Matthias Hollick talks resilient cities and pandemic outbreaks

Human history has taught us that pandemic outbreaks occur every now and then, disrupting human activity, posing a big hurdle to national health systems and imposing heavy consequences on world economies. While it has been a long time since such an outbreak affected the world economies so hard, this Covid-19 outbreak allows us to think about the role played by smart city technology and city management in order to anticipate, evaluate, monitor and act in the recovery of future cities. 

That is why this month, we are dedicating a series of posts to interviews with prominent scientists and thinkers who have dedicated their lives to the ‘resilient cities’ topic. How does technology help in managing future and current pandemic outbreaks? What sort of technology is there to anticipate and manage future outbreaks? What are their expectations for tomorrow?

Prof. Matthias Hollick is heading the Secure Mobile Networking Lab (SEEMOO) at the Computer Science Department of Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany. He is the scientific coordinator of the LOEWE-Centre emergenCITY, which investigates Resilient Digital Cities. He has been researching and teaching at TU Darmstadt, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Prof. Matthias Hollick shared his thoughts with us.  

Prof Matthias speaks to Schréder about resilient cities

With existing technology, would it have been possible to anticipate and contain the COVID-19 outbreak differently, avoiding the tragic outcome that plagued some countries?   
Technology itself is not the cure-all to complex crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, technology can contribute powerful tools that help people to make better decisions and minimise the impact of crises. I would argue that information and communication technology is key in dealing with the current situation: we can jointly research, we can obtain and analyse data of the situation in close to real-time, we can inform the population at large etc. All of this combined gives us more capabilities than ever before to combat such a pandemic.

Can you name any interesting projects in the ‘resilient cities’ domain that could foster better disease detection and help communities prevent and manage disease outbreaks better? 
The emergenCITY project I am leading is looking into improving the resilience of information and communication technology to act as a resilience-booster for digital cities. We do not focus on pandemics, but on general solutions to aid digital cities to keep their critical infrastructure intact and operational. This includes identifying and stopping the spread of false rumours, collecting and analysing real-time data from many information sources as well as being able to run queries on historic information. With this, we want to give communities essential tools to deal with crises in a better way.

It seems that some countries used smartphone tracking methodologies to gather information and anticipate virus outbreaks (although this can be regarded as a sensitive topic, especially when it comes to privacy issues). Can you name any other technologies that have been used worldwide to contain the virus spread? Were they effective?
Trying to mitigate crises of this scale with smart technology only is bound to fail. The solution to most crises involves physical action such as in the COVID-19 case, reducing the mobility of people to prevent further infections. But, smart information technology in combination with humans-in-the-loop can help to drastically improve this “analog” response. Tech to gather high-quality information to be delivered to decision makers, tech to share trustworthy information with the public, tech to perform mass fever screening, tech to maintain supply chains for hospitals, tech to call for volunteers, tech for educating the public on how to stop spreading the virus etc. These are some examples where technology is helping in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

There is a close connection between more authoritarian regimes and the use of technology to effectively control the spreading of diseases (such as taking temperature measurements, controlled access to city areas and transport, mandatory quarantine regimes, restrictions in the movement of people and goods, etc.). How do you see the role played by democratic regimes in adopting these technologies and policies?  
I do not see this clear connection between using technology and democratic vs. authoritarian regimes. If mass temperature measurements work well to identify and isolate potential virus spreaders, thus, helping to save thousands of lives, I would definitely want democratic leaders to discuss the trade-offs in using or not using this tool for dealing with the crisis. However, emergency measures must be time-limited; persisting them can in fact erode democracy. Having said this: technology often can be designed in a privacy preserving fashion without compromising functionality; going this extra mile can help ensure that digital cities are not put at risk or transformed into an Orwellian nightmare but keep strong democratic roots.

Do you think that some lessons have been learnt with this recent outbreak and that cities will start to better adapt and invest in smart technologies?
It is too early to answer this question since we are still in the middle of this pandemic. However, it is already clear that people and societies often invest in preventing particular types of crises - typically the recent ones we have seen - and forget about others - those from many years ago or never seen before. We need to go beyond purely scenario and risk-based approaches. Instead, we need to build up the resilience of our society in general, to facilitate how we deal with arbitrary crises. Investing in smart and adaptive cities is a step in the right direction, if done right. For instance, we might need to be able to go back in time over years or even decades to get the data that helps us to fight the next crisis - can your smart city do this or is it mostly focused on real-time data? What I want to say is that improving a city is a constant process, but not a one-time technology investment. 


DISCLAIMER - The views and opinions expressed in this article/post are attributable to the interviewees only and shall not be attributable to or otherwise represent Schréder’s point of view or opinion on any specific subject matter.