Some of the good practice examples were presented at the Connective Cities international dialogue event on lessons learned during the coronavirus crisis. These inspired the roughly 800 participants from 250 municipalities worldwide to see how they could improve their responses to COVID-19.
Municipalities the world over are on the front line of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Above all, they have to maintain basic public services. Public health officers must organise tests and vaccinations, and public order offices need to monitor contact restrictions. Child day-care centres and schools must be largely kept running; public transport companies have to adapt to changed user behaviour, waste management utilities to different quantities of waste, and so on and so forth.
As a result, municipalities have been facing huge challenges for months. Many are overstretched, and often lack not just human resources and modern digital equipment, but also points of reference for how they might tackle the problems. On the other hand, since March municipalities have been generating countless ideas on how to cope with the pandemic as best they can. Some are falling back on crisis plans which they drew up years ago for disaster preparedness. Others are pursuing innovative paths, such as the Municipality of Hazmieh in Lebanon, which is relying amongst other things on geographic information systems to contain the pandemic, or Batnah in Algeria, where coronavirus-related medical products are being manufactured using 3D printers.
To enable these examples to be replicated rather than remaining one-off solutions, from June 2020 onwards, and on behalf of Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Connective Cities gave local actors an opportunity to share their experiences with the pandemic in a simple and flexible way. This led to the 'Municipal Responses to COVID-19' series of events.
Just as the pandemic does not stop at borders, the expert dialogue on COVID-19 was designed to be international too. 256 municipalities from eleven countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America took part in 51 online events. All participants wanted to learn from and with each other, and improve their responses to the pandemic and their resilience – entirely in line with the 'build back better' principle
In March 2020 the Connective Cities team asked themselves: What are the topics on which the municipalities have the greatest need to dialogue? Which topics concern municipalities in Germany, what problems do municipalities in Jordan or Brazil face, and which themes are of global interest? Through their network the municipalities called on municipalities to propose themes for the expert dialogue, and interviewed municipal experts on their most urgent needs. This led to of a programme of events that covered a wide range of municipal fields of action, and that was adjusted continuously as the situation unfolded.
One topic covered by the online events was public crisis management. Here it emerged that municipalities' leeway for action varies widely. If national governments such as the one in Brazil play down the coronavirus, for instance, it is much more difficult for municipalities to push through preventive measures. Digitalisation was also a constantly recurring topic, because worldwide many adults are switching to working from home digitally, and children and teenagers are switching to homeschooling. Online meetings and digital lessons were supposed to become the new normal. Wherever the digital infrastructure was lacking, however, this did not work. This is an immense problem, particularly for school education in developing countries. Digital solutions also play a pivotal role in tracing chains of infection, and municipalities need to act swiftly in order to significantly increase their capabilities in this regard.
Some events were designed for municipalities that need to overcome specific challenges in a particular region of the world. On 27 August, for instance, 17 municipalities from the Middle East met online to discuss their respective strategies for containing the pandemic in local communities hosting large numbers of refugees, particularly from Syria. By contrast, the two virtual dialogue weeks held in November and December 2020 discussed scaling up local knowledge and expertise to municipal actors worldwide.
Felix Reifschneider from the BMZ Division 'Federal states, local authorities' believes the international expert dialogue was a complete success. At the concluding event he said: 'COVID-19 threatens to undo the development success stories of recent years and decades, because developing countries are so hard hit by the pandemic.' He added that this was why the swiftly launched dialogue between municipalities worldwide was so important – because it made the good practice examples quickly available to practitioners.
In her concluding words, Sabine Drees of the Association of German Cities emphasised that many presentations had impressively demonstrated one thing: that municipalities, which are generally well placed to perform their task of delivering basic public services, were not only better able to cope with the current coronavirus crisis, but also enjoy greater trust among citizens. In the future this will move decentralisation further up the agenda worldwide, she added.
Using digital platforms on this scale was a first not only for work in the municipalities, but also for the expert dialogue. Ricarda Meissner, who is responsible for Connective Cities at the GIZ, said: 'Developing joint solutions across continents in an entirely virtual space worked much better than expected.'
Along with the many good practice examples, the participants also raised many questions to which they have no answers as yet. Torben Heinemann for instance, Head of the Office of Transport and Civil Engineering in the City of Leipzig, sees COVID-19 as posing major challenges for public transport. Amongst other things, he asks how public transport companies can secure their long-term financing if in the future more people work from home instead of using the bus or the train to get to work.
Questions like this, to which answers are still lacking in many places, are on the agenda for further dialogue in 2021. The envisaged dialogues will address fewer topics. Instead, they will focus more closely on developing specific projects to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The content covered will include reviving the local economy, vaccination strategies and urban mobility.
Anyone who was unable to attend any of the more than 50 events has not missed anything for good, because the presentations and the video recordings of the individual sessions will remain available on the Connective Cities website for a long time.
Connective Cities has also had translated an e-learning course and a textbook on municipal crisis management published by the Academy of Public Health Services in Düsseldorf. These translations will enable municipalities outside the German-speaking countries to also use the course and the book. The materials convey the fundamentals, methods and principles that municipalities can apply in order to prepare for minor and major crises. The focus is on crisis management in public health and public administration.
A diverse city like Stuttgart must make its communication on the COVID-19 crisis international, integrative and inclusive. Ultimately, information on containing the pandemic needs to reach all sections of the population, including vulnerable groups such as the elderly, people with disabilities and refugees. The city therefore uses various channels of communication such as in-person visits to senior citizens' homes, social media, brochures and video clips in several languages, including sign language.
The company operating Stuttgart's trams and buses (SBB) has also adopted an inclusive approach to communication. Information is delivered through television ads, in-tram and on-platform announcements, and direct passenger outreach through social media and posters. SBB's competition for designing face masks, for example, turned out to be a real attention grabber.
One of the lessons learned from the activities in Stuttgart was that groups particularly hard hit by the pandemic, and actors who can inspire trust and confidence, should be included in communication early on. For example, refugees in the city were actively involved in the production of videos, which also strengthened the refugees’ role in local society. The most important thing of all, though, is to stay in touch! More
The Brazilian metropolis of Belo Horizonte has put together a collection – a repository – of over 1,700 recommendations for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, drawn from 159 countries and 98 international organisations. These international lessons learned are especially important for Brazilian municipalities, as the country is one of the epicentres of the pandemic and the national government does not acknowledge the gravity of the situation.
The repository covers many topics, including the smart city, and also contains a section specially tailored to the needs of Belo Horizonte. There are now four volumes of the repository, which are available in Portuguese, English, Spanish and French. It has been distributed to municipalities, universities, chambers of commerce, embassies and international organisations around the world. Municipalities in Brazil and elsewhere are using it either to assemble similar publications for their local context, or to implement the recommendations directly. The Spanish metropolis of Barcelona, among others, has distributed the repository, and the international platform Cities for Global Health has published recommendations contained in the repository on its website.
More: Interview with Hugo Salomão França
Director of International Relations City of Belo Horizonte, Brazil