What Do Smart Cities Look Like In A Post-COVID World?

by | Jun 2, 2021

There’s been much discussion over the past year about the impact of COVID-19 on life in the UK and Europe. Conversations around working from home, contact tracing and data privacy, and an exodus of people moving from the city into the suburbs and beyond. Prior to the pandemic, the smart cities sector was charging ahead – developing solutions for everything from waste disposal to traffic management.

All that, however, was based on an assumption that life and work would still be city-centric. Has COVID-19 impacted Europe’s smart city development?

“Despite changes to how we work and where we live, smart cities are gaining traction, with worldwide spending on connected city initiatives predicted to reach $135 billion in 2021. The increase in remote working may mean fewer people are commuting to cities and other built-up urban areas, so we must improve connectivity in the areas where they live,” says  Jamie Hayes, Mobile Network Operators Director at BT Wholesale.

For Elliot Chmielinski, Channel Manager, Projects at Somfy UK, the pandemic has underlined the importance of smart cities in enabling new working and living patterns, “as many elements make up a smart city, it could be argued that focus on certain design elements will be the key moving forwards.  A good example would be transport, if people are commuting into the city from wider locations and on a more sporadic basis then the available transport needs to suit,” he explains.

The pandemic also highlighted that collaboration and connectivity are essential to managing responses to incidents, keeping healthcare systems and government agencies working effectively and ensuring citizens remain connected. 

Nick Chorley, Director, EMEA Public Safety & Security, Hexagon’s Safety & Infrastructure division. believes that rather than restricting development, the pandemic has changed the concept of what a smart city needs to be, “the pandemic highlighted the need for connectivity and collaboration between organisations of all types. As city operations become more complex, it is imperative for departments, agencies, and NGOs to work together. Shared awareness and coordination enable greater efficiency, understanding, and visibility of live operations for better response, empowering a city to withstand adversity or even mitigate it before it happens.”

A year of behind the scene innovation

While Europe’s cities have been quiet over the past year, behind the scenes major development and key innovations have been driving the roadmap forwards regardless. Earlier this year London and five European partner cities triggered an investment of £250 million in smart technologies through the Sharing Cities Programme.

Chris Barlow, Director of Innovation at the DCC comments that “there have been a number of headline innovations over the past year and a half in smart city technologies, like 5G and low-power chips, but it’s the innovations behind the scenes that are making the most of existing technology that are having the biggest impact.”

London is retaining its crown as Europe’s leading smart city, according to a ranking calculated by Smart City Governments website with Barcelona, Helsinki, Vienna and Amsterdam behind.

The crisis has also enabled several smart city technologies to come into their own over the past year. Phil Beecher, President and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance, points to robots and drones as key examples, “the use of drone technology and robotics is helping with the delivery of medical supplies, screening individuals for infection, and for surveillance purposes. Many of us will have seen the images of Singapore’s robot ‘dogs’ in its city’s parks reminding residents of the need for social distancing.”

Several smart cities projects have also been completed in the past year. Elliot Chmielinski, Channel Manager, Projects, Somfy UK has been working on 22 Bishopsgate in London, which claims to have the highest smart building standards in Europe, “the building has optimised smart principles throughout using technology such as occupancy sensors, environmental sensors, and web/app-based systems.  Specifically, we have designed a touchless shading control system which contributes to the buildings energy efficiencies, based on environmental conditions and occupancy levels” he explains.

Dr Vahid Javidroozi, Senior Research Fellow in Smart City Systems Engineering, at Birmingham City University believes that the pandemic may also have helped citizens adapt to the type of technologies that are present in a smart city environment, “more working from home means people don’t need to necessarily live in a city where they work, so they may be even more interested to live in other locations and use technology like apps which helps them to interact and engage with elements of those cities.” He also flags that many smart city providers have been focused on narrow COVID solutions in the past year, as well as ongoing development around technology ranging from 5G to digital twins.

For Pascal Lemasson, AVP and Head of Business Development and Sales, Europe, MediaTek, “while we are not quite there yet, numerous Edge AI projects are being added to specific vertical segments as a way to future-proof and develop the smart city. For example, camera surveillance networks will soon be able to analyse a complete scene, situation or sequence of events in order to trigger emergency or security forces, either for traffic security enhancements or within pedestrian areas. Additionally, we are seeing smart digital signage progressing with potentially multiple enhancements for smarter and more contextualized interactions with users.”

Nick Chorley highlights Munich as an example of a city pioneering the smart city approach, with a proof of concept project underway to understand the city’s evolving mobility system

Building on current progress

Smart cities, boosted by media and technology hype, promise to solve key challenges of life in urban centres, reducing public expenditure in the long term and offering more to citizens. But is Europe ready to move beyond proofs of concept and start to deliver real services and connected cities? What needs to happen in the next five years to make this a reality? The challenges are vast, ranging from climate change to technical infrastructure.

“For smart cities to be a success they need to earn the trust of their citizens, they need to be explicit about how they ethically use data and how they protect the privacy of their people,” says Chris Barlow. On top of this, he sees the move towards electric vehicles bringing infrastructure challenges, “consumers are embracing EVs at an ever-growing rate: the cities will need to become smarter to accommodate this greater need for electricity. Currently, renewable energy sources can be extremely variable and the power they deliver does not always align with peak demand: this intermittency often means fossil fuels need to be burned to make up the shortfall. With smart grid oversight and control, cities could be incentivised to take advantage of the greenest energy.”

Smart cities also face the challenge of local political structures. A vast array of systems of local government, partnerships and private initiatives are being implemented across Europe. It’s rate that technology expertise, public confidence and political will all align. Getting buy in from stakeholders is crucial for success, says Jamie Hayes, “new smart cities initiatives must be adopted in the right way. Local authorities and councils should partner with providers that understand how technology should be implemented and can provide guidance around the topics that could arise and what can be done to alleviate possible concerns.”

Data, privacy and security are never far from the smart cities debate. After all, without data and a mechanism by which to share it, you don’t have a smart city. Again, the structures of local government can have serious implications in how that data is managed, the number of organisations it passes between, citizen’s consent to its use and the algorithms that make decisions. “The big ethical considerations are often around accessing personal information, especially with the use of AI-based data analytics, use of location detectors, sensor technologies, etc. This would be more important in countries where data protection legislations have not been considered or implemented accurately,” comments Dr Vahid Javidroozi.

In the next few months, as Europeans look to return to their offices, smart city technology could come to the fore. “Administrations will require the data to know where, when and how many commuters are traveling. Understanding how road, cycleway and path usage has changed post-pandemic will be necessary for targeting smarter street lighting and highways maintenance. Whether it’s for installing smart LED lighting or replacing fleets with electric vehicles, organisations will need this data to influence future policies and decisions both in our cities and also increasingly beyond our urban centres,” says Steve White, head of transformation accounts at Yotta.

Above all, the industry remains optimistic about how our cities might be reshaped by technology and connectivity. As Jamie Hayes puts it,”it’s exciting to think of the plethora of emerging technologies and connectivity use cases which all promise to reduce costs and generate economic growth and resilience, while improving public services and quality of life.”  

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