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A Hope for the Post-Pandemic Future: Smarter Cities

The COVID-19 crisis has inspired new thinking about how communities can embrace technology to better serve the people who live in them. We can be intentional about what we create.

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Connectivity is the most foundational piece of smart cities. (David Kidd)
David Kidd
COVID-19 has accelerated the digital revolution to warp speed. We all want to know what happens next. How will our urban landscapes change? How will our public-sector systems change? How will this affect how we live and how we relate to each other?

These are big questions to ponder, and the only thing we really know for sure is that we cannot predict the future. But we can be intentional about what we want to create: smarter cities. Here are four ways — four hopes for the future — for how we can take lessons learned from this crisis and forge a better path forward:

Hopeful future 1: We fully embrace a digital world. As we entered 2020, we all felt the push of technology's increasing pace. Industry has predictably led the innovation agenda. Capitalism has the luxury of an unapologetic push for profit and a focus on the target market that can produce the greatest returns. The result is efficiency and optimization.

The government and social service sectors have been slower to adopt tech-enabled norms, ranging from cloud computing to remote work. Their target market spans entire communities, especially the most vulnerable, so returns are measured differently.

But now that we all have been forced to embrace tele-everything — from work to health care to education to city council meetings — government is having to figure it out, and fast. There have been challenges, for sure. But amid the chaos, there have been a few positive outcomes, including greater virtual participation in city council meetings and the ability to support a remote government workforce.

My hope is that, once the frenzy slows, city leaders continue on the path to explore how technology can enable our most human capacities: creativity, collaboration and innovation. When fully embraced, our communities can be more connected.

Hopeful future 2: We figure out the data puzzle and live an insight-rich life. Peter Drucker's adage, "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it," is the bellwether for smart cities. In a pre-COVID-19 existence, we were excited about the deployment of sensors to measure energy efficiency and air quality, improve public safety and systematize transportation, to name a few. Those things are still important, but now we're seeing how cities can leverage urban data to save lives.

"Data," says Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute, "seems to be the missing link between our current situation and our post-pandemic world." Greater transparency around supply chains means protective equipment and ventilators can get to where they need to go. Drone footage can identify areas that need more stringency around social-distancing efforts. Thermal imaging cameras can detect higher-than-safe body temperatures. Artificial-intelligence-enabled chatbots and social-messaging efforts can clarify crucial communication. Technology can be the hero here, and we need to let it take the stage.

Of course, there are considerations around privacy. This brings a new urgency to city leaders to both understand how to protect personally identifiable information while also gaining the benefit of aggregated, secure, real-time data. Then it becomes critical to over-communicate to the public how their data is collected, secured and used to create safer cities. With trust in government at an all-time low, no one can afford to get this wrong.

Hopeful future 3: We embrace our roles as civic entrepreneurs to solve problems differently. In a crisis like the pandemic, everyone needs to become an entrepreneur. You have to figure things out fast with limited resources. There is no time to wait for permission, for multiple levels of signature sign-offs. There is no time to waste managing up. When lives are on the line, you create solutions quickly, knowing not all of them will be successful.

Entrepreneurs know that no one person can be a team. It takes a diversity of skill set, experience and knowledge. Applied to smart communities, this will require public-sector leaders to get more comfortable with inviting other people into their problem-solving. The people you need most are those you've probably never met.

After the peak of the crisis has passed, the hope is that we continue this "can do/will do" moxie. Some cities will enable this energy and become platforms for rapid problem-solving. They will learn how to invite everyone to co-create solutions. They will come out ahead.

Hopeful future 4: We realize that we can all be connected. Connectivity is the most foundational piece of smart cities. Obviously, connectivity is at the front and center of the COVID-19 response, as so many move their lives and work online. The good news is that the Internet is holding up well thanks to unprecedented public/private collaboration and increased investment, such as cell towers on wheels and aerial network-support drones.

The coronavirus pandemic has also rightly prioritized narrowing the digital divide. There are still far too many people in the U.S. who remain unconnected. Leaders at every level of government must leverage time, talent and funding for digital infrastructure to ensure that everyone can benefit from the digital evolution.

Four hopes for the future: The pandemic crisis has left us facing a choice. We can forge ahead and create a better, more future-forward reality, or we can fall back. My belief is that embracing a digital, data-enabled, entrepreneurial, connected world will result in communities that are not only smarter, but better. Doing so will enhance our resilience and support city leaders in serving a diversity of residents long after COVID-19 is behind us.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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