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thematic investment in smart cities

October 2021

Healthy cities

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the onus on health. Well-designed and well-serviced cities are a key piece of the puzzle.

Smart cities aren’t just about robotics and futuristic design. To be truly smart, they also need to protect and promote the health of their inhabitants – a task that’s all the more pertinent in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw busy, crowded metropolises reporting some of the highest rates of infection.

In all, a smart city can reduce the disease burden by up to 15 per cent and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 10 per cent, research from consultants McKinsey shows.1

According to the Pictet-Smart City Advisory Board, it’s not just about healthcare but also about taking care of the population’s health even before they get sick. The aim is to create an environment that promotes healthy living. It’s a priority for planners and regulators, and an opportunity for businesses and investors, according to the Advisory Board members, who dialled in from cities across the globe.

Pollution is a major challenge. More than 80 per cent of city dwellers are exposed to air quality that breaches WHO’s limits, with the problem particularly acute in low- and middle-income countries.2 Air pollution, in turn, is a major cause of illnesses and diseases, accounting for some 4.2 million deaths a year.3

Pollution problem
Percentage of cities meeting WHO PM2.5 target, by region
Air pollution.png

Source: 2020 World Air Quality Report, IQAir. Data for 2020.

A holistic approach is needed. That includes more parks and greener buildings – both figuratively, in terms of reduced emissions and improved efficiency, but also literally, using plants within construction projects.

Businesses are increasingly embracing the innovation challenge. The 51-storey Jian Mu Tower in Shenzhen, China, for example, will provide 10,000 square meters of space for aeroponic farming, growing everything from salad greens to fruit and providing enough sustainably-produced food for some 40,000 people. These plants will absorb 200,000 kg of CO2 a year, as well as helping to shade the building, thus improving its energy efficiency and reducing the need for air conditioning.

Another way to reduce pollution is to encourage people to use alternatives to petrol-guzzling cars. That could mean making better use of existing public transport infrastructure, including sensors and apps to encourage people to travel at quieter periods – something that may be increasingly possible thanks to the advent of flexible working. (Conventional trains in Europe, for example, run on average at 35 per cent of capacity.4 They may be full during rush hours, but there is plenty of room at other times.) 

Micromobily – from bikes to scooters – not only reduces the need for cars but can also have health benefits for users.  By 2030, the micromobility market could be worth up to USD500 billion, according to consultants McKinsey.5 The trend can be further accelerated with more infrastructure – like secure parking and charging points – as well as with better city design.

Waste management, clean water and sanitation are also key. As an island with limited freshwater resources and limited land, Singapore is one of the leading innovators, with initiatives such as a new deep tunnel sewage system and high-grade reclaimed water. NEWater, the name Singapore's Public Utilities Board gives to its highly treated reclaimed wastewater, is purified through a multi-stage process – including microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection – and used in industry and for air conditioning. During dry periods it is also added to reservoirs, where it is mixed with raw water, treated again and supplied to consumers’ taps.

Accommodating ageing

Covid-19 highlighted the need for healthcare infrastructure. This is a growing area of the economy – Singapore, for example, has doubled its healthcare spending over the past decade.

Cities need to provide easy access to everything from basic diagnostic centres and strengthened early-stage outpatient treatment capacity to acute hospitals and assisted living. Technology can help, bringing access to diagnostics via apps, enabling doctors to consult colleagues remotely or speeding up diagnosis and drug discovery with the help of machine learning. The growing telehealth universe includes companies such as Teladoc Health Inc, which diagnoses, recommends treatment, and prescribes medication for routine medical issues through phone and video consultations.6

Care for the elderly is becoming increasingly important as populations age. Of the 238 million people aged 65 and over in OECD countries, some 43 per cent live in cities.7 A key focus is on assisting people to stay in their homes even when they can no longer be fully independent. Swiss non-profit Spitex, for example, provides millions of hours of home care and assistance each year, offering services which range from changing bandages and administering medicine to meal delivery and wheelchair hire.

Technology also helps the elderly stay healthy and independent for longer – something that Lucerne’s iHomeLab has focused on. Its CleverGuard, for example, uses non-intrusive appliance load monitoring (NIALM) technology to analyse current and voltage. It detects any unusual patterns in the use of electrical appliances, including any unexpected inactivity which could be a sign of help needed. The iSens light sensor, meanwhile, can be installed next to the bed and used to alert carers of any abnormality in movement.

Last but not least, city infrastructure needs to be able to cope with the next pandemic – including plans and facilities for quarantine accommodation, for the isolation for the mildly ill (to reduce pressure on hospital beds), for the rapid conversion to ICU beds and for centres to distribute masks and vaccines.

Sustainable cities are one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and health is a key part of that – from reducing the adverse environmental impact of cities to ensuring access to green spaces and sustainable transport systems. The Covid-19 pandemic has made these targets all the more urgent. Investors can help drive the change, embracing a growing number of opportunities and innovations.