Smart Cities: Do you know any fallback/resilience mechanisms?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to make connected (“smart”) cities more resilient, rather than just more efficient (see this blog post for a little bit of background if you’re interested, but it’s not required for this discussion).

All too often, smart city project aim to increase efficiency and/or to lower costs for administrations. Which is totally fine - until it isn’t. For example, if a system is super efficient as long as it works flawlessly, but breaks down spectacularly when it does encounter any hiccups.

Specifically, I’m interested in ways to mitigate negative consequences of failing systems in the smart city, and ways to structurally increase resilience. Here’s the section from the post linked above:

Are there safeguards in place to prevent things from getting worse than before if something doesn’t work as planned?
Unintended consequences are unavoidable in complex systems. But there are ways to mitigate risks, and to make sure that the fallback for a failed systems are not worse then the original status. If any project would be better while working perfectly but worse while failing, then that deserves some extra thought. If it works better for some groups but not for others, that’s usually a red flag, too.”

Do you know of any approaches to increase resilience, any best practices in this space? I’m aware this question might be hard to answer as it’s deliberately kept vague, but I’m looking for broad input. Preferably the examples or approaches have to do with smart/connected cities or spaces, but they don’t have to. If something — anything, really! — pops to mind, I’d love to hear it!

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we should do a bigger ask around this as it’s super important ping @inge and @anon82932460

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Probably not that related, since it deals with airwaves, but one thing that comes to mind first off for me since I was in the radio business for some years, is how, in large-scale emergency situations such as hurricane Sandy in 2012 when the whole mobile phone grid crashed in the northeast United States and much of the electric grid went down. Then, one had to turn on a radio to find out what was going on. It was a fallback because radio transmitters all have backup generators, and you can get a radio signal with a battery operated unit or even one that is hand-cranked. (This is the main reason why the federal government funds public radio.)


What about those cities that have those barrier columns that go up in parts of the inner city so you can’t drive there? If the power goes out and they all stay down, what do they do, bring in a bunch of traffic cops?

I know I’m just speculating, but you did leave the door wide open…

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Oh yeah, no that’s a fantastic example!

[Sent from a mobile, please apologize the brevity and typos.]

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Urgh, yeah I have experienced first hand how quickly basic infrastructures e.g food delivery break down when you have war eg. In the end what makes cities resilient is if people are good are organising, you have emergency response mechanisms in place in government institutions that have money and training (e.g defence) and you have people with deep skills/knowledge to come up with creative solutions using tech that is self-standing i.e not dependent on complex tech and economic infrastructure.

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So that would be both well-functioning centralized/gov structures and an informed/capable citizenry, right? That sounds like it would be the only “holistic” model to work, yeah. Thanks for sharing this!

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yes you could see the consequences of not having effectively organised centralised /gov that can respond to this during the 2004 Tsunami crisis] in which Swedes suffered some of the the worst casualties. The Swedish government took a full four days to respond, finally sending planes outfitted with doctors and medical supplies to care for injured citizens. This screw up was a trauma on the citizenry at large because we are a small country - everyone knows/knew someone who had been there. There were Italian emergency personnel on the ground within 72hrs if memory doesn’t fail me. @alberto can tell you about the Italian setup but in Stockholm we watched with incredulity as different ministers bounced around the responsibility for making decisions about how to respond. Sweden at the time did not have a central authority with responsibility for coordination of disaster management, or a clear chain of command for making those decisions. I would have thought it would have fallen under defence but @lakomaa knows more about the institutional architectures than I do.

A traffic example where I live is when traffic lights break for some reason, they are made with a backup system that causes them to then just flash red, which means the intersection reverts to how it works with a stop sign - everyone takes turns, vehicle to your right has the right-of-way.

similarly this is why I am keeping my ham radio license current. In times of chaos, both at smaller scale, like a single incident, and larger scale like hurricanes, ham radio operators are likely to be able to run their transceivers. They keep their batteries charged, and can operate even when atmospheric circumstances don’t favour other modes of radio broadcasting. I don’t normally use my call sign, but do have equipment at home ready to go if needs be.


Spot on. The big grids do go down sometimes, and when they do, suddenly these taken-for-granted old technologies become lifelines.

having lived through a large scale calamity in my home town 19 yrs ago (some 200 homes fully destroyed, a multiple of that damaged, 1000 injured, 23 dead), here’s what stood out to me in terms of resilience:

the firsts phase of any disaster is chaos. there’s nothing but act based on immediately obvious information. And nothing works (mobile phones, landline phones, electricity all go down.)

individual agency was key at the start:

  • people put on a warning vest, and starting directing traffic at the crossing at the end of their street, to ensure emergency traffic came through.
  • fire brigades from as far as 100km simply started driving towards the scene when they saw the smoke rising and didn’t wait for central alerts being sent.
  • people didn’t wait for an ambulance but put wounded in a car and drove to hospitals etc.
  • When regional radio announced the location of some medical triage points, we went out into the street where confused and dazed people were coming out of the center of the disaster zone, and guided them towards the nearest triage point / nest for the wounded.
  • People brought water, made coffee and food for first responders and impromptu canteens were set-up at the edge of the affected area by those living near it.
  • Pubs / restaurants / cafes opened up their doors for everyone needing shelter / a place to rest etc.

Then, after some hours, local radio became more important with providing info on the situation, advice from local government etc. This led to more organised action. Sports facilities opened up where you could bring bedding materials, red cross stepped in etc.

Over the days a new sort of order and routine emerged, built from those individual and community solidarity based starts. These were not replaced or countermanded by the official response, but taken as a base for further actions by the official response. So are a cities response systems geared towards recognising and leveraging community responses?

That in contrast was what was so extremely shocking to me with what I saw from the official response after Katrina in the US in 2005, where those individual assistance initiatives were actively hindered / forbidden, and people had to wait for official help that took days and days to appear. That was handled like a law enforcement operation first (hunting ‘looters’) rather than an emergency aid situation.

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How do you get a hold of one @ton?

It used to be you had to take a technical exam, and for shortwave learn morse code. I think the tech exam is still in place (but not sure), but generally morse requirements have been abolished.

Huh, ok I guess it is a different license per country, yes?

@ton - where is your home town that had this calamity?

In the 70s there was a huge earthquake in Guatemala. Ham operators brought the first detailed reports and organized the first relief effort. I was living in Tennessee at the time and our local ham guys heard the call. One of our carpenters got himself down there right away and convinced the Canadian government relief org to get us the materials if we could supply the crew. We sent down a team of carpenters and they built houses, schools and community centers in the most destroyed mountain regions. And we brought running water to some villages that had never had it. Those building still stand.

The ham net gave us the real news faster and better than any media. Had we waited, I’m not sure we could have launched an effort that was more ad hoc and less institutional that what followed.

you get a license in the country you’re based in. The rules are mostly set internationally by the ITU, and all licenses are based on those ITU requirements. My Dutch license allows me to operate in most other countries while I’m visiting, though some additional restrictions may apply.


that was in Enschede Netherlands @johncoate A large fireworks depot in the city center exploded.


What we have here in California are huge fires. The lack of fallback/resilience measures here are causing people to rethink much of their core lives.

Also, tsunamis. We have a siren warning system on this north coast of California, and it did go off back when the earthquake hit that destroyed Fukushima. But a tsunami often is not like a movie portrays it. Rather, it is like a fast and very high tidal surge. It came into the harbor in a nearby town here and rather quietly lifted a bunch of fishing and cruising boats off of their pier moorings and set them adrift. Just tore the ropes right off the docks. And it came later than the sirens suggested, so for a long time it looked like the sirens gave a false alarm. People went back to their activities and then, whoops, this pier is getting lifted. The only fallback for something like that was to get the hell out of there and stay out for longer than you thought you should.

I know this is some digression from the main thrust of Peter’s inquiry. But when I think of a lot of Smart City stuff, I think of cameras all over the place. When they break down, I will probably hope there isn’t a fallback mechanism. Unless there is some greater public good to all those cameras. In London, it’s security. But do they really deter? I’m sure the argument is that they do deter. They didn’t stop the subway getting blown up in the previous decade. But now there are exponentially more cameras in London. Do they prevent crime? Do those cameras have other social benefits?


OMG these are amazing examples. Thank you so much for sharing these.

[Sent from a mobile, please apologize the brevity and typos.]

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