Cooperation, cities & digital tools in the light of Covid-19

Simina Lazar

By Simina Lazar, on March 30th, 2020

> Read Simina Lazar's articles

I will confess. When I heard about the possibility of a lockdown in Paris one of the first thoughts was “I’ll finally have some time to write”. Of course that was superficial and inconsiderate of all those out there much more affected by the pandemic than I am, but that was that. 


For the last three months, we’ve been travelling across Africa to visit the 11 ASToN cities. We had the chance to observe a lot of local dynamics and trends, discus with some very knowledgeable and experienced people, and hear some really compelling stories. I had been meaning to write about African girls in tech, about the challenges of building a modern postcode system for multi-cultural and multilingual cities, or about local authorities and their sometimes timid collaboration with the start-up environment. All these topics are still on my list and I hope I’ll be able to address them at some point. I must admit though, they have faded away a bit in the light of the world covid crisis and after a two-week lockdown.


The world is full of different birds with different points of view…

Since I started studying International Relations, my belief in cooperation as a tool to overcome local and global challenges was strong. From local communities and neighbourhood groups, to global organisations and their objectives for cooperation and peace, I was all in!

It’s no wonder, you can say, that the most part of my professional life has been dedicated to URBACT and its mission for exchange and learning among cities as a means to overcome complex urban challenges. For the past 17 years now URBACT has put together a tried and tested  for cities to develop pragmatic solutions for their territory. Most of those tools are based on exchange and learning but also on meetings, peer-exchanges, workshops and all sorts of real-life encounters. All this is (was?) happening from the hyper-local level up to the international scale.  And yes, this is where my first covid question springs to mind – where does the current health crisis leave city-to-city cooperation, or all sorts of cooperation for that matter?

Of course most of us have internet and our daily lives have become an infinite list of phone calls, video conferences, webinars and more. Of course it saves a lot of time and energy to connect this way rather than to travel to meet someone. But can these tools actually replace a three-day full immersion workshop and all the chance encounters that can happen when you bring even 50 people from different corners of one city together? If not, what kind of tools can we use instead to trigger that exchange and provide concrete solutions for cities during what looks like a long crisis in Europe (and even longer in Africa)?

“the only effective solution is global cooperation”

At a global scale, we understand that world cooperation is even more important during times of crisis that during times of peace. As Yuval Noah Harari says in a compelling piece, in order to fight the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis the only effective solution is global cooperation. It means sharing information, openly ask for advice, make a coordinated global effort to produce and distribute fairly medical equipment or pool medical personnel – all this based on real needs not on fear of scarcity.


I’ve been in this town so long…

As it is most often the case, cities are both the villain and the hero of the story.

Researchers have already outlined the link between recent deforestation, massive urbanisation and the covid. Roger Keil, Creighton Connolly and S. Harris Ali also explain in this article how the edges of the city, bringing together (wild) animal markets and airports like in the case of Wuhan, make spreading of viruses so much easier. A lot of discussions are already taking place about urban density and how, nowadays, it is perceived as threatening  (see French or American politicians commenting about people going out in the parks in Paris or NYC) and limited though social distancing measures. At the same time, the NY Times or the Guardian remind us that density helps us fight climate change by enabling economies of scalethat make communities more resilient during disasters.

At the same time, cities are also frontrunners when it comes to advancing on uncharted territory, like fighting this new pandemic. This happened because very often (see China’s initial reaction or US) no responsibility was taken, neither a global strategy adopted. Some are already considering the Singapore’s approach to the virus based on extensive and free testing and tracing back contacts of the first patients as something close to a good practice.

Cities are doing one of the key points of Harari’s cooperation plan against the virus: sharing information and local experience. Platforms like Eurocities in Europe, National League of Cities in the US, Cities for Global Health worldwide are already putting together databases of local solutions to fight the virus.

And my humble opinion is that this is just the beginning. Solutions will be developed (and many of them digital) to fight the virus. Like Trace Together, the app developed by Singapore Tech Agency to track contacts and prevent the spread of the virus. For an app that traces people behaviour, it is done as closely as possible to respecting privacy – users registers on a voluntary basis and it doesn’t track users through space, instead it records encounters through Bluetooth. Of course, public scrutiny on surveillance issues is crucial – a diminished privacy being a price many are willing to pay during times of health crisis.

First responses are arriving from Africa also. In Kigali (Rwanda) the government is promoting the use of mobile cash instead of paper money as a ways to fight the virus (and the informal economy one can add). Another simple but powerful idea comes from Lagos (Nigeria) where telecom operators are replacing their names on terminal displays with “stay safe!” or “stay at home!”.


So stay safe & stay at home! More good news about the innovation taking place in the margin of covid (and of the cities) is yet to come.

The URBACT Secretariat encourages exchanges of information and ideas in times of Covid 19. The views expressed here are those of the author and the content of this blog should be understood in the context of information available on 30 March 2020.

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