Lessons from the Pandemic: The Future of ‘Smart Cities’

August 26, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to rethink the future of cities. The increase in remote work will impact office footprints, transportation patterns, and consumption habits, while the adoption of AI and the increase in automation will continue to reshape the workforce. While early predictions about the “end of the city” now seem premature, there is no denying that the pandemic has posed significant challenges to urban centers worldwide. The exact impact of the pandemic on cities is difficult to predict. Still, there is an eagerness among policymakers, technologists, and urbanists alike to seize this moment to “build back better” and re-imagine cities that are more resilient, inclusive, and sustainable. It is not surprising that the concept of smart cities is gaining greater attention, given their perceived potential to solve complex urban problems.

A smart city essentially refers to a framework, composed of IoT and cloud computing, that collects, manages, and analyzes data to help cities be more efficient and responsive to citizens. It has many potential applications, ranging from IoT enabled traffic management systems that reduce traffic congestion and accidents, to smart grids, which can save energy and allow an easier penetration of renewable energy. In 2019, there were 379 fully deployed smart city projects in 61 countries, and one study found that the market will be worth $2.75 trillion by 2023. A survey of senior officials across 167 cities and 82 countries also revealed that 65% of city officials believe smart cities programs will be crucial for their futures post-pandemic.

This outlook among city officials likely stems from being forced to think creatively about the use of technology in their pandemic responses. For instance, Chicago used anonymized cellphone data to analyze travel patterns and track whether people were self-isolating. In Helsinki, city hall maintained a Special Operations Group that used data from digital technology platforms and scenario analysis to inform their decision-making. This past year also encouraged new public-private partnerships, which will be central to the success of smart cities projects. For example, California-based drone delivery startup Zipline partnered with Ghana’s government to deliver COVID-19 test samples to the country’s two largest cities – Accra and Kumasi.

However, not all outcomes of the pandemic have been positive for smart cities. The health crisis has also interrupted several smart cities projects and created new hurdles for city administrators. Most notably, city budgets have been squeezed, and one report anticipated long-lasting revenue shortfalls for subnational governments. In response, some governments are trying to get ahead of this financial gap and using recovery plans to bolster technology investment. For instance, the European Union has set up a €750 billion recovery plan, known as NextGenerationEU. Among the approved Member States’ recovery plans, top digital priorities include the digitalization of the public administration (~36%) and businesses (~17%) (see graph below). Cities are also expected to benefit from this funding. Additionally, London and five other European cities have invested €250 million in smart technologies through the Sharing Cities program, which brings together 34 partners from across government, industry and academia to test and scale the use of smart technology. Going forward, strategic investments and creative business models will be key to successfully scaling the use of this technology.

Budgets are not the only consideration. Another key lesson from the pandemic is that trust is a crucial element for the deployment of any digital service, product, or ecosystem. In Singapore, which was named the “smartest city in the world,” citizens were required to scan a QR code with identification information whenever they entered a public space for contact tracing purposes. The government originally gave assurances that the data would only be used for contract tracing. However, it was later revealed that police had been using the data for their investigations, sparking public mistrust. In Zhengzhou, smart city projects came under scrutiny after failing to prevent deaths following severe flooding.

Needless to say, the pandemic has prompted a shift in public outlook on data sharing, further incentivizing governments to address these real and potential harms. In July, the Dutch Data Protection Agency published recommendations to ensure smart city initiatives comply with data protection and privacy protections. Just two months prior, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) similarly published a series of principles encouraging developers to build smart cities with security in mind from the start. In China, home to half of the world’s smart city projects, the highest court ruled that businesses who use facial recognition technology must acquire users’ consent before collecting their facial information.

While these are promising initiatives, city governments can take even more proactive steps to ensure their citizens can trust and benefit from this new technology. Chief among the responses should be a data privacy policy, whereby citizens can be assured that their data is collected for a legitimate purpose and not stored beyond the necessary timeframe. At the same time, the use of data to guide local and national responses to the pandemic highlights the need to strike an appropriate balance between personal privacy and public interest. With increasing data collection, policymakers will also need to address pervasive fears of public surveillance. Sensors, cameras, and audio solutions that comprise a smart city collect vast amounts of data, but even a small amount can be revealing and abused by the government. Finally, smart cities need strong security policies; otherwise, the very IoT backbone that powers a smart city could be exploited by cyber criminals and other malicious actors. These should be key components of any smart city strategy, along with a robust consultation involving diverse stakeholders to understand local needs and concerns. In sum, as city officials, the private sector, and citizens look to the future, they should jointly develop and invest in smart cities that address citizens’ greatest needs, earn their trust, and embed security, privacy, and fundamental rights at the outset.

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