With a longer tail that other more mature industries, the precise impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is still being felt. However, there appears to be a notable split based on the level of technological maturity cities have already reached in how the pandemic is likely to affect future rollout.

Cities that already have a fair degree of smart technology have embraced solutions to help limit the spread of the virus – which is likely to accelerate future adoption of smart city technologies. Meanwhile, cities that have lower levels of adoption are likely to put some projects on hold, as reduced tourism and other economic factors hit budgets and so impact spending.

Digitisation and the impact of contact tracing

Contact tracing technologies and related Covid-19 screening solutions have become some of the highest profile initiatives to embed digital technologies into cities to date. For some, such as cities in South Korea where technological development is already high, this has proved hugely successful, helping to stem the spread of the virus while achieving strong user acceptance.

However, in other countries, privacy concerns have significantly impaired user adoption of such technologies, and in the case of the UK, bungled implementation has further exacerbated the issue.

This may have profound impacts on future projects. Issues with these initiatives will remain long in the memory of residents and so will shape public response to future smart city projects, particularly those that involve the monitoring of citizens.

As a result, culturally different responses to privacy concerns may well be exacerbated by the use of technology amid the pandemic, and so become a strong determining factor in how future projects are developed and marketed – and ultimately whether they are approved.

Internet of things and the smart city: Deployments decline

The deployment of internet of things (IoT) technologies for smart city applications has notably dropped in 2020, although some may be announced too late in the year to show in the data. However, it is clear that this year is likely to see a slump in the growth of IoT technology for smart cities.

Global smart city IoT deployments over time

Source: GlobalData

City planning and digital technologies

When it comes to the development of new cities, and the redevelopment of areas through masterplans, Covid-19 is set to become a significant factor. Public spaces are now likely to be developed with a strong focus on social distancing and pandemic-friendly design, which is likely to be supported by an increase in ambient technologies that respond to the presence of people.

This, in turn, is likely to increase acceptance of such technologies in the fabric of the city, and so help the adoption of smart city solutions – both in terms of support from residents and urban planners.

Meanwhile, growing use of robots and drones in some countries to support the pandemic, such as in the US and China, may help increase their use, accelerating their adoption for other applications within city environments.

Top 10 smart cities

The Smart City Index for 2020, compiled by the IMD World Competitiveness Center, ranks the world’s cities based on a wide variety of factors, including the availability of technologies and supporting structures, based of the perceptions of 120 residents of each city. This is the top 10 for 2020:

  1. Singapore
  2. Helsinki
  3. Zurich
  4. Auckland
  5. Oslo
  6. Copenhagen
  7. Geneva
  8. Taipei City
  9. Amsterdam
  10. New York

Transport networks hit hard

One area of cities that has suffered particularly badly during the pandemic is transport networks. The natural rhythm of transport, built around commutes and school runs, has been upended with the rise of remote working. Transport user numbers during these times may not easily return to pre-pandemic normals.

The immediate impact here has been a dramatic drop in revenues for transport providers. New York’s transport authority, for example estimates losses of between $7-8.5bn in 2020, while Transport for London saw a $4bn reduction in revenue during lockdown.

The knock-on effect is likely to be reduced spending on innovation and redevelopment projects, at least for the next few years. In turn, this is likely to limit the rollout of smart city technologies within transport networks.

However, where transport is seeing a boost is the rise in micromobility technologies such as e-scooters, as users look for more socially distanced alternatives to get around. In response to this, some governments have reviewed laws to increase access to such modes of transport, particularly given the environmental benefits, with the UK among those creating a pathway to legality for e-scooters.

Completed smart city deals in 2020

Completed capital raisings and mergers and acquisitions related to smart city technology in 2020 were slightly short of 2019’s. However Q3 saw this change, likely as deals that had been delayed at the height of lockdown were finally completed. Whether this continues into Q4, however, remains to be seen.

Mergers, acquisitions and capital raisings for smart city-related companies in 2019 and 2020

Source: GlobalData

Future response

As the Covid-19 recovery process begins, cities are likely to undertake significant reassessments with a focus not only on pandemics, but wider health and wellbeing. This is likely to increase the focus on carbon emissions and the environment alongside pandemic resilience, supported by smart technologies.

However, limiting factors are likely to be budgets, which are in some cases very strained, while privacy concerns will also need to be better addressed if cities are to avoid a backlash from some residents.

Further reading

Electric Avenues: E-Scooter Firms Forced to Innovate in Bumpy Road for UK Dominance

Sidewalk Labs: Smart City Plans Beyond Toronto Quayside

Start with the impact, not the tech’: Hitachi Vantara’s smart city approach

Cover image courtesy of Dimitry B on Unsplash

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