Change is a constant in modern cities. Not only must they grapple with persistent problems such as overcrowding and the impacts of the climate crisis, but they also have to prepare constantly for unpredictable events such as the Covid pandemic. Yet cities can be surprisingly resilient and adaptable, evolving in face of disruptions.

“Many of us were not just grappling with the challenges we faced, but also reimagining possibilities … for a better future,” said Desmond Lee, Singapore’s Minister for National Development, during a welcome address on the second day of the World Cities Summit 2022. As much as recent crises may have disrupted established patterns of urban living, they have also presented cities with a new paradigm for understanding urbanism in a way that’s smart, sustainable and socially inclusive.

Bouncing back stronger

Even as cities around the world slowly return to a pre-pandemic normal, they are faced with renewed challenges. In parts of the northern hemisphere, they are experiencing heatwaves of a severity never before seen, in South Asia, torrential rains are destroying houses, and geopolitical instability is threatening food supplies in cities that rely predominantly on imports.

In South Africa before the pandemic, the government focused on the efficient use of land, making density a key factor in future urban planning, said Patricia de Lille, the country’s Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure. But since the Covid crisis, it has shifted to de-densification – how to space people apart, especially in informal urban settlements.

In times of crisis, however, last-minute policy implementation on the ground can’t always keep up with the rapid pace of change. One challenge cities face is ensuring that resilience is built into the physical landscape so they are better equipped to face disruptions that may be unimaginable in the present.

Investment in infrastructure is key, said de Lille. Not only do cities have to continue to build new infrastructure, but they also have to retrofit existing infrastructure to make it more sustainable, such as by including water- and electricity-saving features in buildings, she said. Governments must also lead by example: when they invest in public infrastructure, it can lead to the crowding-in effect, encouraging the private sector to follow suit.

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme is accelerating a programme known as Resilient Settlements for the Urban Poor, said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, its Executive Director. The scheme helps informal settlements in cities become more climate-resilient by using local resources and nature-based solutions to help the urban poor, who are the most vulnerable to extreme climate events.

Building smart cities

At a panel discussion entitled Smart Cities Priorities: What’s Next?, government officials and experts discussed the ways in which the pandemic has presented opportunities for cities to reinvent themselves using technology while building inclusivity and sustainability.

When it comes to building more sustainable cities, authorities need to focus on matters beyond the operational. “The greatest potential in decarbonising is actually in the design of objects, not in improving the way you operate them,” said Jacques Beltran, Vice President of Cities and Public Services at French software company Dassault Systèmes. For instance, instead of limiting the number of petrol-driven cars on roads by inflating prices, facilitating transitions to electric vehicles and designing more pedestrian-friendly roads are longer-term solutions.

“The real question … is how you can design and plan those cities so that they operate in a virtuous way – whether it’s to face a pandemic or … climate change,” he said.

Digital twins help to simulate planning scenarios within cities. Planners can design a city that is more sustainable and inclusive from the outset instead of rushing into implementation and risk being locked into solutions that don’t work in reality. A digital twin also acts as a tool for governments to communicate urban projects to people  – a visualisation of frequently hypothetical and vague “what if” scenarios, Beltran said. People can better appreciate their governments plan for cities and provide constructive feedback on how to improve them.

Lee told the World Cities Summit that Singapore’s government would be allocating an additional S$66 million (US$47.8 million) to support the Cities of Tomorrow Research & Development Programme, which aims to make Singapore more liveable, sustainable and resilient. The funds will be channelled into research on upgrading ageing infrastructure, creating underground and sea space more cost-effectively, and developing urban planning solutions that incorporate data analytics and artificial intelligence.

“Through more R&D collaborations among the government, the research community and the private sector, we hope that the cross-pollination of ideas will strengthen our innovation ecosystem for our urban built environment,” he said.

But building a smart city isn’t always about coming up with the most cutting-edge technologies and digital tools. It’s also about incorporating technology in a way that’s inclusive and accessible.

For example, some groups, such as elderly people, might struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of digitalisation without digital literacy, said Chng Kai Fong, Singapore’s Second Permanent Secretary of the Smart Nation and Digital Government. Cities must ensure that they remain accessible to such communities while not holding other people back on their journey towards a smart future, he added.

Digital channels to access government services should not wholly replace in-person means of accessing services. For instance, although online banking has become the norm for most people, elderly people prefer going to bank branches, Chng said. A way to accommodate the needs of both communities is to keep physical branches, but replace staff with tele-bankers who can still assist customers with queries.

Learning from each other

The Austrian capital Vienna emerged as the winner of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize in 2020. Awarded biennially, the prize showcases cities that have taken innovative approaches to urban renewal and sustainable growth. The city’s mayor, alongside government officials from other awardee cities such as Antwerp, Boston and Lisbon, shared strategies on how to build citizen-centric, sustainable cities.

“There is one similarity between all our cities – and that is we are trying to turn crisis into opportunity,” said Bart de Wever, Antwerp’s mayor.

Exchanges of ideas and best practices between cities can yield transferable solutions. But the point isn’t replicating those ideas – instead, it’s adapting them in a localised manner that fits each city’s culture, physical infrastructure and communities. “Think local, act global. Learn global, and apply local,” Sharif said.

Since urban policy affects communities more than any other group, their needs and opinions must be a part of every solution, which requires cities to combine lessons learned from other parts of the world with input from their own inhabitants.

Lianne Dalziel, the Mayor of the New Zealand city of Christchurch, said the community was so involved in the city’s urban strategies that the government sometimes “gave up sitting down with the experts” to understand the risks and challenges that residents faced.

Building resilient, sustainable and cohesive cities is not an easy feat. Governments will have to rethink what makes a “good” city, which requires unravelling some of the narratives traditionally associated with cities – excessive consumption, packed buildings and heightened social inequality. Through events such as the World Cities Summit, global leaders are able to share ideas, tackle urban challenges, and co-invent solutions that can improve cities the world over.