Keys to the smart city: How to make initiatives successful

How COVID accelerated smart city development

The current COVID-19 pandemic has had unprecedented impacts on individuals and society as a whole. What was initially considered a China-specific outbreak spread quickly throughout the world, hospitalizing many and killing thousands. Until recently, most cases were found around major cities such as New York, London and Madrid, where the virus spread rapidly among dense, closely populated communities. 

The fact that this pandemic has happened in the middle of a digital revolution hasn’t gone unnoticed. The hotspot cities represent not just melting pots of culture and connected communities, but they are also the ones at the forefront of innovation, relying on technology to combat many of their problems. When the pandemic arrived, however, questions arose over how well connected cities would respond. 

As many predicted, this pandemic has caused a worldwide economic recession, slashing budgets for organizations in all sectors -- government, business and academia. City budgets haven’t been spared, either, with the mayor of London’s Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell, acknowledging public-sector budgets will need to be reevaluated post-COVID. Transforming smart cities isn’t cheap, and governments are facing COVID-related budget cuts that could stop funding for tech innovation projects.

Does this mean the end of smart cities for the time being? Not necessarily. Some governments are using the opportunity to increase their technology investment -- specifically in smart city components. By reducing the spread of COVID-19 while simultaneously rejuvenating economic growth in their cities, they can kill two birds with one stone. In June, the government of Singapore announced that it would escalate its investment in digitizing businesses by 30%. In a statement, officials identified the development of new tech tools to respond to COVID-19 and the use of data analytics, artificial intelligence and sensors to modernize government initiatives as areas of key focus. 

The impact of smart city technologies to control the virus’ spread can also be seen in the United Arab Emirates. Here, the government made sure that guidelines regarding social distancing and lockdown rules were obeyed by implementing an AI-based system that helped local police wearing “smart helmets equipped with a thermal camera to detect those infected with COVID-19 from a safe distance,” officials said in a statement. At the same time, the system also helped identify people who were on the roads without the necessary authorization by reading their vehicle plate numbers.

Similarly, as part of the Indian government-funded Smart Cities Mission, 45 cities have operational integrated command and control centers. These ICCCs serve as quasi-war rooms to make emergency decisions, manage contact tracing activities and monitor the state of lockdown efficiency. Particularly, in the city of Varanasi, a GIS-based dashboard was effectively used to identify quarantine violations, deliver essential commodities and conduct emergency alert response. 

The pandemic is also cited as a driving change in how we think about city formation. For instance, in China, building plans for Net City include more sustainability measures such as green roof gardens, less infrastructure support for cars and more use of AI in decision-making. At the same time, there has been more emphasis on resilience planning. Though the pandemic is not a typical disaster, emergency response systems are being optimized to integrate features that pinpoint locations of callers using mobile phones and use dashboards and data visualization tools to manage the crisis.

The ability of these cities to respond at the spur of the moment is now considered among the most important factors for future smart cities.

Of course, the pandemic has raised concerns over privacy and fundamental human rights where digital technologies such as contact-tracing and surveillance tools are pressed into service. Besides being attractive targets for hackers, COVID-management apps that contain personal information could also lead to stalking or discrimination of those diagnosed with COVID-19. However, when data is shared securely, the technology can reap huge benefits. 

With citizens distrustful of governments and tech companies when it comes to data privacy, it is important cities safeguard public trust, lest residents be dissuaded from voluntarily sharing their data.

In the fight against COVID-19, schools, cities and police are beginning to share data in unprecedented ways, Sanjeet Pandit, Qualcomm’s head of smart cities, told IoTWorldToday

Collaboration among organizations to protects citizens’ data is the way forward. At the same time, transparency and citizen engagement must not be forgotten. Presenting easily understandable visualizations of the results of data analysis must be the aim of every government stakeholder.

Today, education, work and entertainment come at the click of a mouse, creating an opportunity for city governments to accelerate infrastructure improvements and urban developers to fundamentally change how they want to build the next generation of cities. We are unlikely to have another such testbed-like experience that allows for constructive lessons to be learnt for the future. 

About the Author

Siva Sooryaa Muruga Thambiran is a senior at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and a student intern at NYS’s C2SMART, a research center specializing in urban mobility solutions.

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