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Many Thought COVID Would Derail Smart Cities Work — It Didn’t

On the second day of the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo, private- and public-sector tech officials discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic shifted smart city efforts and initiatives and positioned them for the future.

A garbage collector on a garbage truck
Smart city technologies to support efforts like fleet management or remote work may have been a tough sell at times in the pre-pandemic world, but not so much anymore. Those familiar with the space say new technologies and partnerships are helping navigate the unprecedented times.  

When Mark Wheeler, chief information officer in Philadelphia, Pa., was faced with trimming the 2021 budget to meet the new fiscal realities, he thought, “well there goes our smart city program.”

“But what ended up happening instead was solution partners coming to us … saying, 'this is something you could do to continue operations, and also do it in a better and more efficient way,'” said Wheeler, in his comments Wednesday during a panel discussion at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo.

The city moved toward using optical sensors for road repair and maintenance, used technology to improve the collection of garbage and other city functions. 

“And those have been so successful, we are looking to bring those into the FY 2022 budget and make them part of the operations. Because there is a real [return on investment] in terms of cost-savings for the city there,” said Wheeler. 

The COVID-19 pandemic sent shock waves not only through government agencies, but the many private-sector vendors supply technology solutions. Rubicon, a provider of technologies to assist in garbage collecting, recycling and other areas, looked at the fiscal strains on its numerous city partners and thought business would surely dry up as the public services departments the company works with tightened belts.  

“What ended up happening, very candidly, is our business went through the roof,” said Michael Allegretti, chief strategy officer for Rubicon, during a panel discussion on Wednesday. 

Rubicon is a provider of technologies to assist in garbage collecting, recycling and other areas. The company provides technology to monitor not only the operations of the garbage trucks, but can also monitor their routes, taking in the conditions of streets and other infrastructure. The data can then be used by other departments. 

Prior to the pandemic, Rubicon would reach out to cities to tell them about their products, said Allegretti. Missing from that pitch was any messaging about how the technology could support workers who could no longer be at city hall. COVID-19 changed this. 

“You could take your entire department from meeting at the yard, or city hall, or both of those places to dispatch trucks and analyze data, and just like that, you could do it from your living room,” he told the panel. 

If the pandemic caused officials to slam the brakes on spending as they were faced to deal with unimagined economic fallout, smart city officials say the efficiencies of some technologies were getting new attention.

It has been much noted how the pandemic accelerated change in government, particularly in areas like remote working, cybersecurity or community engagement. Suddenly, public meetings were on Zoom, open to anyone, anywhere. Employees were working from home, often in reasonably secure settings thanks to newly enacted multifactor authentication. And none of this technology is going away, say industry and city officials. 

“What we had to do was very quickly accelerate plans that we already had underway,” said Wheeler, reflecting on moves to cloud-based operations and reimagined public meetings.  

“We get a higher level of participation now in those public meetings, and engagement,” said Wheeler. “More importantly, we’ve learned how we can actually make it easier for the citizen to do things, like licensing and permitting.” 

Increased awareness around sustainability and resiliency at the city level “has been increased to a new level,” said Dan Bennett, vice president of energy product management at Sensus, in his comments Wednesday. “And I don’t think that’s going away.

“People realize that they absolutely have to make these advancements and that there’s value to them,” he added.


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.