How COVID is driving smart city plans, budgets

Greater emphasis on technology will allow cities to react faster and more efficiently to events that challenge pre-established norms.

In light of the pandemic, cities are adjusting their smart city plans and budgets.

Although IDC predicted earlier this year that the number of smart city projects in 2020 would increase 14% from 2019 and that global spending on smart city initiatives would total almost $124 billion – 18.9% more than in 2019 – COVID-19 has forced many changes. For one, it accelerated investments in some key IT areas, said Ruthbea Yesner, vice president of IDC’s Government Insights and Smart Cities division.

The biggest moves were around business continuity and technology parity. Workers had equal access to technical tools at the office, but that might be different during remote work.

“A lot of the changes and investment are around realizing that they have to support a hybrid workforce,” Yesner said, adding that this complicates security, data sharing and application access. As a result, cities are re-evaluating what workflows must be paper-based vs. digital and how to take advantage of collaboration tools such as videoconferencing platforms. “There’s a swath of things that people wanted that now become essential.”

What’s more, the pandemic response has shown agencies that they are capable of providing digital services -- both to workers and constituents.

“What we saw with COVID is they were forced to throw things out the window and be agile and be really responsive and just do new things right away -- and they found out that they could,” she said of government agencies. “I think that’s a really important mind-set shift. The things that were making them laggards are taken away.”

Although 2,100 municipalities are reporting budget shortfalls of up to 20%, according to IDC, Yesner said IT budgets aren’t likely to decrease as much as overall budgets. “IT is essential service, so everybody knows they can’t further cut IT because IT is the thing that’s enabling now all the operations,” she said.

IT will also be powering operations for the foreseeable future, as the country faces rising COVID-19 case numbers with vaccines only on the horizon. But even when operations go back to normal, a September IDC survey of consumer experiences found that about 30% of respondents would like to continue accessing virtually government services that previously required in-person presence.

IDC’s “COVID-19 Impact on IT Spending” survey from Aug. 26 to Sept. 6 found that almost 60% of respondents said software development capabilities to drive product and experience innovation will be their agency’s top priority for the rest of this year and into the next. Digital trust programs (about 41%) and data programs to gain insights into business operations, products or ecosystems (almost 40%) rounded out the top three.

“What cities should really say to themselves is, ‘We don’t have that much money. We’re in the middle of an ongoing crisis. Every decision we need to make around technology needs to be incredibly strategic, tied to very specific problems and outcomes and tied to future-scaling,” Yesner said. “The future has to be this seamless digital/physical blended experience of multiple systems that don’t feel tricky to navigate between.”

A specific area that cities are investing in during the pandemic is smart transportation, Jean Pilon-Bignell said in an email to GCN. The vice president of business development, government and smart cities at Geotab, a connected transportation company, he said that with less money and more scrutiny on the allocation of net new spending on IT initiatives, some agencies are looking for solutions with a clear return on investment or that align with socioeconomic initiatives, such as reducing carbon emissions.

“Many governments are looking at how they can potentially make changes to become more efficient,” Pilon-Bignell said. “For example, many are using expensive legacy systems for monitoring, planning and managing traffic operations. The majority of these systems are static and therefore only collect traffic information in set locations. While these systems worked for cities or transportation departments during more normal, pre-pandemic times, new and more versatile technologies are needed in our volatile post-pandemic world.”

The pandemic stands to change the makeup of cities, which will affect traffic, too. Almost 40% of big-city dwellers say they want to move to less-crowded areas, according to a recent Harris Poll, which means traffic may decrease in urban centers and increase in suburban ones.

“Without a detailed understanding of these changes, traffic engineers and signal operations cannot make the necessary adjustments to the traffic management infrastructure,” Pilon-Bignell said.  “As a result, I think that we are going to see a growing interest from some of these smaller cities to acquire transportation analytics products and services in order to better manage this growth.”

He points to work Geotab is doing with Las Vegas. In collaboration with Waycare Technologies and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, the city is creating a product that uses data-driven analytics to support traffic signal operations. To do this, Geotab anonymously aggregates data from more than 60,000 connected vehicles in the region, mashes it up with third-party sources and applies machine learning and analytics to generate insights into traffic signal performance. Waycare integrates that data into its artificial intelligence-based traffic management platform to build predictive models that inform the commission’s traffic signal operators, and the commission’s traffic management center uses the results to create signal timing plans that track safety and efficiency.

“There is an increased emphasis on technology deployments that allow cities to react quickly and more efficiently to anything that changes pre-established norms,” Pilon-Bignell wrote. “Smart city technology is crucial for helping cities adapt to these changes, such as pandemics or other unexpected or planned events.”

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