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COVID Closed the Door on Old Tech in a Number of Cities

On the opening day of the annual Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo, city officials from around the country discussed how the COVID-19 crisis has ushered in changes, which are helping them to become more resilient.

Either by necessity, design, or other reasons, the COVID-19 crisis challenged cities to work smarter, and in many cases, become more resilient. 

The changes brought by the pandemic have been as small as getting rid of the old timeclock in the public works department in Spokane, Wash. — it encouraged too much close gathering — or using artificial intelligence to help root out misinformation and grow contact tracing in Houston. 

“We did not choose to be in the middle of this crisis, but the way we react to it is a choice we’re going to make, which means we cannot bring things back to the way they were,” said Sameer Sharma, global manager for smart cities and transportation at Intel, during a discussion at the virtual Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo on Tuesday. 

“Whether it’s remote telemedicine, whether it’s remote education, whether it’s about contact tracing… we have to really think about our infrastructure to be able to have that resilience, so that when the next crisis hits — and it will, that’s just a reality of life — that we are better prepared for it,” Sharma added during the panel, which discussed exploring how smart city applications can have an impact.

The move in Spokane to transition to a modern time management system for employees was an idea that’s been volleyed back and forth for years, said Erica Jacobo, a business systems analyst in Spokane. 

“You have no idea how long we were trying to get the department to buy into the fact that this manual time clock, that you can’t even buy parts for anymore… the department had a really hard time letting that process go,” remarked Jacobo. “The coaxing we were trying to do, and getting that buy-in, it was taking so long. And then all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Oh, we should have done this a long time ago.’”

In Montgomery, Ala., the public works department there realized — like so many government entities across the country — that a fairly large portion of workers do not need to file into downtown offices every day to do their jobs. 

“The concept that all of your support personnel had to be co-located in the same proximity, with the use of technology has shown us that there are really no limits to how we can arrange that type of office space,” said Chris Conway, director of public works in Montgomery. “I think getting comfortable with that is something that’s here to stay.”

In Houston, innovation officials devised a system to mostly automate the contact tracing process, helping to perform this work more smoothly and quickly. 

“We need to build back better, and use smart city technology to become a more resilient city,” said Jesse Bounds, director of the Mayor’s Office of Innovation in Houston.

The crisis may have helped to underscore where the evolution of the smart city concept may be heading, say industry observers.

“Are we moving beyond the term ‘smart city’ now?” wondered Michael Allegretti, chief strategy officer for the waste and recycling tech company Rubicon. “Are we really aspiring to be resilient cities, are we aspiring to be proactive cities?”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.