Pandemic prompts call for action for smart city initiatives

Tuesday, 13 April, 2021

Pandemic prompts call for action for smart city initiatives

Despite posing significant hurdles to cities worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a wave of innovation that will continue after the crisis, according to research from ESI ThoughtLab. The ‘Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World’ study underscores the vital role that technology, data, cybersecurity and public–private partnerships play to ensure a healthy, safe and prosperous future for citizens after the pandemic.

The research, conducted in August and September 2020, included a survey of senior officials from 167 cities across 82 countries, including Asia, North and Latin America, MENA, Europe and Africa. The cities represented 526 million people or 6.8% of the world’s population; 53% of these cities are in emerging markets and 47% in developed countries.

The survey categorises cities based on progress in two categories: progress in applying smart solutions, with cities classified as either ‘beginner’, ‘intermediate’ or ‘leader’; and progress on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with cities classified as either ‘implementer’, ‘advancer’ or ‘sprinter’. Cities that excelled in both areas were considered Cities 4.0 — hyperconnected cities that are sustainable and well ahead in the use of technology, data and citizen engagement.

For 65% of city officials, the pandemic underscored the importance of smart city programs, while 43% learned the importance of operational continuity and agility. For 37% of city leaders, the pandemic also highlighted the need to invest more in upgrading core infrastructure.

For 88% of city leaders, investing in cloud platforms is urgently needed to deliver critical and non-critical citizen services. The survey also found that 66% of cities are investing heavily in AI, with 80% forecast to do so over the next three years, especially in the area of digital assistants and chatbots. Meanwhile, 30% of cities will invest in digital twins, marking a 300% increase from the 11% currently investing in this technology. Research also indicates that 100% of Cities 4.0 have already invested in cloud; based on reported ROI estimates, the average return on digital infrastructure investments made by Cities 4.0 is 5.74%.

John Touhy, Director of Smart Cities Strategy at Oracle, noted that more successful cities are focusing on emerging technologies that have a direct impact on service delivery, such as cloud computing, AI and digital assistants.

The survey found that 60% of city leaders do not feel that their cities are safe from international or domestic cyber attacks, due to vulnerabilities stemming from financial constraints, a shrinking IT talent pool and other factors. Conversely, 95% of smart city leaders had the highest confidence in their cybersecurity, compared to 8% of cities that were classified as ‘beginners’ in the smart city journey. Additionally, 95% of Cities 4.0 ensured that cybersecurity was accounted for early on in projects.

For 50% of city leaders, finding the right private or public sector partner was among their biggest hurdles to meeting the city’s goals. 83% of cities wanted their partners to offer solutions that enable a high level of innovation, while also ensuring safety and security (65%). Additionally, 79% of officials stated that price was not the top concern in evaluating smart city proposals. Cities just beginning to make progress on the United Nations’ SDGs (41%) and those in Africa (47%) were more cost-conscious than their counterparts in other regions.

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