Will the pandemic spur a smart rebirth for cities?

Cities traditionally have been bustling hubs where people live, work and play. When the pandemic hit, some people fled major metropolitan markets for smaller towns — raising questions about the future validity of cities. It’s true that we’re still months away from broader reopenings and herd immunity via current vaccination efforts.

However, those who predicted that COVID-19 would destroy major urban communities might want to stop shorting the resilience of these municipalities and start going long on what the post-pandemic future looks like.

Those who predicted that COVID-19 would destroy major urban communities might want to stop shorting the resilience of these municipalities and start going long on what the post-pandemic future looks like.

U.N. forecasts show that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities, communities that are the epicenters of culture, innovation, wealth, education and tourism, to mention just a few benefits. They are not only worth saving — they’re also ripe for rebirth, precisely why many municipal leaders in the U.S. anticipate the Biden administration will allocate substantial monetary resources to rebuilding legacy infrastructure (and doing so in a way that prioritizes equitable access). 

With this emphasis on inclusivity and social innovation, the tech community has the ability to address a range of lifestyle and well-being issues: infrastructure, transportation and mobility, law enforcement, environmental monitoring and energy allocation.

In this time of reset for cities, what smart city technologies will transform how we live our lives? What kinds of technology will make the biggest impact on cities in the next 12 months? Which smart cities are ahead of the curve? 

To unpack these questions and more, we conducted the SmartCityX Survey of industry experts — including smart city investors, corporate and municipal thought leaders, members of academia and startups on the front lines of urban innovation — to help provide valuable insights into where we’re heading. Below you’ll find some key takeaways:

Infrastructure is the most crucial issue for cities

Critical infrastructure topped the list of most prominent issues facing today’s cities, followed closely by traffic and transportation. Cisco may have left the party too soon, but others, including countless startups, are lining up and capitalizing on future growth opportunities in the space. A couple of recent data points that support this trend — particularly as it relates to infrastructure rebuilding, IoT and open toolkits to connect fragmented technologies — include the following:  

Smart Infrastructure is paramount to Smart City success. It’s crucial that this infrastructure be “architected” as opposed to just connected. This is the only way to truly achieve seamless interoperability while ensuring scalability, reliability, security and privacy. Technology companies that offer robust architectural components and/or platforms stand to deliver tremendous stakeholder value and outsized returns to investors.Sue Stash, general partner, Pandemic Impact Fund

What’s driving change in cities?

When asked what will accelerate innovation and change in cities, an overwhelming majority cited COVID-19 as the primary factor, followed by remote work, which has accelerated the adoption of online collaboration tools and forced legacy companies to complete multiyear digital transformation projects in a matter of months. The biggest opportunity is to build cities back better and smarter, focusing on new infrastructures that do more with less, and for most of us, that begins and ends at home.

From telemedicine to education to fitness, the at-home economy, fueled by tech, is squarely in charge and not going anywhere anytime soon. Even as cities gradually open up, the home will continue to be the ultimate mixed-use venue. 

The pandemic has permanently impacted our lives and made it more important than ever for people to safely get the essential tech they need when they need it. What’s also become a reality is the need for a strong tech infrastructure, like Wi-Fi connectivity and the experts who can support it, to help us stay productive and efficient.

Anna Sandquist, merchant director, Connected Home and Connected Car at Best Buy

Smart data will make the biggest impact in the coming year

When asked about which technologies will make the biggest impact on the smart city industry in the next 12 months, 34% selected smart data, including the data-gathering power of IoT-connected sensors and devices. Some cities already have IoT devices operating in a wide range of locations, from street corners monitoring traffic to aqueducts monitoring water quality. Smart mobility (28%), or innovations that will enhance the transportation experience, was the second choice of respondents.

The idea of IoT alone saving the day seems unrealistic, but it will play an integral role in the advancement and connectivity of urban infrastructure.  

I think it is time that we take a step back in the smart city IoT world and look at our citywide infrastructure of how sensors, applications and data come together with consideration to scalability and sustainability. I’m really excited with the growth of LoRaWAN networks around the world, and we are actively considering pilot partners in this space that push the boundaries across multiple opportunities in IoT, tech-enabled economics for our residents and the digital divide.

— Jordan Sun, chief innovation officer at City of San Jose

which kinds of technology will make the biggest impact on cities in the next 12 months?

Image Credits: Scrum Ventures

More equitable, inclusive city living

An overwhelming percentage of respondents (90%) believe that smart city technologies will make city living more equitable and inclusive. How might this happen? Smart city technologies, for instance, can help provide all residents with equal access to city services, allow them to participate in municipal decision-making and benefit from the city’s economic growth. Moreover, smart city technologies can enable remote diagnosis and health monitoring to help communities of color who are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases. Digital learning can connect students from historically underserved communities with quality instruction. 

Beyond pure technology, we must also look at how the venture community can support and empower urban development by investing in minority entrepreneurs — and not just by writing a check. Rather, the community must extend an asset that is much more powerful and sustainable: a relationship network. Helping open a door to growth opportunities is as easy as it is meaningful, and withholding access to these potentially game-changing connections is no different than hoarding toilet paper during a pandemic. It’s both selfish and shameful. 

The 2020 pandemic exposed a long-standing history of social exclusion within the United States. We’re entering 2021 with a greater expectation for diversity, equity and inclusion, especially in business and urban areas. And now, the historic two-time impeachment of the president demonstrates the focus on an authentic values-driven society, which will center around equitable city living.

— Trevor Parham, general partner, Oakland Black Business Fund 

Economic development and sustainability top the list for the new U.S. administration

Respondents believe that economic development (50%) will be the new administration’s top focus for cities — not a surprise, given the fact that the pandemic has pushed millions into poverty. Additional priorities include sustainability (28%) and better access to healthcare (16%). 

A final word

Although the race for smart city adoption is well underway, investors and other survey participants say we’re three to five years away from tangible results. They cite funding as the biggest holdup, followed closely by legislation and policy, and privacy and security. Innovations from many smart city companies haven’t yet matured, and city adoption takes time.  

As smart city development increases in urgency, we can look to Singapore, the world’s smartest city — according to a survey published by Swiss business school IMD and the Singapore University of Technology and Design — for inspiration. The city offers health-focused infrastructure such as pedestrian walkways, underground car parks and outdoor green spaces. The city’s Land Transit Authority has expanded a pilot area for autonomous vehicles to cover the whole of western Singapore, providing convenient, cost-effective transportation. Singapore’s government even supplies residents with fitness trackers at no charge. 

With the advent of the pandemic, there’s a historic opportunity to bring the smart city community together and revitalize these urban centers to make them more livable, sustainable and inclusive. Cities are only worth saving if we’re willing to rethink how we support the diverse communities that inhabit them. With innovation, capital and a general willingness to put in some “sweat equity,” we can collectively create cities of the future, providing places where everyone can thrive.