data to re-direct investment and policies to better provide for societal equity while upholding environmental values.

This requires complete and revolutionary thinking, leading to incredible prospects, but equally posing several deep concerns. Firstly, the cultural identity of communities would be at risk as AI has been observed to inherit from, and carry over, human bias. Secondly, will machines be able to understand diplomacy and act in moderation? What if an AI-City, running on another system, decided to infringe on another AI-City’s activities? Will we see an immediate and automatic nuclear warfare response? This gives goosebumps and sounds like a sci-fi movie, but this may very well happen. We need to think of the protocols and policy for AI-execution abilities as of now.

© Felix Fokoua

© Felix Fokoua

The George Orwell-like narrative of machine-driven societies sounds baffling and farfetched. But, so did many other systems -that we previously thought impossible pre-virus. Whether we like it or not, we will soon see autonomous buildings and cities. To what extent this would be desirable will open lengthy dialogues on ethics and morality. Are we prepared, and well-versed on those? Probably not. We will need to, soon enough.


This article falls part of a month-long collaboration between ArchDaily and Zaheer Allam, Gaetan Siew, and Felix Fokoua to explore the future of Architecture and Cities after the coronavirus (COVID-19).

This article was first published in Arch Daily and is republished with permission

Disclaimer: The articles expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Green Building Africa, our staff or our advertisers. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part Green Building Africa concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities.

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