Apr 01 2021

Smart Cities Can Succeed After the Pandemic

Municipalities can take smaller steps to improve the health of communities.

Cities, and the people who live in cities, have been through a lot over the past year, with the health impacts of the pandemic and the economic fallout taking center stage. With such a singular focus on supporting community members, ongoing operations and ultimately recovery, the focus on smart city technologies has likewise shifted. 

Gone are the days when wholesale, citywide solutions were convincing models — as reflected by the corporate retrenchment in smart city technologies. Instead, the focus has shifted to targeted programming, offering solutions on energy, mobility, infrastructure and other core smart city priorities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every facet of government operations and output over the past year. In particular, the pandemic upended city budgets and plunged the revenue of many local governments into uncertainty. As a result, governments have reconsidered their smart city initiatives, with global numbers for smart city projects dropping enormously in the past year. 

As cities now begin to shift into recovery mode, it will be critical for city officials to be intentional in their decision-making processes for smart city technology. Therefore, doubling down on core efforts — and the technological underpinnings to support them — that broadly impact people in cities will be crucial in the years ahead.

Smart Cities Must Choose Goals Carefully in Today's Environment

Smart energy projects are a clear example of core initiatives that smart city technology can successfully scale. In many ways, these types of projects are an easy sell because of the concerted push cities have made to achieve sustainability goals. Now that the United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement and there is a stronger imperative at all levels of government to meet broad-based climate goals, these types of projects should flourish. Plus, smart energy projects bring the bonus of short-term payoffs on investment compared with other smart city projects. 

Partnerships are critical for success. Whether cities are collaborating with consultants, nonprofits or university partners, it is imperative communities find the solutions that fit them best. Since there isn’t yet uniform consensus on standards, cities don’t want to make the wrong choice, which could be costly and unsustainable over the long term. Choosing the right partners helps to make informed decisions.

Officials Should Talk to the Community About Smart City Projects

Community input is another critical component to driving positive outcomes. Soliciting public feedback on large-scale city solutions is more vital than ever. 

For example, Sidewalk Labs abandoned its work with Quayside in Toronto in 2020, concluding the project was not economically sustainable. Originally heralded as a new frontier of urban innovation that would set the stage for this type of growth globally, this public-private partnership began with much fanfare. However, it suffered from a perceived lack of public input, privacy concerns and questions about the equity implications of this type of development. 

Making the community’s voice heard from the very beginning is crucial for cities to successfully implement smart cities programs. By including feedback from residents, cities ensure they are not simply assuming the needs of their residents but instead are providing solutions to problems residents actually face. 

MORE FROM STATETECH: Explore citizen services with these eight smart cities to watch.

Smart City Officials Must Carefully Plan for the Future

To successfully implement smart city policies, cities should focus specifically on the outcomes they want to achieve, and partner not only with the private sector but with universities and nonprofit organizations to leverage expanded opportunities for their communities. Cities should have a clear vision of the future for their communities and then find solutions that help to achieve that vision. As cities continue to recover, there is an opportunity to accelerate work on infrastructure, transportation and digital inclusion — together with federal partners — to drive a more innovative future. 

At the National League of Cities, we see this as a critical time to reimagine what it means to integrate technology and data into governance and governing. This means thinking about things like digital inclusion and how the use of smart technologies impacts our marginalized residents. It is an opportune time to center some of the big systemic problems that have been thrust to the forefront during the confluence of the pandemic, its economic fallout and civil rights movement in the technology conversation. If we really want smart cities to be smart, our great urban places need first and foremost to be focused on people —and helping people thrive and succeed.

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