IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How 2020 Will Impact Smart Cities

A global pandemic, police protests and privacy pushbacks (not to mention a major recession) are changing the future of smart city tech.

graphic representaion of a smart city
A hundred and seventy years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across the world. Cholera outbreaks hit countries in waves, killing more than a million people across Russia and Europe. In the United States alone, the disease claimed the lives of an estimated 150,000 people over the course of a decade. In the summer of 1854, the city of London was struck by the worst, most concentrated cholera outbreak in its history. In the Soho neighborhood in the city’s West End, hundreds of residents began falling ill and dying almost overnight.

A local doctor named John Snow had a radical idea to plot each death on a map of the city and investigate different clusters of fatalities. Through his work, Snow pinpointed the source of the outbreak, a contaminated public drinking well on Broad Street. He showed that cholera was transmitted by water — not by air, as much of the medical establishment had believed. His breakthrough would revolutionize cities’ approach to sanitation, ushering in a new era of urban growth worldwide.

In many ways, the Broad Street map marked the beginning of the modern smart city era, said John Tolva, a former chief technology officer for the city of Chicago. “You can trace urban data analysis back to that well in London,” he said. “In fact, you can point to hundreds of examples — including reversing the Chicago River so people stopped getting sick — in which public health has been a driver of infrastructure.”

The coronavirus pandemic is no exception. Outbreaks of COVID-19 have already displaced countless city dwellers and the pandemic will likely impact urban planning, particularly around smart city initiatives and technologies, for years to come.

“By the beginning of this year, we were already getting closer to a better understanding of how the city works in real time,” said Tolva, who is now a consultant for cities on urban systems and technology. “We were getting better at listening to the city: How many cars are going through here? How are pedestrians using this space? What the pandemic has done is to elevate that and say, this is more than just a nice-to-have for urban planning or traffic management. We need a much more granular understanding of how the city is being used.”

Smart cities is an idea that’s gained tremendous prominence over the past 15 years, as experts sought to apply data and technology to better understand and respond to the built urban environment. The approach had already evolved significantly before this year, but the events of 2020 — including the pandemic, widespread police protests, an unprecedented economic downturn, and a growing concern about technology and privacy — have reshaped the way city leaders are thinking about the future.

“Pre-pandemic, cities were in relatively good shape,” said Steven Goldsmith, who directs the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Then you wake up one day and you’ve gone from 4 percent unemployment to 20 percent unemployment. Your revenues have gone from a surplus to a really bad negative. And you’ve got a lot of ill people in your community straining your resources. These are disruptions like never before in the modern U.S. city.”

The pandemic shined a light on numerous other issues that many experts say must now be a part of any smart cities effort — things like housing inequality; transit and mobility; access to open public spaces; and Internet connectivity for digital services, teleworking and remote learning. On top of that, the ongoing nationwide Black Lives Matter protests renewed questions about racism, bias and police surveillance technology. And long-simmering concerns about data and personal privacy this year derailed several smart city initiatives.

But the events of 2020 also elevated the role of data and technology in delivering citizen services and making informed government decisions. That dichotomy — a greater need for data amid growing concerns about how that data is used — is something cities are only just beginning to grapple with.


Virtual schooling and widespread telework have highlighted inequalities around Internet connectivity and access to digital services. / Credit:

IN THE MID-2000s, a grand vision began to emerge about the smart city of the future. New technologies would revolutionize urban life and let city leaders monitor everything from sewers to crime to traffic jams from a centralized command center. Tech was the answer, even if city leaders didn’t know the question.

“It was a very hierarchical, top-down approach,” said Neil Kleiman, a public policy professor who heads the Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities, a collaboration between New York University and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “It was very much a vision that was established by the private-sector vendor community,” he said. Global technology companies such as IBM and Cisco pitched cities on the promise of technology, and they delivered some impressive results in places like Rio de Janeiro and Songdo, South Korea. But most cities in North America were unwilling or unable to implement those sorts of widescale solutions.

Instead, said Kleiman, “there’s been a real shift among local officials — a wonderful shift — from being on the sidelines of the conversation of what smart cities are about to being right smack in the middle of that conversation.”

“You started seeing cities embrace the smart city movement but saying, ‘We need to take it back; we need to own smart cities,’” said Boyd Cohen, a Barcelona-based urban strategist who has been studying smart cities since 2011. As Cohen sees it, smart cities have gone through three distinct generations over the past decade and a half — a version 1.0 that he calls “technology driven,” a version 2.0 that was “technology enabled and city led,” and a 3.0 model based on “citizen co-creation.”

“Instead of thinking that it’s all about city leadership implementing their vision and leveraging technology to solve gaps, Smart Cities 3.0 is about collaboration with citizens to understand where they want to go as a city,” Cohen said.

That evolution in smart cities was well underway by the time the pandemic hit.

As Americans sheltered in place this spring, life for many people moved online. Working, shopping, going to school, buying groceries — all of it shifted to the Internet. Similarly, for governments, the disruption accelerated efforts to offer citizen services online. Over the past eight months, states and localities have rushed to digitize services like renewing driver’s licenses, applying for unemployment, attending public meetings and filing for building permits.

Those shifts offer a new level of convenience and, more importantly, contactless engagements that are critical to maintain public health amid the ongoing pandemic. But they also exposed gross inequities in Internet connectivity and access. Officials have been talking about the digital divide for years, of course, particularly in terms of urban/rural disparities. The pandemic showed the stark divide of network connectivity — not to mention devices and digital literacy — that exists within a given community, even within a specific neighborhood.

Those are gaps local leaders can no longer ignore, smart cities experts say. “It’s sad that it’s taken this global calamity to get there, but I think digital infrastructure now is on the same plane as streets and buildings,” said Tolva. “I think that’s ultimately good for everyone.”


This year' Black Lives Matter protests could help fuel a blacklash against surveillance technolocy. / Credit:

TWO MONTHS INTO the pandemic lockdowns this spring, a Black Minneapolis resident named George Floyd was killed while being arrested, when a white police officer named Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for a reported 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Video of the incident sparked weeks of protests across the country. It also engendered a national conversation about racism, bias, and the power and resources given to police departments.

That conversation hit squarely against a part of smart cities that has always been a source of tension: the technologies used by public officials and law enforcement to monitor citizens. “A lot of the conversation has gravitated toward public safety and surveillance and the technology of policing,” said Tolva. “There’s a difference between a city that’s observed and one that’s surveilled.”

The pushback against surveillance tech predated 2020, but the movement has been amplified by the events of this year. Consider facial recognition technology. San Francisco last year became the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by any of its agencies, including transit and police. A handful of other cities, including Oakland and Boston, have followed suit. Then this September in Portland, Ore., where protestors had clashed against police for more than 100 days, the city council unanimously approved the nation’s most sweeping regulations against facial recognition technology. The new law not only prohibits city agencies from using the technology, it also applies to private businesses including stores, restaurants and hotels. In passing the new law, Mayor Ted Wheeler explicitly mentioned concerns that facial recognition tech could be used to surveil protestors.

Or consider the case of San Diego’s streetlights. In 2018, the city launched a $30 million effort to upgrade 14,000 of its 60,000 streetlights with LEDs. More that 3,000 of the poles were also outfitted with sophisticated optical sensors, ostensibly to help the city monitor car and foot traffic. But the sensors also included cameras that recorded video footage 24 hours a day. Before long, the city’s police department began using the streetlight footage to investigate hundreds of crimes, including vandalism and sexual assault. Controversy erupted last year when the public found out about the cameras. Privacy advocates called for the city to turn the cameras off until it came up with a proper oversight plan. But the cameras stayed on. Then, this September, after news reports showed at least 35 instances in which police had requested access to streetlight footage in cases related to Black Lives Matter protestors, Mayor Kevin Faulconer ordered that all 3,200 cameras be turned off.

“Smart cities are really at an inflection point, where the broader public has turned, in many ways, to being less excited about the many promises of technology and more concerned about what this technology poses for the future of urban life,” said Ben Green, a University of Michigan professor who studies the public policy impacts of data science and the author of The Smart Enough City: Putting Technology in Its Place to Reclaim Our Urban Future.

In general, though, most smart cities experts don’t foresee a major shift in surveillance technology. But they do point to a growing public realization about how that technology is used. “I wouldn’t go so far as to predict that the technology of policing will be deprioritized,” said Tolva, the former Chicago CTO. “But I think the breathless enthusiasm in certain corners of smart cities around the technologies of public safety is going to get a second or third look.” That’s a good thing, he added. “I would love it if we were to take a much more critical eye toward the smart city technologies that were introduced maybe somewhat naively, with less regard to privacy.”

Still, the tech itself isn’t the issue, said Harvard’s Goldsmith. “It’s the same as in every area of city government: The most powerful tools that allow you to deliver the most effective services are also the ones that are most capable of abuse.” Technology alone is neither good nor bad, he said. “You can use data to find murderers; you can use data to abuse protestors. You have to set up a system that has clear and transparent rules.”


TORONTO’S QUAYSIDE neighborhood was supposed to be the most ambitious smart city project on the planet. The Canadian city had begun the process of revitalizing 750 acres of mostly disused industrial waterfront land along the Don River, and as part of that effort, Toronto leaders wanted to create a new neighborhood that would be a showcase for smart city technologies. In October 2017, the city announced the private-sector partner that would help make the Quayside project a reality: Sidewalk Labs, the urban-development subsidiary of Alphabet, the global parent company of Google. Sidewalk Labs put forth a vision to make Quayside the most technologically advanced neighborhood in the world: delivery drones, autonomous vehicles, green buildings, solar power and sensors monitoring everything from bicycles and lighting levels to pedestrians, cars and trash bins.

Almost immediately, the proposal raised eyebrows from privacy advocates and other constituents who had concerns regarding the data that would need to be collected to make the project work and the government’s role in oversight.

A year into the project, Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s three-term privacy commissioner, resigned over concerns that while Sidewalk pledged to protect all the information it gathered, it couldn’t guarantee the data other vendors collected in Quayside would be anonymized.

This May, Sidewalk Labs announced it was shutting down the Quayside project altogether.

The project could turn out to represent a seminal point in the evolution of smart cities.

For privacy advocates, it demonstrates “the power of public organizing and a changing political calculus” about such large-scale, citywide efforts, said Green. “I saw it as a real bellwether for the discourse and expectations around smart cities.”

That’s not to say that cities won’t engage with private partners on smart city projects going forward. If anything, quite the opposite is true. Thanks to the COVID-19 recession, cities will likely be pursuing even more public-private partnerships (P3s) in the coming years, said Mandy Bishop, the program manager for Smart Columbus, the office that oversees the $50 million grant program created when the city of Columbus, Ohio, won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s nationwide Smart City Challenge in 2016.

“Budgetary constraints are going to be challenging,” Bishop said. “I think one of the biggest things we’re going to see is a renewed push for P3 opportunities — looking at how the private sector can manage assets and how we can all benefit from those types of arrangements.”

Localities may not pursue initiatives on the scale of Quayside, but they will be relying on the private sector to implement discrete aspects of smart city plans. For example, Sidewalk Labs has spun out a new venture specifically focused on infrastructure, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, and Cavnue, which will work to develop roadways for connected and autonomous vehicles. In August, Cavnue announced its first project: a partnership with the state of Michigan to build a 40-mile connected corridor from Detroit to Ann Arbor.   


THE EVENTS OF 2020 will impact smart cities in ways urban leaders have only begun to contemplate. But a few lessons and themes have already begun to emerge.

First is that the smart city concept isn’t about geography; it’s about equity. Cities cannot focus their efforts on building a hyperconnected urban zone or a special innovation district blanketed by sensors. This is something most urban leaders have known for some time, but the pandemic has made clear that smart city planning must be a holistic approach that’s focused on providing universal access to services both physical and digital.

Relatedly, smart cities will broaden in scope. If smart city planning a year ago was focused on things like mobility and traffic congestion and public safety, now it must encompass Internet connectivity, public health, privacy, racism and social equity.

And there’s a continued reckoning over what it means for a city to be smart. Over the past decade, technology has moved from being a central tenet of smart cities to being a useful tool for helping a city accomplish its goals. Now cities are making an even more concerted effort to let constituents drive the conversation about how — and whether — technology should play a role in planning. “We’re pivoting from a focus on technology and IoT and data to a much more human-centered process,” said Emily Yates, the smart cities director for the city of Philadelphia. “We’re working to be that collaborative entity that convenes people to say, what are the challenges we’re trying to solve? Tech and data is a really critical component, but it’s not the driving factor for us.”

Cities have become more thoughtful about the role of technology, said New York University’s Kleiman, but there’s no doubt technology will play a key role going forward. “There’s going to be an even greater need and emphasis on using predictive analytics to make sense of coming public health issues,” he said. “We’re going to need more data and analytics to make sense of education, and transportation and mobility, and to address racial bias in our communities.”

The challenges cities face have grown markedly more complex, Kleiman said, and urban leaders will need better data and technology to confront them. “All these issues have come into sharper focus this year. We need the right tools to address them,” he said. “It’s just impossible to imagine a future in which we try to address these issues with less data and technology.” 

This story appeared in a special Future Ready sponsored issue of Government Technology. It was prepared by the Government Technology Content Studio, which is editorially independent of both the sponsor and the Government Technology editorial staff, who were not involved in producing the issue.

Zach Patton is chief editor of the Content Studio at e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.