Global Cities on the Frontline of the Pandemic

Input square image here

21st April 2020

Alexis Roig

CEO of SciTech DiploHub



Cities are on the front line of the fight against the COVID-19 health crisis, fostering collective responses by sharing data, scientific knowledge and best practices
Some of the most relevant advances in urban management were developed in response to public health crises. From the Plague of Athens in 430BC, which reshaped the city’s laws and identity, to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, which shifted the balance of class power in European societies, public health crises seldom fail to leave their mark on cities and their policy strategies.
Today COVID-19 is joining a long list of more recent infectious diseases, such as the Spanish flu of 1918 or the Ebola Virus Disease in 2014, which left enduring scars on urban spaces.

As governments across the globe try to overcome the rapid spread of the pandemic, confining people at home and radically altering the way we move through, work in and think about our cities, it remains to be seen whether these changes will persist beyond the end of the pandemic, and what life might look like on the other side.

At the same time, cities and their research and innovation ecosystems are fostering collective responses by sharing data, scientific knowledge and best practices through joint international initiatives such as Cities for Global Health, led by Metropolis and other major city networks. They facilitate the access of local decision-makers to first-hand experiences, thereby improving health crises management strategies across borders.

In 2018, Barcelona became the world’s first city to deploy a science diplomacy strategy, leveraging the potential of the city's knowledge and innovation ecosystem for global public good. Backed by leading research centers, universities, non-profits, startups, corporations, and public institutions at SciTech DiploHub, we have positioned Barcelona as a global laboratory in science and technology diplomacy for cities around the world.

But how can other cities deploy their science diplomacy strategies to deal with global health crises? What initiatives and policies are being developed at the local level in response to the COVID-19 outbreak? How will urban planners resolve the tension between densification –instrumental to environmental sustainability– and disaggregation –essential to reduce infection transmission? How can digital infrastructures help local governments harness data to tackle the current health crisis? What is the global contribution of Barcelona’s research groups and companies to the COVID-19 pandemic?

To shed light upon some of these questions, at SciTech DiploHub, Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub, we held the third of our online sessions, under the title “Barcelona and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Role of Global Cities”. These SciDipTalks bring together leading specialists in global health, science diplomacy, technology and geopolitics from world-class institutions to open up and bring in-depth analysis and expertise on the current outbreak to the public debate.

According to Emilia Saiz, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), cities are at the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis. «Health measures without water access, transportation or waste management are very hard to keep. Local public service provision is the backbone to fighting this pandemic». She believes that city networks and local government associations will play a key role in the aftermath, bridging the gap between global challenges and local knowledge. «City diplomacy is a transformative diplomacy; we must ensure cities are much more involved in the international dialogue on crisis management and global health».

The importance of local digital infrastructure was one of the points raised by Esteve Almirall, Director of the Centre for Innovation for Cities and Associate Professor of Data Science and Innovation at ESADE Business School. «Digital technologies and data capabilities are critical to aggregate epidemiological information, advise on and orientate behaviors and provide a better understanding of health crisis management. The differences between the mitigation strategies of countries such as Spain or Italy on one hand and the approaches of countries such as South Korea or Singapore on the other, are mainly differences in the granularity of the information and the intervention» Without reliable data collection methods, lockdown exit plans will be much more difficult to apply. Almirall stressed out there is a «unique opportunity at the local level to obtain and use accurate data which can’t be wasted».  

Alfonso Valencia, Director of the Life Sciences Department at Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC-CNS) and Director of the Spanish Bioinformatics Institute (INB / ELIXIR-ES), brought up the question of global data access and international research collaboration. «We are witnessing a reassuring move towards Open Science and Science Diplomacy across the globe. This allows us to accelerate biomedical innovation, ignite new international collaborations and share failures to improve future research projects». The COVID-19 crisis has proved that rapid data sharing is the basis for public health action. Efforts for expedited data and results reporting are being strengthened around the world, including results of clinical trials, observational studies, disease monitoring and control programs as well as information on the virus and its genetic sequences.

Laura Lechuga, Leader of the Nanobiosensors and Bioanalytical Applications Group at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), delved into her research to develop a point-of-care platform for sensitive and specific diagnosis of COVID-19. She highlighted the importance of both international collaborations through the Horizon 2020 EU framework as well as the interdisciplinary crosstalk within urban ecosystems like Barcelona. «We are lucky to be located at a thriving knowledge ecosystem where we have the opportunity to interact and collaborate with hospitals, genomics facilities, supercomputing infrastructures, research labs and private companies. The COVID-19 pandemic stresses the societal importance of scientific evidence and innovation».

If we want to understand the spread and control of infectious diseases, we must look to urban ecosystems and infrastructures. As the world struggles to adjust to a new reality, it is imperative to find solutions that create resilient and sustainable metropolises. The global challenges that cities are dealing with, including this pandemic, raise fundamental issues as to the future of public policy and global governance.

Major cities are uniquely suited to translate their knowledge, resilience and productivity into global progress.  They are critical in implementing solutions to challenges that respond to a global logic but are manifested at a local level. Equipped with solid science and technology ecosystems, they cannot turn a blind eye to humanity’s greatest challenges. Now more than ever, the world needs city-led science diplomacy.


Alexis Roig is CEO of SciTech DiploHub, the Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub, Professor at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology and has over 10 years’ experience as senior advisor on science diplomacy for ministries of Foreign Affairs, Science, Research and Education across Asia and Europe.

Follow Alexis Roig on Twitter:

Follow SciTech DiploHub on Twitter:

Watch the video of the online seminar “Barcelona and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Role of Global Cities”: