Pandemic prompts call for action for smart city initiatives

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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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