Across the country, schools are wrestling with the difficult choice of whether to reopen, and how to do it with reduced risk. In Kalamazoo, Michigan—not far from one the main sites where Pfizer is frantically manufacturing vaccines—they plan to stay virtual through the end of the school year. In Iowa, a state without a mask mandate, kids can now go back to in-person learning full time. Meanwhile, in a school district in San Mateo County, California, that borders Silicon Valley, there’s no clear decision—and low-income and affluent parents are clashing over what to do.
It’s been a difficult journey. Since March 2020, when most schools closed, districts have been asked to adjust over and over—to new science about how the virus behaves, new policy recommendations, and the different needs of families, kids, teachers, and staff.
Now, as President Biden forges ahead with his promise to reopen most schools within his first 100 days, the debates sound as complicated as ever—and offer a glimpse into many of the difficulties of reopening society at large.
The limits of “guidance”
Schools across the country have looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on how to operate in the pandemic. In its latest recommendations, the CDC says a lot of the things we’ve heard all year: that everyone in a school building should wear masks, stay at least six feet apart, and wash their hands frequently. But schools have found that even when guidelines seem relatively straightforward on paper, they are often much harder—or downright impossible—to put into practice.
“There’s a difference between public health mitigation policies when we think them through and when we write them down, and then when we try to implement them,” says Theresa Chapple, an epidemiologist in Washington, DC. “We see that there are barriers at play.”
Chapple points to a recent study by the CDC that looked at elementary schools in Georgia. After just 24 days of in-person learning, the researchers found nine clusters of covid-19 cases that could be linked back to the school. In all, about 45 students and teachers tested positive. How did that happen? Classroom layouts and class sizes meant physical distancing wasn’t possible, so students were less than three feet apart, separated only by plastic dividers. And though students and teachers mostly wore masks, students had to eat lunch in their classrooms.
Researchers also note that teachers and students may have infected each other “during small group instruction sessions in which educators worked in close proximity to students.”
Following the CDC’s best practices might be inherently difficult, but it’s also complicated by the fact that they are just guidelines: states and other jurisdictions make the rules, and those often conflict with what the CDC says to do. Since February 15, Iowa schools have been required to offer fully in-person learning options that some school officials say make distancing impossible. Because the state no longer has a mask mandate, students aren’t required to wear masks in school.
Jurisdictions following all these different policies have one thing in common: although case totals have dipped since their peak in January, the vast majority of the US still has substantial or high community spread. A big takeaway from the CDC’s latest guidance is that high community transmission is linked to increased risk in schools.
“If we are opening schools,” Chapple says, “we are saying that there’s an acceptable amount of spread that we will take in order for children to be educated.”
Meeting different needs
Some schools are trying alternative tactics that they hope will reduce the risks associated with in-person learning.
In Sharon, a Massachusetts town just south of Boston where about 60% of public school students are still learning remotely, pods of students and staff are called down to a central location in their school building twice a week for voluntary covid-19 testing. One by one, children as young as five turn up, sanitize their hands, lower their mask, swab their own nostrils, and place their swab in a single test tube designated for their whole cohort. To make room for everyone, sometimes even the principal’s office becomes a testing site: one person in, one person out. The tubes are then sent to a lab for something called “pooled testing.”
Pooled testing allows a small group of samples to be tested for covid all at once. In Sharon, each tube holds anywhere from 5 to 25 samples. If the test for that small group comes back negative, the whole group is cleared. If it’s positive, each group member is tested until the positive individual is found. Meg Dussault, the district’s acting superintendent, says each pool test costs the school between $5 and $50, and over a third of Sharon Public Schools students and staff participate.
“I’ve seen the benefits of this,” she says “And I believe it’s essential.”
Because schools are funded unequally and largely through taxes, access to resources is a common theme in discussions of school reopening. The state paid for Sharon’s pilot period, but not every district or school has the money or staffing to mount large-scale programs—and Dussault says the district will need to foot the bill for any testing once this program ends in April. It will also need to keep relying on the goodwill of the parent volunteers who wrangle students and swabs for testing each week.
In the seven weeks since pooled testing began, Dussault says, only one batch has come back positive. It’s given her peace of mind.
And even with mitigation measures in place, there are stark demographic differences in opinion on reopening. A recent Pew study found that Black, Asian, and Hispanic adults are more likely to support holding off until teachers have access to vaccines. Those groups are also more likely than white adults to say that the risk of covid-19 transmission “should be given a lot of consideration” when weighing reopening.
Chapple worries that these parents’ concerns will be overlooked, or that funds for remote learning will dwindle because some districts decide to move to in-person learning.
She says: “School districts need to keep in mind that if they’re reopening but a small percentage of their minority students are coming back, what does that look like in terms of equity?”
A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry
China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.
The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.
The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals.
In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma.
Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas.
The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.
The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.
Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.
We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”
The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.
A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there.
This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.
Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor, and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes.
In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”
However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.
In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.
We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.
Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity.
Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.
Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.