Building Resilient, Smart Communities in a Post-COVID Era: Insights from Ireland
This journal article by Doyle et al. (2021) draws on the debate around how to build more resilient societies and the role of planning in promoting equitable and sustainable recovery, using key insights from Ireland. It focuses on the impact the pandemic has had on town centres and on interventions that can address local challenges.
Whilst the article is focusing on Ireland, findings are highly relevant for the UK. The article starts by discussing how Ireland had vastly recovered from the 2007/2008 recession when the pandemic hit, but that district centres outside the major cities were struggling to maintain their vitality due to high vacancy rates. It then proceeds to examine how COVID-19 has impacted regional economies by looking at the ‘COVID-19 Exposure Ratios’ that have been developed for each of Ireland’s regions. This ratio “represents the total number of its commercial units that were operating in the sectors likely to be worst affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, as a proportion of its total commercial stock as of September 2019” (p.20). A higher ratio means that an area is more likely to experience significant economic disruptions as a result of the pandemic. In particular two factors majorly contributed to a high COVID-19 exposure ratio. Firstly, the area was dependent on face-to-face interaction with customers, and secondly, the nature of the businesses prevented remote working or online trading.
The article then discusses how the current crisis is addressed with smart technology and how technology has enabled innovative solutions for town centre developments. For example, in January 2019, a Smart Communities initiative was launched in Ireland with the aim to shrink the digital divide. It also mentions that a strand of the initiative focused on enhancing remote working throughout Ireland, which has become extremely important during the pandemic. Smart Villages are also addressed in the article which is defined by the European Commission as:
“…communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience building on local strengths and opportunities”.
As such, it primarily builds on participatory and bottom-up approaches to address specific local challenges and opportunities which can be crucial for responding to crises such as COVID-19 as issues such as the digital divide requires urgent attention.
The article concludes that the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effect on regional economies, and increased challenges such as the digital divide as dependency on technology has grown significantly. However, it also points out that whilst the pandemic can be a long-lasting catalyst for societal change, smaller towns can adopt conceptual recovery strategies such as smart villages to enable more resilient and sustainable growth.