Pandemic shows smart cities must be about more than technology

The coronavirus will have a lasting effect on smart cities, including a bigger focus on modernization and digitization and greater use of autonomous vehicles, according to experts from Dentons' Smart Cities and Communities Initiative and Think Tank, a service of the global law firm.  

To learn more about the specific marks the pandemic is leaving on local communities, GCN spoke with Clint Vince, head of the think tank, and Eric Tanenblatt, the firm’s global chairman of public policy and regulation and leader of the firm’s autonomous vehicles group. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How has the pandemic changed the approach to smart cities and communities in general?

Vince: There’s going to be a new normal, and there are positive and negatives to that. I think probably the most dramatic things we’ve seen are an increasing number of crises. We have the 3 Cs of 2020, which are COVID, climate and cyber, and then layered on top of that you have economic disruption and then social unrest. Within that context, I think that cities and communities are going to be challenged by economics in a very serious way, and we’re going to need to find silver linings. Probably the magic word for the next five to 10 years is going to be “resilience.” That covers a range of subjects: human health, environmental health, economic health, social health.

Of particular interest is the need for more broadband. What are some silver linings related to that?

Tanenblatt: With people sheltering at home, the pandemic has really put an emphasis on the need for the expansion of broadband. You’re seeing it in not just rural areas, but also in urban areas. I think the growth and expansion of broadband is going to allow for technologies to expand. One area that I focus a lot of attention on is autonomous vehicles, but not just passenger vehicles. As we’ve seen during COVID, autonomous technology was deployed to assist with issues related to the pandemic. For example, Nuro, which is an autonomous grocery service, was delivering groceries in Northern California. The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville is using autonomous vehicles to transport pharmaceuticals to elderly patients. I see autonomous technology and autonomous vehicles as something that really crosses the income spectrum.

With so many public- and private-sector workers and schoolchildren connecting online, the gap between the haves and have-nots became glaringly obvious. Are there steps that cities can start to take to close the digital divide?

Vince: We’re seeing cities now trying to create full-city broadband service for everybody, and I think that’s going to become a pretty significant national trend. The biggest impediment so far to broadband has not been so much technology as funding. I just believe this is going to have to be prioritized. Although there has been some funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, I think this will continue to be a really important priority.

How can cities, counties and states best prioritize what to put funding toward?

Vince: The cities are looking at middle mile and then last mile with respect to broadband, and I think they’re going to try to fill in there. I also think the new whole new development of remote work is not yet fully understood -- that’s another tremendous opportunity as cities and communities look at social infrastructure. Remote work could impact everything from transportation, and it can impact issues like climate. If it’s carefully orchestrated, it could even reduce traffic congestion.

What should cities do now to continue to respond to the ongoing crisis but also prepare for future ones?

Vince: One thing that’s been clear with all the different crises that are developing is that there has to be an entirely new sense of urgency at the city and community level. Certainly, cities and communities right now are on the front lines, and their physical infrastructure is aging. Their digital infrastructure is fascinating and developing much quicker than their social infrastructure and so the understanding of the Think Tank is that smart cities are much more than a technology play. Although technology presents a tremendous opportunity, we really have to look at smart cities as an infrastructure modernization project that includes digital infrastructure, which would include the internet of things and other digital technology, but also in an integrated way, we have to address physical infrastructure and probably now social infrastructure.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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