During 2020, a year that was dominated by the Covid pandemic, world leaders pledged towards a smarter and greener future. Several governments across the world, including the EU, US, China, and Russia, have recently confirmed that their commitments towards climate would be accelerated. At the virtual climate summit, amongst others, the US announced to cut carbon emissions by 50-52 % by 2030 and presented a $2 trillion proposal to build green infrastructure. This outlines just one of the investments being initiated globally.

As a consequence, enormous opportunities arise for businesses to invest and build their strategies towards green initiatives. One of the main actors in this transformation is cities. Increasing advancements in technology are only accelerating the process of cities becoming smarter.

But what is it that makes a city truly smart? And what are the opportunities to realize in smart cities to meet the zeitgeist in a post-Covid era?

A key characteristic of a smart city is the integration of data with a city’s infrastructure which includes various dimensions such as transport systems, buildings, recycling, and wastewater. Connecting multiple networks makes up a complex environment with many vendors that require a holistic approach.

While data collection builds the first layer, data usage is what leads to “smartification“. Most people have at least one device that is connected in real-time and thus, allows for constant data collection. Data is available, it is the efficient use of such that makes it crucial – e.g., making traffic more fluent due to tracking vehicle movements or being more responsive to security and safety issues through fast reporting mechanisms.

A smart city establishes initiatives that make the city more attractive to live for its citizens as it directly influences the quality of life – citizen-centric. For instance, smart mobility solutions directly address quality-of-life aspects such as convenience, time, and environmental impact. Offering smart city initiatives requires the inclusion of all kinds of groups and communities within a city i.e., people with disabilities or special needs, elderly, rural areas, remote communities, etc. You can only be smart if you are inclusive across different groups and users.

Further, it is rather the evolution of smart communities that make a smart city than a city that can be considered smart as a whole. In fact, it is mostly smart areas within cities that are becoming smart initially (e.g., a particular municipality), leading to smart communities rather than a city.

A university and its incubation hub may decide to implement a smart project (e.g., autonomous shuttle or an automated last-mile delivery) which could be implemented on a larger scale later on. Overall, there are many more localized solutions that become smart as they work within a tech incubator or hub.

Latest Trends, Technologies & Innovation in Smart Cities

A major trend in the context of smart city technologies is the bundling of apps leading to all-in-one apps, which can be used for various applications across the city. Typically, there would be an app to manage a bus ride, one to switch to an e-bike, one to take the train, another one for charging a car, etc., solely covering the transport system.

The fewer apps that can be utilized to manage one’s movements, the greener the outcome as less electricity is being used. In parallel, adding more and more smart applications should respect the user’s ability to manage them. It is crucial to create a smart environment and a livable and healthy one. Thus, private and public companies should offer attractive solutions that facilitate people’s life without increasing complexity.

Further, the latest innovations refer to common technology applications such as car or ride-sharing which add additional services to boost sustainability values.

For instance, Tesla together with a smart energy provider launched an app for EV charging which includes a carbon intensity function. The connected vehicle is only charging from a source when carbon emissions are at their lowest instead of relying on the first electricity available. In addition, the user might be rewarded with a voucher that can be used in local shops. What is key is for companies to offer such additional value-based services on top of the smart application itself.

Sustainability is the main driver of smart city projects. Several governments worldwide (e.g., USA, China, Russia, EU) have announced that they want to reinforce their environmental fight towards sustainability which increases the pressure as no country wants to be left behind and pointed out due to negative pollution numbers. Thus, there is a significant nudge from political factors which push governments and cities to work with private companies to monitor and ensure green emissions.

Building systems, in particular, are under increasing observation and buildings are growing due to urbanization and thus, produce a significant amount of Co2. In fact, buildings are the second biggest producer of Co2 in the world. This challenge in turn represents an opportunity for private companies around smart buildings and net-positive buildings.

While trying to follow such recent trends, a common pitfall presents greenwashing. Smart city initiatives should be implemented because they are in fact environmentally friendly and not because they address a certain trend. Smart street lighting for instance is considered a typical smart city initiative, however, it may not be the most environmentally friendly or economic solution for that city. Thus, a thorough cost-benefit analysis is required to evaluate whether a project is worthwhile from both an economic and environmental perspective.

As more data is being used, information and data protection is becoming more relevant than ever and thus, emphasizing the importance of cybersecurity. Ensuring sufficient data safety is key for successful smart city initiatives.

Post-Covid Smart Cities

A lot of studies and trend analyses describe urbanization as the key development in a pre-Covid world. But what does the post-Covid development look like?

The pre-Covid population was moving towards cities which led to an increased density of people in limited space. However, during Covid we may almost see a complete opposing development. People are aspiring for more space and the outdoors. The question will be whether this trend is going to sustain once lockdowns are being lifted across the world and people re-evaluate if they should live in cities.

The answer may be a compromise between the two extremes – people spending two or three days a week in a rural area to keep a balance with life in a city. Such a trend requires cities to offer a smart connected infrastructure. A smart city needs to cater to those that need to commute or to people that possibly live in two or three places a week. Thus, companies need to propose new services that people would be needing and how such solutions could be scaled.

Further, the trend of sustainability being the main driver of smart city projects will even accelerate in a post-Covid world. This is also true for smart cities being citizen centric, improving their quality of life. The pandemic has people re-evaluating activities they want to spend time on, as well as becoming more conscious of their own environmental footprint and the impact of their daily habits on sustainability. This presents a significant opportunity for public and private companies to pick up on such developments and offer solutions that create a smart and livable environment while being inclusive to all communities in such cities.

10EQS can help you assess opportunities for smart city initiatives in a post-Covid world. We analyze the technology & innovation landscape in smart cities around the world and identify leading practices.

10EQS Contributors for this blog post include: