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Story | Community
29 November 2020

How COVID-19 has catalyzed a digital transformation worldwide


Qatar Foundation subsidiary hosts Doha Smart City Summit

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst for technological change, experts said during the Doha Smart Cities Summit hosted by Qatar Foundation subsidiary Msheireb Properties - with the digital transformation being key to the future.

We have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in just two months

Lana Khalaf, Country Manager, Microsoft Qatar

In a discussion titled Smart City Pandemic Readiness, speakers addressed how technology has played an important role in dealing with COVID-19 and how it can be used to mitigate the effects of a pandemic and future crises.

Panelist Lana Khalaf, Country Manager, Microsoft Qatar – which is based at Qatar Foundation’s Qatar Science & Technology Park – said: “We have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in just two months.

Msheireb Properties, a Qatar Foundation subsidiary, hosts Doha Smart Cities Summit.

“We have seen the impact of how people and consumers engage on online and different digital channels with the rise of e-commerce. We have seen the rise of remote everything.

“The pandemic has driven a systemic shift across industries spanning every facet. Cities need to respond and plan differently – not only to cope with such a pandemic, and be ready to manage throughout the crisis, but also to be resilient for the future.

“Technology became a critical key to navigate these unprecedented times, and to be able to respond, recover, and re-imagine – from this pandemic and for the future – and has driven a systematic shift across industries, including smart cities.”

Intelligent cloud systems, with data and AI at their heart, have been the key technology drivers to empowering innovations, sustainability, and resilience through smart cities, Khalaf said, helping countries and cities to endure and adapt. Digital tools like Microsoft Teams, have brought workforces, teachers, students, and health workers together, on one online platform, to work and learn remotely.

“As we move from a response phase, to a recovery phase, to a re-imagined phase, we have a collective responsibility, rather than an opportunity, to rebuild together,” she said. “And technology will continue have a profound role in the journey beyond this pandemic.

“Recent events have told us that transparency, decisive leadership, and the utilization of science and technology are crucial for success in managing and combating crisis.”

Aseem Joshi, Global Smart Cities Leader, Honeywell, spoke about events in the past that have served as catalysts for changes in the way that humans behave, act, and do things. “After 9/11, we saw that happen with security,” he explained.

I believe that this pandemic will catalyze the adoption of technology in smart cities, and it will not be limited just to the mega cities…

Aseem Joshi, Global Smart Cities Leader, Honeywell

“An event happened, people reacted, and we adjusted to the new normal. I think, in many ways, the pandemic is going to do the same thing. We’ve learned from these past nine months, and we’ve already started seeing changes happen, and we’re going to make those adjustments.

“When you think about what the priorities of a city are, you want to make sure that people are safe, and the economy can go on. To do this, they need to do two things – they need to reduce the likelihood of a pandemic occurring, and at the same time, if a pandemic occurs, they want to make sure that they can respond better to such an emergency.”

According to Joshi, there are three ways technology can help to reduce pandemic likelihood – the first of which includes reducing contact points, which, in turn, reduces the possibility of getting infected. “We’re already seeing a lot of this,” he said. “Buildings, public spaces, and people are adopting technology where you can go touchless – you see it in elevator buttons, you see it in payments.”

The second includes managing virus vectors, as Joshi said: “Viruses are spread in ways such as through air, water, and waste. I see large potential to invest in technology to improve the quality of air – indoor and outdoor – to better manage water, whether fresh or sewerage, and then more generally manage sanitation and waste a lot better.”

Finally, he said, regular health monitoring of travelers is here to stay. “At the same time, I think there is potential for hospitals, for governments, to share data – anonymously, of course,” he said. “But it should be information that can be analyzed to detect anomalies. So if you suddenly start seeing an increase in a certain type of symptom, that may flag the possibility of a new situation that needs to be controlled.

Lana Khalaf, Country Manager, Microsoft Qatar.

“The technology exists, but we don’t actually do that today. I think there is tremendous potential to implement things like AI that can do such work for us in the background.”

Joshi went on to highlight three examples of how to respond better to an emergency, including social distancing, emergency responses, and operations centers, which are essentially infrastructure that enables situation awareness, allowing city administrators to know exactly what is happening in a city.

“I believe that this pandemic will catalyze the adoption of technology in smart cities, and it will not be limited just to the mega cities – this permeates tier 2, tier 3, tier 4 cities, so that every citizen can feel a lot safer,” Joshi concluded.

Khalaf and Joshi were joined by Dr. Saber Trabelsi, Faculty, Texas A&M University at Qatar – a QF partner university – and Andrey Telenkov, CEO, NTechLab.

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