Why the UAE's urban resilience matters amid the coronavirus fight

Urban resilience is the ability of a city to maintain continuity during crisis and adapt to the future

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 27, 2020.   
  Sanitation workers from Tadweer spraying the pedestrian crossing on Hamdan and Fatima Bint Mubarak Street.  Emiratis and residents across the UAE must stay home this weekend while a nationwide cleaning and sterilisation drive is carried out.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Haneen Dajani
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As the world enters a period of lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, there is not much people can do but heed instructions, hunker down and prepare for life inside.

Thanks to a slew of digital tools we are able to mitigate the effects of remote working and isolation with applications and messaging platforms.

This grand experiment in remoteness is accelerating changes to how the global economy will function in the future.

But what happens when we emerge from our homes and the economy gets moving again? How will our cities bounce back to form? While that phase of this crisis might seem far off, it is critical to consider those first steps out.

Urban resilience, the ability of a city to maintain continuity during a crisis and to adapt to the future, will be the key indicator. Those cities that have invested in smart infrastructure already have a leg up.

The greater number of vital functions that have been moved online, the easier these services are to administer during and after the crisis.

We can see proof of how countries that have made the right investments will be able to return to form quicker than others. Just consider our life in the UAE.

The keys to urban resilience in times of crisis are great infrastructure, cohesive communities and good governance. When these factors link together, cities are able to rise to just about any challenge. In the UAE, the governance comes from the top.

Through its early embrace of smart city development, both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have been infusing the urban environment with services and resources for continuity. That is why our physical environment can stand up to the harsh weather of the Arabian Gulf and this crisis.

As home to more than 200 nationalities, the UAE has cohesive communities built into the fabric of society. There is always someone able to check on their neighbour.

Over the past five years, government entities and ministries in this country have moved services online to hasten a full digital transformation. Last year, for example, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) began reducing its customer service centres as transactions moved online.

The DubaiNow app by Smart Dubai makes more than 85 government services available with a tap of a button. The Dubai Health Authority has even created a telemedicine application that enables citizens to speak with medical professionals without even leaving their homes. Being able to receive care through digital services is key to the country's containment strategy.

In Abu Dhabi, the Tamm initiative is moving government services online with the goal of reducing in-person visits by consolidating service transactions into a single touchpoint.

Stay home to stop the spread

Stay home to stop the spread

These services were designed to save residents time, but they have proven a boon during social distancing. Instead of having to go across town for a doctor’s appointment or to pay an electricity bill, residents can interact through their smartphones. The idea has worked well in other parts of the world.

In the small Baltic nation of Estonia, just about every government function other than marriage, divorce and the transfer of property can be done online. During this crisis, Esontians have not seen major disruptions to this aspect of their lives as a result of these digital services. Similar efforts in the UAE are easing our ability to weather this storm and will ensure a smooth transition to business as normal when this crisis ends.

Continuity and resilience is about more than online services, though. Abu Dhabi has invested heavily in agricultural technology, which facilitates food and water security for the country.

As global supply chains are strained under the weight of the current crisis, the ability of the UAE to protect its local food and water sources is critical. Furthermore, global supply chains will not simply bounce back when the spread of the virus is halted, which means the UAE’s sustainability initiatives will be all the more crucial.

With the benefit of hindsight, the UAE has been preparing for this crisis for years when it comes to smart city and resilience measures. This is partially due to the rapid rise of the local technology ecosystem and the environmental challenges the country has always faced.

The UAE has also reached out to partners across the emerging world to find solutions to these challenges.

Sustainability through technological innovation and infrastructure was a major topic of discussion during the tenth session of the United Nations World Urban Forum that was held in Abu Dhabi last month. Delegates from cities around the world crafted new approaches to resilience in light of climate change. Now those ideas are being applied to the coronavirus pandemic.

These are trying times. This period is a test for the global economy and virtually every country in the world. The way we rebuild will in no small way be dictated by the investment we made before the crisis.

By luck and circumstance, the UAE has invested in the infrastructure that will help the country quickly recover. This is the nature of resilience and one reason we can look with confidence to the brave new world that emerges when this virus is under control.

Mary Ames is the director of strategy at Xische, a venture consulting and communications agency and publishing house in Dubai