• The things that make cities dynamic also make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
  • Organizations around the world are helping cities share knowledge and best practices so they can better respond to COVID-19.
  • Connecting with experts, tech like AI and Big Data and innovative design will all play a role in helping cities survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world.

Dense populations, frenetically paced commerce and global connections have made cities economic, political and cultural powerhouses.

They've also increased their vulnerabilities to disease pandemics.

In 1920 – the final year of the "Spanish Flu – 14% of people lived in urban areas. In 2018, that number soared to over 55%.

As the coronavirus spreads throughout the world's urban areas, governments, businesses and civil society are springing to action to help cities manage this crisis and mitigate the fallout.

Share knowledge, save lives

As COVID-19 has traveled around the world, city after city has seen eerily similar patters of viral spread and the necessary drastic policy responses. The ability to share knowledge and best practices is crucial for cities to avoid mistakes and optimise the response, particularly in the early stages of the spread. It’s invaluable for metropolitan areas to explore the implementation of successful strategies deployed by other cities – like social distancing are vital to slow the spread of the virus and "flatten the curve.

How to flatten the curve
Exchanging best practices between cities will help more of them
Image: Esther Kim, Carl T. Bergstrom

The City Possible network, managed by Mastercard, has organised regular meetings of municipal decision-makers around the globe to exchange strategies on how to address the crisis in their communities. Similarly, C40 – a network of megacities committed to addressing climate change – launched a dedicated COVID-19 portal for cities to share knowledge and best practices for managing the crisis.

These city-to-city connections made in the short term will be vital to the necessary transition to a more sustainable, low-carbon economic system in the long term. Cities for Global Health, led by Metropolis and supported by UCLG, allows cities to share successful local initiatives to respond to health emergencies – COVID-19 or otherwise.

Connecting with experts

As some national governments struggle to respond, cities can be left to face the COVID-19 threat alone. This is why it’s critical to connect local decisionmakers to health experts.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is closing this information gap with the Coronavirus Local Response Initiative, which connects US cities with public health experts, researchers and clinicians from across the Johns Hopkins University network to relay the most important and up-to-date information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The organization is also working with the US Conference of Mayors and the National Association of City Transport Officials on the Transportation Response Program to provide rapid-response tools, real-time updates and technical assistance with providing essential urban services.

As another example, Cities for All, a global network focused on creating inclusive and accessible cities, is hosting an expert webinar series to help cities devise and coordinate strategies to protect the elderly and persons with disabilities. Global Resilient Cities Network, a Rockefeller Foundation-backed initiative dedicated to supporting urban resilience, has likewise organised a weekly speaker series with the World Bank on global responses, as well as a program to facilitate long-term resilient recovery plans among member cities.

Armed with the latest information from experts, cities can effectively plan and implement the strategies needed to slow the virus's spread – and come back even stronger.

Disease vs. Data

The technological transformation of cities hasn't slowed during the pandemic. Organizations focused on the "smart cities" boom have simply expanded areas of exploration to include ways to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis. Quantela, an artificial intelligence start-up focused on urban services, has created CoVER, an AI-powered emergency response platform to assist government officials with diagnosing, monitoring and tracking people with the disease as well as with communicating and collaborating with communities.

However, the benefits of technologies like AI and Big Data also come with major risks. From February to March, COVID-19-related cyber-attacks increased 475%, with hospitals and health ministries among the primary targets. SecDev, a Canadian risk consultancy, responded by launching a Cyber Defense Force. The all-volunteer group of IT professionals will be matched with Canadian healthcare providers, critical infrastructure and municipalities to help defend them against these attacks. The goal is to ensure that hospitals remain open, patients can continue to be treated and essential services remain functional for the duration of the crisis.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.

Innovative design for exceptional times

Regardless of the amount of planning, information sharing and available financial resources, COVID-19 has tested – and in some cases overwhelmed – urban health infrastructure. A lack of equipment and shortages of hospital beds are among the greatest threats to city governments, and creating spaces that protect health and wellness will be essential to recovery.

CURA (Connected Units for Respiratory Ailments), led by architectural design firm Carlo Ratti Associati and the MIT Senseable City Lab, is one initiative seeking to bolster public health capacity in cities. Combining the efficiency of temporary tent structures with their knowledge of permanent buildings, the organizers will repurpose shipping containers as mobile intensive care units connected by tented walkways, which can be deployed as field hospitals or hospital annexes to provide needed hospital bed space in stricken cities.

The International WELL Building Institute, which implements the WELL Building Standard, is also using this time to better understand the role of the built environment in public health. Its Places Matter task force is exploring the role of buildings and other spaces in supporting health and wellbeing, and our collective ability to prepare for and respond to global health challenges like the pandemic. The aim is to identify and develop signature deliverables and resources, including guidelines for individuals, businesses and communities to help them better manage their buildings and organizations, as well as assess how the WELL Building Standard can be strengthened.

A new urban future?

As COVID-19 continues to ravage the globe, cities will continue to be the most visible focal points of the crisis. Even as the pandemic ebbs, the economic fallout will be significant. At the same time, we’ll be second guessing the close-quarters dynamism of city living around the world.

This crisis will end. As we’re already seeing with the winding down of the lockdown in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, cities will survive – and with the right multistakeholder leadership and strategic planning, they will thrive. This will require collaboration between businesses, governments and civil society to meet the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, the economic repercussions that will follow it and the long-term implications for planning in a post-pandemic world.

For more on how the World Economic Forum is bringing multistakeholder leadership to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the COVID Action Platform.

For more on the Forum's work on cities and urban development, explore our Platform for Shaping the Future of Cities, Infrastructure and Urban Services.