connnected city (tostphoto/

The path to post-pandemic smart cities

Market forecasts paint a rosy picture of smart city investment, but many municipalities are slashing budgets, laying off workers and cutting services as the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues. To adapt to the budget shortfalls resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, smart city efforts must be more strategic, said Ruthbea Yesner, vice president of Government Insights and Smart Cities at IDC Government Insights.

“We have to be really strategic with our plan and our investing because we just aren’t going to have any wiggle room in terms of money,” Yesner said. “Then the question becomes what are the foundational tools that you need to start to think about for resiliency -- and let’s take away contingency planning, disaster recovery, backup plans, redundant data centers, having a readiness response, a risk management response. I think that’s all what everyone thinks of when they think of business continuity. You have plans to continue operations if there’s an emergency. What does that mean in light of COVID?”

IDC, an IT market research firm, created a continuum to fill in the steps between the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and the “next normal” that it’s creating. During the crisis, cities focused on network and collaboration tools, digital communications platforms and rapid upskilling to get employees up and running in virtual environments. The following phases in the continuum are economic slowdown, budget reductions, a return to growth and the next normal. That last phase involves cloud and infrastructure optimization, as-a-service deployments and data analysis to help drive forward-looking decisions.

Cities must assess which stage they are in to determine what IT will best get them to the next phase so they can achieve that next normal, Yesner said. In crisis mode, cities focus on business continuity, but the economic slowdown calls for cost optimization, and the budget reductions phase focuses on resiliency. Returning to growth spotlights innovation and targeted investment.

Cities must also be resilient. A survey by the Resilient Cities Network found that 87% of chief resilience officers are involved in their city’s COVID-19 response or recovery effort.

In fact, “smart” and “resilient” are one in the same, Yesner said. “I think that resiliency has always been in important, but we tended to talk about it a lot related to sustainability and the environment and severe weather events,” she said. With the pandemic, the need for other resiliencies have surfaced, especially, technical resilience. Cities, she said, should ask themselves if they “have tech parity -- meaning do all your employees have the tools to do their job, regardless of where they are?”

Despite COVID-related revenue shortfalls, Frost and Sullivan predicts smart city investments will reach $326 billion by 2025, while Markets and Markets predicts $820.7 billion.

There are three steps to implementing a smart city strategy moving forward, said Sanjeet Pandit, Qualcomm Technologies’ global head of smart cities. “No. 1, they need to have a vision of what they want to deploy,” he said. “No. 2, they have to make sure they have a monetization plan as to which areas they want to digitize: schools, universities, hospitals… Third, they have to understand how to monetize this.”

Municipalities can recoup some of the 20% in budget losses that IDC reports by using smart technology to drive revenue. That might mean adding QR codes linking to restaurant and store coupons to signage at bus stops in downtown areas to drive and attract business, for example.

A lesson learned from 2020 is that cities must devote funds from brick-and-mortar infrastructure to digitization, Pandit said. “I think that this pandemic has really opened the mind of cities in adopting technology,” he said. “It has acted as a catalyst toward inter-team, cross-team communication and workflow.”

In December 2020, Pandit announced two new aspects of the company’s Smart Cities Accelerator Program: the Qualcomm Smart Campus and the Qualcomm IoT (Internet of Things) Services Suite. The first is a smart city environment replicated on a company-owned campus that offers more than 20 smart city capabilities such as artificial intelligence, building management and 5G connectivity for data transmission.

Cities can use the campus to test use cases, from an app to let constituents pay electric bills to managing a connected space such as a port. “They can see and touch and feel a tangible, real environment,” Pandit said.

The IoT Services Suite is a plug-and-play solution across multiple domains such as education-, logistics- and connected health care-as-a-service. The goal is to simplify connected spaces and cities by assisting with sensors, devices, edge processing, middleware, geospatial rendering, command and control centers, security, privacy and protection.

An October 2020 survey by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers found that interest in IoT has significantly dropped, however. Only 2% ranked it the most impactful new technology, compared to 43% in 2017.  

Yesner said that may be a reflection of the difficulty cities have in scaling IoT. It works only when massively scaled, not with five blocks of connected intersections, she said. “But on the flipside, we do know that there is going to be a lot more remote management of critical infrastructure. That is key to business continuity. That’s IoT,” she added. “You can’t remotely manage the health of your systems or your infrastructure or your building without sensors.”

Ultimately, smart city efforts must rely on the digitization of data and content management, Yesner said. Without those, cities can’t get real-time data insight.

“We don’t need to define smart cities and go on and on about whether it includes resilience or learning or digital,” she said. “To me, it should include all those things, regardless of how a city brands itself. What we really just need to focus on is how we support the business of government and meeting all sorts of economic, environmental and social objectives, leveraging technology as best we can.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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