Smart Cities are Still Required in a Post-COVID World

Stephen DeAngelis

July 17, 2020

Because communicable diseases are passed from person to person, population density makes living in cities riskier than living in rural areas during a pandemic. Even before the novel coronavirus outbreak, Thami Croeser and Lucy Gunn, researchers from the Center for Urban Research at RMIT University in Australia, report there were increasing calls for de-populating cities. The main argument, they write, is that “city living is unpleasant. Roads are jammed, housing is expensive and it’s all so much nicer out in the country. We need to ‘spread out’.”[1] They add, “We reject this conclusion.” The pandemic has only increased calls for reducing density in cities. Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener), a state senator in California, and Anthony Iton (@dr_tonyiton), a physician and senior vice president at The California Endowment, assert, “Undue fears of urban density warp public policy — and make Americans more vulnerable.”[2] Even during a pandemic, they write, cities are a great place for people to live. They explain, “Cities are a boon for public health — even now. As public-health experts have known for decades, people who live in a city are likely to walk and bike more often, and they live closer to community services such as grocery stores. Urban density also supports faster emergency-response times, better hospital staffing, and a greater concentration of intensive-care beds and other health-care resources.”


Facts, however, no longer drive public opinion and city living may fall out of favor. “If cities become less desirable in the next few years,” writes Derek Thompson (@DKThomp), “they will also become cheaper to live in. In time, more affordable rents could attract more interesting people, ideas, and companies. This may be the cyclical legacy of the coronavirus: suffering, tragedy, and then rebirth. The pandemic will reset our urban equilibrium and, just maybe, create a more robust and resilient American city for the 21st century.”[3] Technology can help make cities more resilient; however, smart technologies raise privacy concerns that must be addressed. In large measure, rising concerns about urban privacy are a result of authoritarian regimes using smart technology to spy on, rather than improve the lives of, their citizens. American cities must resist this temptation.


Designing smart cities


Clay Chandler notes, “For designers, cities are the grandest of ambitions. To design a city is not merely to sketch buildings and boulevards, it is to create worlds and shape lives. Think of Periclean Athens, Ming Dynasty Beijing, Haussman’s Paris, Lutyen’s Delhi, or L’Enfant’s Washington D.C.”[4] City planners fall somewhere between urban designers and urban operators (i.e., the people who actually make cities function). Planners want cities to function efficiently and effectively now and in the future. Technology can help them achieve those goals; nevertheless, who controls that technology is important. According to Remment (Rem) Lucas Koolhaas, a  Professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, too often tech companies hijack smart city plans to the detriment of urban residents. He notes, “The city used to be the domain of the architect and now, frankly, [tech companies] have made it their domain. This transfer of authority has been achieved in a clever way by calling their city smart — and by calling it smart, our city is condemned to being stupid.”[5] Koolhaas isn’t arguing against the need for efficiency and effectiveness; he is arguing that cities need to focus on serving citizens, preserving culture, and making cities more livable as well as more sustainable. He asserts, “The rhetoric of smart cities would be more persuasive if the environment that the technology companies create was actually a compelling one that offered models for what the city can be.”


Analysts from McKinsey & Company agree with Koolhaas. They note, “After a decade of trial and error, municipal leaders are realizing that smart-city strategies start with people, not technology. ‘Smartness’ is not just about installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructure or streamlining city operations. It is also about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life.”[6] Koolhaas adds, “Rather than discarding urban intelligence accumulated over centuries, we must explore how to what is today considered ‘smart’ with previous eras of knowledge.” In other words, in designing smart cities we should not discard what has historically made cities great. Pete Saunders (@petesaunders3), an urban planner, believes too many smart city initiatives fail to focus on the urban poor. He notes, “The truth is, there are greater differences within metro areas than there is between them, and if we fail to address the differences, we do so at our own peril. … The success of metro areas must be measured by the ability to affect broad parts of the metro’s populace.”[7]


The need for smart technologies


Once people become the focus of smart city initiatives, technology can assume its proper place. McKinsey analysts note, “Cities can use smart technologies to improve some key quality-of-life indicators by 10 to 30 percent — numbers that translate into lives saved, fewer crime incidents, shorter commutes, a reduced health burden, and carbon emissions averted.” They explain, “More comprehensive, real-time data gives agencies the ability to watch events as they unfold, understand how demand patterns are changing, and respond with faster and lower-cost solutions. Three layers work together to make a smart city hum. First is the technology base, which includes a critical mass of smartphones and sensors connected by high-speed communication networks. The second layer consists of specific applications. Translating raw data into alerts, insight, and action requires the right tools, and this is where technology providers and app developers come in. The third layer is usage by cities, companies, and the public. Many applications succeed only if they are widely adopted and manage to change behavior. They encourage people to use transit during off-hours, to change routes, to use less energy and water and to do so at different times of day, and to reduce strains on the healthcare system through preventive self-care.” The challenge is to provide services without turning them into surveillance.


Dan Wu, a privacy counsel & legal engineer at Immuta, and Greg Lindsay, director of applied research at NewCities, and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion, note “Convenience and efficiency come at a price, one that may be higher than anyone expected.”[8] They point specifically to China, where smart cities are being built at a remarkable rate but technology is being used in nefarious ways. According to Wu and Lindsay, “Cameras track, classify, and cross-check objects and faces as well, attaching them to a national social credit system, akin to a credit score for one’s entire life. Used to discipline and punish, transgressions that can negatively impact one’s score include support for Tibet, excessive video gaming, and even jaywalking. Nonconformists may be arrested and sent to reeducation camps such as the ones in Xinjiang, or be denied access to public services — like the tens of millions of Chinese banned from flying. … Technologies of social control and ‘digital authoritarianism’ are proliferating more rapidly than even the for-profit smart city model. Boise State University professor Steven Feldstein has found that 54 countries — representing 60% of the world’s population — have embraced pervasive surveillance, sourced from a coalition of willing vendors ranging from China’s controversial networking giant Huawei to U.K. arms maker BAE to familiar names like Amazon, Microsoft, and, yes, Google.” They conclude, “If we want civic or urban tech to truly be ‘people-centric’ and to solve real problems, they must do the hard work of building civic capacity. That doesn’t mean tasks like parking management or trash collection should never be automated — far from it. New technologies have a crucial role to play in automating drudgery and allow residents to spend more time on things that matter.”


Sameer Hasija (@sameerhasija), an Associate Professor of Technology and Operations Management at INSEAD, insists smart cities will only achieve desired goals when there is trust between governments and citizens. He explains, “The first step in modifying people’s behavior to align with the greater good is to design a system that builds trust between the citizens and the city. Providing citizens with timely and credible information about important issues and busting falsehoods goes a long way in creating trust. … Effective smart city solutions require citizens to volunteer data. … Technology-based smart city initiatives can enable the collection, analysis and reporting of such data. But misuse of data erodes trust, which dissuades citizens from voluntarily sharing their data. … It is also important to create robust data governance policies. These can help foster trust and encourage voluntary sharing of data by citizens.”[9]


Concluding thoughts


The global urbanization trend is not likely to be reversed. As a result, cities still need to ensure resources are used wisely, systems are run efficiently, and citizens are served ethically. Technology is required to make cities smart; however, technology can be used in dumb ways that result in skepticism rather than cooperation between citizens and governments.


[1] Thami Croeser and Lucy Gunn, “No need to give up on crowded cities – we can make density so much better,” The Conversation, 18 February 2020.
[2] Scott Wiener and Anthony Iton, “A Backlash Against Cities Would Be Dangerous,” The Atlantic, 17 May 2020.
[3] Derek Thompson, “The Pandemic Will Change American Retail Forever,” The Atlantic, 27 April 2020.
[4] Clay Chandler, “Are smart cities a dumb idea?” Fortune, 18 February 2020.
[5] Rem Koolhaas, “Rem Koolhaas Asks: Are Smart Cities Condemned to Be Stupid?” Arch Daily, September 2014.
[6] Jonathan Woetzel, Jaana Remes, Brodie Boland, Katrina Lv, Suveer Sinha, Gernot Strube, John Means, Jonathan Law, Andres Cadena, and Valerie von der Tann, “Smart cities: Digital solutions for a more livable future,” McKinsey & Company, 5 June 2018.
[7] Pete Saunders, “Smart Cities, Dumb Idea: Why Metro Areas Must Reach Beyond The Creative Class,” Forbes, 22 November 2017.
[8] Dan Wu and Greg Lindsay, “How to design a smart city that’s built on empowerment—not corporate surveillance,” Fast Company, 2 March 2020.
[9] Sameer Hasija, “Smart cities can help us manage post-COVID life, but they’ll need trust as well as tech,” The Conversation,