Smart cities and local gov: what next after the pandemic?

Melissa Thorne and Kat McManus explain how, post-pandemic, smart cities can help make cities more sustainable and responsive to the needs of local residents

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to collectively think more deeply about population health, tracking the ‘health’ of areas via maps and frequent updates quickly became part of the global landscape, whether that be at country, county, or ward level – or non-geographical groupings such as age, occupation or ethnicity. This data – often collected via positive Covid-19 test results, self-report surveys or hospital capacity – is being used to identify prevalence and transmission patterns of the disease, in some countries leading to localised lockdowns or tiered systems as a measure to prevent spread, often with success.

Despite some clear resistance from some groups to the measures, on the whole populations have quite quickly adjusted to a level of sacrifice of their personal data and freedom on whereabouts and health for the sake of the collective good of their community’s health. But what if, in a similar vein – importantly being non-invasive and anonymised – population data could be aggregated and mapped to help address alternative concerns such as improving wellbeing, sustainability or health outcomes for populations?

How smart technologies can help make cities more sustainable and climate-resilient
In recent years, the concept of smart cities has shifted away from emphasis on futuristic ‘smart’ tech to focus on how new or pre-existing technologies might be repurposed to help make cities sustainable, clean, and climate-resilient. Such initiatives can take the form of anything from real-time traffic management for pollution reduction, to mapping areas at risk from climate change and providing early warnings, to using smart construction methods and technologies to reduce embodied and operational carbon from our buildings.

The Nordic Smart City Network’s Nordic Healthy Cities project, run between five countries, aims to utilise population-level data to improve health and sustainability outcomes. One initiative uses GDPR-approved radar technology to provide accurate transport data, which when coupled with pollution measurements will inform transport decision making to improve traffic flows, reduce pollution and influence urban planning outcomes for cyclists and pedestrians.

Meanwhile in Dún Laoghaire, a town outside Dublin, Ireland, the council has partnered with company BigBelly to provide real-time data on waste, providing a solution to waste issues posed by both tourism and weather unpredictability. The reduction in frequency of collections has resulted in an annual saving of €200,000 for the local authority, alongside environmental benefits (69 tons of CO2 saved annually).

Becoming more responsive to the needs of residents
Smart technologies can help cities to respond to the needs of their residents more quickly and effectively.

Local authorities can improve the quality, interactivity and availability of their customer services through online service portals and social media. In the U.S. city of Boston, an offline SMS chatbot provides food resources information 24/7 in eight languages, while in Seoul, South Korea, an AI chatbot on a popular messaging platform responds to common public enquiries and files complaints.

Civic apps can be developed to allow service delivery to be informed by real-time data. In Helsingborg, Sweden, care home staff can use an app to order groceries and medication for elderly residents, which is dropped off in nearby chilled lockers. Other apps allow community members to report issues such as potholes or pipe leaks to identify where works are needed more quickly.

Some cities monitor services and infrastructure in real time using embedded sensors through an Internet-of-Things approach. These sensors track areas such as energy grid performance, water systems and pedestrian traffic flow to work out where maintenance and support is needed more accurately.

Open data platforms, presented in an accessible way, help to improve public trust in municipal services. Better public data availability supports better evidence-based decision making within councils, by making different types of services more visible and encouraging improved interaction between them.

However, cities must take care to communicate clearly about the value of new technologies to manage residents’ concerns about surveillance and data privacy. A comprehensive data strategy and partnerships with trusted institutions, such as universities and not-for-profits, can help to alleviate these fears. Ongoing community engagement is crucial to make sure smart solutions address genuine local needs.

Cities must also be careful not to reinforce existing inequalities through smart initiatives and work to improve access through digital inclusion projects and skills training. Cities can investigate options for more equitable infrastructure access, such as by making free Wi-Fi publicly available.

Evaluating the success of smart city technologies
Ongoing evaluation processes are a key way for local authorities to ensure that smart technologies continue to meet the needs of their communities.

Local authorities can use frameworks to assess their progress, such as the Smart Cities Wheel, which was developed by academic Boyd Cohen to highlight the different components that make a city smart.

Each contributing segment – smart government, smart living, smart mobility, smart people, smart economy and smart energy and environment – is accompanied by three indicators for local governments to use to track their success. For example, smart government is indicated by open government, technological infrastructure provision and provision of online services through their administration.

Cities must work out how these indicators can be best applied to their specific situation and what their priorities are. Boyd Cohen emphasised the importance of engaging local residents, developing baselines to inform targets and testing smart city strategies through smaller pilots to use this framework effectively within councils in an article for Fast Company.

More formal assessment processes are also available. For example, more than 40 U.S. cities have been involved in the What Works Cities certification, which evaluates how effectively data and evidence are integrated into decision-making. Launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2015, the certification process examines how data is used in eight areas: governance, evaluation, general management, transparency, performance and analytics, aligning the city’s budget with its strategic priorities, comparing contractor performance and engaging stakeholders. These dimensions can be helpful as parameters for integrating data practices holistically within local authorities outside the U.S. as well.

Looking ahead
Local authorities responded to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic by using data in innovative ways, such as connecting their datasets, using data in collaboration with private companies to monitor pedestrian traffic flows and analysing CCTV footage to improve social distancing in public spaces.

A 2020 retrospective report by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation in the UK highlighted how the widespread use of data-driven smart technologies helped to mitigate the catastrophic impact of the pandemic. However, the Covid-19 Repository & Public Attitudes report shows that local authority innovation cannot be sustained without considerable support and ongoing funding.

The pandemic created a clear and pressing need to accelerate the uptake of digital services within local operations and services. However, local authorities must make sure that future integrations of smart technologies also enhance their response to genuine local needs rather than being purely led by technology. For a city to be truly smart, smart technologies must be used in a place-based, community-centred and goal-focused way. Local authorities should identify priorities from existing challenges faced by their specific communities, gather data to gain further insights and then use smart technologies to make their solutions stronger, rather than seeing a technology that might have worked elsewhere and trying to apply it to a potentially less appropriate context.

The smart city market is projected to value US$2.46 trillion by 2025, according to consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. Technology companies and ambitious businesses across the globe will be keen to use this lucrative market to their advantage. It is crucial that local authorities focus on using technology to help to address the impacts of further pressing global challenges on their communities: from early warning systems about severe weather and bushfires to urban heat island mapping to making social care and health support more accessible to the people who need it.

Melissa Thorne and Kat McManus are part of the Global Local team at the Local Government Information Unit. Our free, weekly newsletter, the Global Local Recap, highlights best practice and innovation by local governments around the globe.

Further Information: