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COVID-19 has opened the floodgates for smart cities—whether we like it or not

The conditions created by the pandemic will make it easier for local governments to adopt technological solutions.

COVID-19 has opened the floodgates for smart cities—whether we like it or not
[Images: marrishuanna/iStock, NatalyaBurova/iStock]

The COVID-19 pandemic will be “a lubricant for the smart city,” according to one urban planning expert.

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From banal city service digitization efforts to ubiquitous urban surveillance systems, the smart city may be materializing faster than expected, says Klaus R. Kunzmann, a professor emeritus and the former head of the Institute of Spatial Planning at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany.

In a recent article for disP—The Planning Review, Kunzmann argues that the conditions created by the pandemic will make it much easier for local governments to pursue smart city solutions in areas such as traffic control, crime prediction, and data sensors.

Kunzmann says the pandemic has increased peoples’ exposure to top-down government guidance—from social distancing requirements to official virologists interpreting data. This exposure, he says, will subtly create more openness to suggestions and plans proposed by city leaders. Combined with the imperative to quickly rebuild devastated local economies, Kunzmann argues that the door will open widely to the kinds of efficiency-focused solutions offered by companies such as IBM and Siemens. “Individual convenience will outweigh privacy concerns,” he says.

Particularly in Europe, he suggests that new trust in the public sector will accelerate these developments. “Urban strategies to support smart-city development will certainly benefit from the regained public power,” says Kunzmann, who has taught in universities throughout Europe, the U.S., and Asia and has advised the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and the OECD. The coronavirus led to an increased reliance on digital services, as more people began working remotely. He argues this experience let many governments see how they could rely more heavily on digital options for services that would have typically occurred in person.

Europe in general may be more open to top-down projects and smart city systems since it has been successful in implementing rules to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. Governments were quick to impose lockdowns, closures, and mask requirements and saw infection rates fall as a result.

But even in countries where there is less trust in the government’s leadership during the past few months, the extreme impacts of the pandemic will become the justification for all sorts of experimental approaches to governance. “For a few years, COVID-19 will be the standard argument and pretext for supporting public and private decisions on almost everything with or without much empirical evidence,” Kunzmann writes. “In order to push ahead their smart city businesses, industries, energy, and water corporations, as well as public utilities, will use the occasion to further digitalize production and services.” That could mean more local governments investing in smart grids that optimize and price energy flows based on demand, as well as sensors that monitor and balance traffic flows. It could also mean more investment in systems that raise significant privacy concerns, such as automated license plate readers that track peoples’ movement.

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With local government budgets pushed to the brink, these efforts will be framed as ways to save money. Kunzmann believes that the harsh economic conditions may also lead to more regionalism and cross-jurisdictional development programs.

Smart city technologies aren’t necessarily good or bad, Kunzmann writes, but allowing them to be imposed without proper oversight risks a slide into a technological dystopia. And if local economic recovery is seen as the only goal, he worries that other public projects and priorities may become subservient to the bottom line. Urban planners, Kunzmann says, “have to take care that other social and physical aims of urban development are not neglected when speeding up the smart digitalization of the city.”

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