—— Digitally networked administrations and systems are probably the best key to controlling natural disasters, epidemics and other dangers. How smart cities and regions can help protect us.


The earth shakes and a tsunami begins to surge—and people know about it, several minutes before it hits land. This is possible today thanks to sensors on the coast and seabed that send data about the earthquake via GPS to the mainland, where millions of people can then get an emergency alert on their cell phones. This Smart Region achievement protects people all over the world from natural disasters. Even in our immediate environment, data helps prevent the worst on a daily basis. During a pandemic, for instance, vital information can be bundled in an app so that authorities and the populace will always be up to date on the availability of hospital beds, doctors, vaccines and other resources. Even in more normal times, cameras and sensors assist in monitoring roads and buildings, preventing accidents and helping solve crimes.

However, the crises in 2021 have revealed that there’s still a lot to be done in terms of digital networking. During the corona pandemic, vaccine campaigns were often too slow, also due to insufficient flows of information. People drowned in their homes during the catastrophic floods in Germany because they didn’t receive warnings or the urgency of the situation wasn’t clear. Forest fires in southern Europe, California and north Africa have shown affected communities how vital efficient warning systems will be in the future.


One person who is possibly following this more closely than anyone else in the world is Soo-Jin Kim. She is an executive at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. This department in the OECD, an intergovernmental economic organization, advises national and local governments in improving the effectiveness of Smart City systems. She says: “During the early stage of the corona pandemic, some countries such as South Korea proved to be much more prepared/equipped than some other countries because of their advanced degree of digitalization and their experience with past epidemics.” The South Korean capital Seoul, for example, benefited from the fact that it had already developed a data hub and a digital strategy to quickly trace and break chains of infection, even before the corona pandemic.  Visits to shops and restaurants are recorded by scanning a QR code. While this is common practice in other countries, South Korea takes it a few smart steps further. If there’s an infection, the data flows to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) for contact tracing, otherwise it’s deleted.

In addition, the KDCA also examines cashless transactions and cell phone networks to supplement the information on the whereabouts of infected persons and to send anonymized alerts to potential contacts. “South Korea has managed to balance data transparency and data privacy in their pandemic response due to a higher degree of public acceptance, which is not necessarily the case in other countries for cultural and historical reasons,” Soo-Jin Kim says. Nonetheless, Smart City concepts shouldn’t just be tailored to metropolitan areas. Rural and underdeveloped areas will require support in establishing Smart Regions. “If digitization strategies are thought through in an interdisciplinary way and include all parts of the population, this can produce smart communities where people can live more sustainably and safely,” she adds.

So how can we all benefit from clever algorithms and rapidly flowing data? The following five examples from disaster management, healthcare, crime prevention, environmental safety and road safety show what’s possible right now.


Traffic planners expect autonomous driving to improve traffic flows. With the help of radar, cameras and sensors, driver assistance systems are already monitoring and controlling speed, safe distance between vehicles, lane-changing and turning. Emergency braking is already much faster and safer with automatic systems than when attempted by drivers. The new 5G mobile communications standard enables vehicle sensors to reliably communicate with each other and with those in the traffic infrastructure. In poor visibility situations, for instance, drivers can receive an automatic warning signal from vehicles ahead of them at a traffic light—and thus begin braking in time. Smart street lighting also makes use of this technology. As soon as a vehicle or pedestrian approaches, the lighting gets brighter and thus safer.


Technological advances are making it possible for public health systems to provide people with better care—without them even having to leave their own homes, in some cases. Take Barcelona for example, which has been demonstrating this for a number of years. The Catalan city began its telecare system back in 2013, providing elderly and infirm people with specially designed telephone intercoms and a remote control that they can wear around their necks. If they have an emergency, they can use this remote control to activate the phone, even if they are in another room. A loudspeaker and microphone switch on and the health services center can hear what’s happening there. If necessary, the center can decide to send an ambulance. This system could theoretically be expanded to include other services. The telecare system could also be used to monitor the vital signs of participants and, for instance, alert the ambulance if it detects an irregular heartbeat. Especially during epidemics, contact tracing and quarantine monitoring could also be carried out using this model.


Environmental risks can be controlled and reduced through digital networking. In Lower Saxony, Germany, the Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences is implementing the Smart Forestry project. They’re monitoring the condition of trees and plants via walk-throughs, counts, aerial photography and drone flights. The use of 5G makes it possible to utilize an especially large number of autonomous sensors with long ranges and low energy consumption. The data acquired can then provide information about climatic influences, pest infestations, drought and fire risks. Sensors can also be used in bodies of water, for example to measure water quality or monitor river levels, to better predict the chances of flooding.


Bang! When shots are fired out on the street, people rightly flinch, but it often isn’t exactly clear where the noise came from or whether or not it came from a weapon. In Denver in the US state of Colorado, authorities have now tested sensors that detect and locate potential gunshots. They send an audio recording to a human analyst who can then alert the police in less than 60 seconds in the event of an emergency. This way police can reach the scene sometimes even before residents have dialed the emergency 911 number. Injured people can receive treatment more quickly and the police can more quickly apprehend criminals.


During the rainy season in Indonesia, when the Ci Liwung River overflows its banks and floods the streets of Jakarta,, a disaster bot, evaluates the situation. The software scans social networks such as Twitter and Facebook for photos and news about the floods. As soon as someone in Jakarta posts the word banjir (flood) and tags @PetaJkt, the bot automatically answers and asks for confirmation of the tweet with georeferenced photos. The platform combines all the incoming information and creates a visualization. Within just minutes, a continually updated online flood map is created. It shows which sections of streets are affected and how severely. Residents can avoid those areas and the city authorities know where help is most urgently needed. In this case, high-water selfies can literally save lives. The use of the disaster bot has proven its value in the Indonesian capital and will now be expanded for use in other regions of the country.