Global study shows pandemic accelerating smart city tech adoption

While Covid-19 posed significant hurdles to cities worldwide, it also accelerated a wave of innovation that will continue after the crisis, reveals a new report Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World.

The ESI ThoughtLab research underscores the role technology, data, cybersecurity, and public-private partnerships play to ensure a healthy, safe, and prosperous future for citizens in the wake of the pandemic.

The research, conducted in August and September 2020, included a survey of senior officials from 167 cities across 82 countries, including the UK, Europe, North and Latin America, MENA, Asia, and Africa.

The cities represented 526 million people or 6.8% of the world’s population and ranged in size from less than one million inhabitants (39% of the cities) to nearly 27 million.

53% of those metropolises are in emerging markets and 47% in developed countries. Cities were assessed and categorised based on progress in two categories: progress in applying smart solutions, with cities being classified as either “beginner,” “intermediate,” or “leader;” and progress on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with cities classified as either “implementer,” “advancer,” or “sprinter.”

Cities that excelled in both areas are considered Cities 4.0 - which the report authors defined as hyper-connected cities that are both sustainable and well ahead in the use of technology, data, and citizen engagement.

For city officials, the pandemic proved that smart city programmes are imperative:

  • 65% of city leaders noted the biggest lesson learned during the pandemic was just how crucial smart city programs were for their future.
  • 43% learned the importance of operational continuity and agility.
  • 37% of city leaders said COVID-19 highlighted the need to invest more in upgrading core infrastructure.
  • 88% of city leaders identified investment in cloud platforms as the most urgent requirement needed for the successful delivery of critical and non-critical citizen services.
  • 66% of cities are investing heavily in AI and 80% will do so over the next three years, especially in the area of digital assistants and chatbots. North American (83%) and small cities (74%) lead in AI use.
  • 31% of cities will invest in digital twins – a 300% increase from the 11% investing in this technology today.

Based on reported ROI estimates, the average return on digital infrastructure investments made by Cities 4.0 is 5.7%.

“We are seeing that the more successful cities are focusing on emerging technologies that have a direct impact on service delivery, such as cloud computing, AI, and digital assistants,” said John Tuohy, director, Smart Cities strategy, Oracle. “Providing remote access to staff and residents is crucial for maintaining business continuity.”

The need for collaboration is clear and city leaders are prioritising partnerships:

  • 50% of city leaders noted that finding the right partner - private or public sector – was one of their biggest hurdles to meeting their city’s goals.
  • 83% of cities want their partners to offer solutions that enable a high level of innovation, while also ensuring safety and security (65%). North American cities (92%) and European cities (92%) value innovation the most.
  • 79% of officials indicated that price was not the top concern in evaluating smart city proposals.


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