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Pre pandemic, the transition to smarter cities was well along, albeit in a limited way. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for cities around the world to accelerate their embrace of technologies and infrastructure that enable more remote work; seamless data sharing; nimbleness and flexibility in responding to crises; and, above all, fostering much needed and continuous innovation.

The lockdowns have offered a glimpse of what the future for cities could look like, in the form of improved urban planning and design to make metros more functional. Digital technologies can be applied to not only drive innovation (i.e., the use of voice assistants to provide contactless public services) but reduce pollution through more energy-efficient and carbon-neutral forms of public transport.

Not surprisingly, cities around the world are rushing to adopt smart city technologies — as the following figure shows, the global smart cities market is expected to be worth $2.4 trillion, according to one estimate, by 2025. This growth will be driven by the increasing adoption of technologies such as 5G, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and edge computing.

Figure 1
Source: Allied Analytics

However, as smart city investments take off, these projects must focus on the transformation of urban lives. The keys are data and the citizens who generate it. New-age sensor networks promise large-scale collection of data with wide ranging applications. But the innovation that follows must be inclusive in nature so that its transformative effect is not limited to certain demographics. This, in turn, means overcoming several challenges that hampered smart city projects prior to the pandemic, as well as new ones that have come to light with the advent of COVID (see Quick Take).

Three Challenges Smart Cities Must Address Head-On

Enabling digital citizenship
Social inclusion is a key to successful smart cities. By empowering citizens with the right data, cities can improve citizen engagement and create a sense of community, bridging the gap that separates the information-rich from the information-poor by improving data literacy. This means smart city projects need a continued focus on building data solutions that do not ignore the individual generating the data.

Upgrading digital infrastructure
The extensive network of sensors that will power smart cities and enable data collection must be supported by strong, reliable infrastructure. This will require both new infrastructure and upgrades to legacy infrastructure. Smart cities need to address this issue at the planning stage to avoid costly upgrades in the future.

Powering the smart city
Smart cities enabled by technologies such as 5G networks and large data centers will place greater demands on the electrical grid. Cities must address this through the adoption of technologies such as smart grids and advanced metering solutions that can ease the load.

Overcoming these challenges will allow smart cities to not only become technological hubs that foster innovation and address issues such as data ownership and cybersecurity, but to do so while keeping the human element at the center of their vision for the future.

Five imperatives for building smart and inclusive cities.

The journey of a smart city project is built around continuously evolving technologies. Harnessing them requires more than just packaged solutions — it requires a holistic approach wherein operational and technological elements such as data collection systems, analytics, and urban planning are executed with consideration of citizens’ right to their data, interoperability, and a tight embrace of new governance models. We recommend the following:

1    Plan for digitally inclusive and functional cities.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for cities to reprioritize how, why and where they direct their smart-city technology investments. Many cities realized they needed to beef up their infrastructure to support the boom in remote work, while others applied existing infrastructure for surveillance to ensure lockdown compliance. London, for example, repurposed its air-quality sensor network for this purpose.

The crisis also triggered introspection among smart-city leaders on their ability to incorporate the concerns of their key stakeholders (residents, businesses and visitors). This means delivering high-quality public services (ranging from utility bill payments to civic engagement) to the entire population, prioritizing inclusion, and enabling economic opportunities. The city of Helsinki showed that achieving this kind of functionality is a long-term, but worthwhile, endeavor. Its new City Strategy, implemented in 2017, focused on offering the best living conditions for everyone. By basing decisions on factors such as functionality, safety and openness, the city was able to contain the worst social impacts of lockdown restrictions on demographics such as the elderly.

We believe smart city project leaders need a roadmap to achieve this kind of progress. This roadmap should plot how to understand stakeholder concerns, remove obstacles, embrace fast-changing digital technologies, and apply lessons from existing digital ecosystems. This way, smart city projects can evolve from being technology-centric to enabling communities that thrive on innovation.

2    Imagine cleaner and greener urban transport.

In an era of heightened focus on carbon footprints and sustainable modes of transport, the crisis provided cities an opportunity to change the way metros approach urban transport. Several cities worldwide saw a surge in cycling as the preferred mode of transport, resulting in local air pollution dropping by as much as 60%.

As economies reopen, however, smart cities face the challenge of ensuring that this behavior becomes sticky and paves way for greener modes of transport. For example, the European Union (EU) approved cycling as an equal mode of transport alongside automotive and public transport.

However, at a broader level, a better understanding of urban transport can be enabled by combining disparate sources of transport data with innovative data modeling. Thailand used ride-hailing data combined with new approaches to modeling to understand how urban transport can be made more sustainable. Smart cities, with their focus on data-driven innovation, are well-equipped to pursue such efforts in a post-pandemic world.

3    Build systems to gather and act on data ownership and sharing.

Data is the lifeblood of any smart city. In a world where sources of data are disparate and often out of reach of businesses and platforms that can put it to best use, it is critical to solve data accessibility challenges by rethinking policies covering data ownership. Instances of data misuse and concerns around sharing personal data have fueled public distrust. A 2019 survey, for instance, found that 53% of respondents were concerned about sharing their personal information digitally, while 32% felt vulnerable or stressed when they shared their location.

This distrust can hamper people’s willingness to share personal data with their city administrations. In the UK, one survey found that only 7% would trust public transport providers with their data. Much of this distrust comes from a lack of understanding of how people’s data gets used. The pandemic provided an opportunity to demonstrate how data sharing can lead to the greater good. Creating transparency around data usage, increasing the public’s participation in the city’s plans, and using technology to give people control over their data are all ways smart cities can overcome this lack of trust.

One interesting example of this is project DECODE, which took the idea of Commons and applied it to personal data sharing. This idea of data commons has been trialed in Barcelona and Amsterdam, allowing citizens to control how and why their data gets shared. This way, anonymized public interest data can be used by businesses and city administrations to create both shared services and a competitive market driven by innovation.

4    Embrace key smart city technologies.

As cities prepare to embrace new sources of data, it becomes imperative that they adopt technologies that can help uncover and derive more value from it. These technologies include IoT, AI, real-time apps, and predictive and geospatial data. To enable this, it is crucial for cities to lay the IT infrastructure groundwork that these smart technologies build on, including Wi-Fi, low-power wide-area networks, 5G and data management systems. Given the steady reduction in sensor costs, this area is set for rapid growth.

Going forward, sensors will help cities become seamlessly interconnected. For example, multi-purpose smart poles are gaining popularity; they can serve as cost-effective networks for monitoring traffic flow, electric vehicle charging points as well as environmental monitoring, and public safety.

Greater volumes of data also allow smart cities to make evidence-based decisions. The use of digital twins has emerged as a data-enabled alternative to existing static data models, providing administrators and citizens a dynamic view of how, for instance, a proposed project impacts daily lives in their city. Glasgow’s Future City initiative provides citizens personalized dashboards and can overlay sustainability data on interactive maps, allowing people to understand environmental conditions and even the availability of seasonal foods.

  Deploy cyber risk frameworks.

A deeply connected, data-driven smart city infrastructure is only as strong as the administration’s approach to cybersecurity. Public utilities such as the electricity infrastructure and mass transport systems are prime targets of threats including distributed denial-of-service attacks and data breaches that can endanger citizens’ privacy. Cities need to create frameworks under which cybersecurity standards and technologies are integrated into initial design. These efforts must be supported by broader regulatory frameworks that prioritize data safety, transparency and accountability.

A smart future

The pandemic has proved to be a boon for smart city projects around the world, but has also shown the importance of addressing the concerns of all stakeholders. As the technologies necessary for successful smart cities become more accessible, businesses and government administrators have the opportunity to enhance citizen well-being, while ensuring that their cities are prepared for future eventualities.

To learn more, visit the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work. Stay tuned to the Center’s “21 Places of the Future” — a flavor of which can be found in two recent works “Remotopia” and “Virtual Space.” Contact us for more insights.