Computer Aided Resilience Planning for Pandemics and Other Emergencies for Sustainable Urban Development

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By Professor Amjad Umar and Sarbuland Khan


During her  Talal Abu Ghazaleh Lecture on “ Millennial Thinking”, organized  by the CSU as part of the World Habitat Day celebration, Professor Claire Weisz pointed to some key challenges that need  to be addressed in order to advance  the UN SDG’s  Goal 11 on sustainable urbanization. These challenges have come to the fore especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic in cities and communities around the world.  She noted, in particular, that urban design and development tend to proceed on a project by project basis. Hence, urban sustainability at the macro level often remains limited. It is not easy to advance sustainable urban development on the scale needed to have a global impact. There is also need for greater coherence between the local, regional and national level actions. An integrated, systemic approach has to be applied across the board and on a large scale to have the desired impact.

Computer aided resilience planning, drawing upon a range of cutting-edge  and emerging technologies,  can be an important tool for professionals and policy-makers to meet some of these challenges and gaps.    

Pandemics and other disasters have been around for centuries.  In recent years, in the wake of the H1N1 and Ebola crises in the US, many guidelines have been published and Task Forces were set up on preparedness for and management of such outbreaks. However, it seems that we are still ‘surprised’ by them when they happen. COVID-19 is an example.  To date, close to a quarter million people have died in the United States alone. European countries have also suffered serious setbacks. Yet, these are some of the most advanced countries in the world. The virus spread much more rapidly than expected and the public health systems were overwhelmed. Control mechanisms had devastating effects on economies, travel, trade and life styles — creating fear and uncertainty about the future. Cities large and small around the world have been particularly hard hit and are trying to recover and determine what is the “new norm”.

Digital and other relevant technologies have been central to the global response to the pandemic. As emphasized in [1], we need to seize the limitless opportunities and avenues offered by the adoption and creative application of new and emerging technologies such as:  Big Data, AI, 5G, Robotics, IoT, Block Chain,  facial and voice recognition, micro and laser computing, 3D printing, biotechnology, materials science and others, to create truly seamless, smart and integrated knowledge based networks  encompassing all aspects of their functioning. We also need to rebuild and recast legacy systems and processes and be smart and resilient in all their operations.

But how exactly can all this be done and what about the communities that do not have the needed technologies. In fact, many digital solutions need to be customized for different geographical locations with different capabilities. For example, while we are talking about 5G, outlying communities in the US itself do not have access to it, not to speak of most rural areas in developing countries that do not have even 3G communications yet. In addition, digital solutions should be produced quickly and at massive scales to meet the specific demands of the emergencies. To complicate matters further, several government policies and industry guidelines regulate the deployment and use of solutions such as facial recognition to avoid discrimination and protect privacy. There is also the need for dynamic, on-line manuals of good practice or virtual guidebooks of do’s and don’ts for communities to follow in crises of different nature and origins. This could be a great service to humanity. We are proposing a Computer Aided Resilience Planning (CARP) framework for implementing solutions needed to address most of these challenges.  

Computer Aided Resilience Planning (CARP) – A Framework for Implementation  

The implementation strategy must be flexible enough so that it can work for small communities to large cities and from least developed countries to the most affluent ones so that literally no one is left behind. The following four questions with short answers will get us started:

  1. What are the objectives of CARP?   In emergency situations, we will  need to focus primarily on: a) Save lives of the citizens, b) Manage and control the threat, and c) Help rebuild and transform the commercial sectors for resilience. Additional goals can be added in later stages.   
  1. What type of services will be needed to meet the objectives? These services should be of following types to begin with: a) Administrative and Policy Services, b) End-User (Citizen) Services, c) Project Management Services, and d) Training Services and Guidelines. Others can be included as the situation evolves.
  1. What technologies offer the needed services? These services can be provided and enabled by a wide range of digital technologies and cyber physical systems that span web portals, mobile apps, IoTs, drones and robots. If a needed technology is not available, then manual services should be used (e.g., instead of smart technologies, utilize smart people who are well trained and motivated to do the job).
  1. How can the regional and local economic conditions be included in decision making? The recommendations of solution services should be modified based on geographical and economic conditions.  

Table1 captures the key elements of these questions and provides a starting point for implementing CARP. The columns of the table reflect the answers to the first question, the rows reflect the answers to the second question, and each cell of the table provides sample answers to the third question, albeit at a high level. The fourth question can be answered by modifying the contents of the cells based on regional and economic conditions. The table basically shows different types of services that can be used to save lives, manage the threat and rebuild for resilience. Examples of these services are apps that could take vital readings of COVID infected patients and thus save lives of nurses, resource allocation algorithms to assure adequate resources when and where needed, and gamifications for transformation of businesses for resilience. Of course, the rows, columns, and cells of the table will evolve and can be modified based on disaster types.

Table1: Quick Examples of Services that can Save Lives, Manage the Threat and Rebuild for COVID   

C1:  Needed  Services  C2: Save LivesC3: Manage & Control  C4: Rebuild & Transform  for Resilience
R2: End-User (Citizen) Services  Computer vision apps that analyze pictures of a crowd and determine the violations of social distancing and wearing masks policies.   Mobile health clinics that empower local communities and health workers to provide care anywhereCitizen apps that help the citizens with better self diagnostics, recovery and other essential services anywhere   Citizen apps that improve contact tracing, social distance alerts and self-quarantine monitoring     Citizen apps that provide low cost but high impact services to small to medium businesses & Towns (SMBTs) for resilience & continuity   A Digital Transformation  Advisor that uses 3D printing to suggest more resilient work-place settings    
R3: Administrative Services and Policies   Smart Apps to take vital statistics to save nurses lives, policies that make wearing masks and social distances mandatoryUse of the feedback control theory to diminish the rate of propagation of COVID [7] and municipalities to regulate limited resources Better management and regulation of robots for resilience in the manufacturing cells that require close personal contact
R4: Project  Management (PMGT) Services   The WHO (World Health Org.) Pillar1 and Pillar9 [10] that specify PMGT services to save lives. The WHO Pillars 2, 3, 6 & 7 [10]) provide PMGT services that help improve management & control The WHO Pillar 8 [10] can be gamified to help in Digital Transformation and resilience of SMBTs   
R5: Training  Services    Gamified guidebooks of do’s and don’ts for crises  to save livesTraining services for policy makers to help manage & control the threat better  Course to teach SMBTs Digital Transformation & Resilience

This table when fully populated,  can be  implemented as a powerful web portal or a mobile app  that could help answer questions such as the following: What Citizen Services can help save lives,  what type of Administrative Services and Policies can help manage and control the spread of the virus,  and which Pillar of the WHO Operational Plan [10] can help with transformation for resilience? This could serve as Stage 0 of CARP. Additional stages of CARP will be driven by the requirements discussed below.

Given the serious challenges identified in Table1 and interest of academia and industry, it is possible that thousands of point solutions will be developed focusing on different aspects of the challenges. However, most of these solutions will not be integrated with each other and thus will have limited impact. Next stages of CARP will have to address the integration issue and offer solution services that are: a) low cost, i.e., affordable by most users, but high impact, b) location and topic specific so that they can be used anywhere, c) integrated with each other, and d) smart so that they can acquire new knowledge automatically for better performance in the future. We propose the following stages of CARP implementation Plan to systematically satisfy all these requirements:

  • Stage 1: Enrich Table1 by exploring how the latest technologies such as Big Data, AI, 5G, Robotics, IoT, Block Chain,  facial and voice recognition, micro and laser computing  3D printing, biotechnology, materials science and others, could be used in different cells of this table.   A good visualization in Stage1 could be highly beneficial to city and community leaders to better understand the role of emerging technologies.
  • Stage 2: Add predictive and prescriptive models, especially in the management and controls column to predict resource (e.g., Personal Protective Equipment — PPEs) shortages especially in small hospitals based on the threat and optimize usage of the PPEs accordingly.  See Exhibit1 for a simple example of such algorithms.      
  • Stage 3: Develop B2B collaboration models to create truly seamless, smart and integrated knowledge based networks for regional resilience. 
  • Stage 4: Utilize a Factory model that can generate a wide range of cyber-physical solutions to satisfy requirements a to d  and also generate digital solutions quickly and at massive scales to meet the specific demands of the user communities in distress. For example, Auto Factories have generated millions of cars that are customized for different types of customers with different cost ranges and are very safe and comply with several policies and regulations. Software factories [3] with similar capabilities are needed for this stage.   

The ideas presented in the proposed staged evolution of CARP are based on our work experience with UN since 2009. At the core of our work is a computer aided planning tool called SPACE (Strategic Planning, Architectures, Controls and Education) [6] that initially supported  the UNGAID eNabler Project [9] in 2009 and is now supporting UN Partnership (#8005-ICT4SIDS) [4] that is focusing on using the latest developments in ICT for Small Islands and Developing States (SIDS).  We have also used the SPACE environment as a software factory to generate a Smart Global Village  – a sandbox for graduate teaching and research — and a Smart Cities and Communities Lab [5] that is focusing on pandemics and other disasters for communities in the United States and overseas. Additional references listed at the end of this article point to many other useful resources that are relevant to future work.  

Concluding Remarks

We have tried to present a bird’s eye view of what is possible to  accomplish in meeting some of the urban challenges and gaps in times of crisis with  integrated and systemic  resilience planning  tools using  a  wide range of technologies. We recognize that such tools are no more than tools which can be only  as effective in real situations as the commitment and  readiness of  those who need to respond  to such  situations and the availability of complementary resources for implementation.

About the authors:

Dr. Amjad Umar received an M.S. in Computer and Communication Engineering and a PhD. in Information Systems Engineering, both from the University of Michigan. Currently he is Chief Architect of a United Nations Small Islands and Developing States (SIDS) Partnership that is focusing on using the latest digital innovations to help the underserved populations. He is the Director and Professor of ISEM (Information Systems Engineering and Management) program at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, and an Adjunct Professor of Systems & Telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sarbuland Khan is the former Executive Coordinator of the UN Global Alliance for ICT and Development, a prolific author in economics and an Advisory Board Member of CSU. He dedicated his career at the United Nations to development and technology issues, establishing the UN ICT Task Force and was a diplomat for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan.

References for Additional Information