Cities may have been among the hardest hit areas in the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the United Nations, nearly 90 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have been centered around urban areas. During the pandemic, many major cities have seen decreases in the number of residents, with many having relocated either temporarily or permanently to more rural areas. In fact, 22 percent of adults have relocated out of cities or know someone who has, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

However, despite the recent exodus from cities, the dawn of the new smart city has only just begun. Smart cities of recent years focused on connectivity, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and leveraging data analytics to improve the quality of life within cities. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated that city leaders and planners explore on a deeper level how to improve their city through smart city technology. Now, the future of the smart city may arrive sooner than anticipated, thanks to the drive to rebuild local economies and encourage population growth.

This smart city growth has accelerated across these three major categories during COVID-19:

Reliance on digital services

Thanks to a significant increase in remote work and schooling, contactless pick-ups and deliveries and other online services, COVID-19 has grown reliance on digital infrastructure and tools for citizens, as they seek to limit in-person interactions to stem the spread of coronavirus. Municipalities looking to increase smart city initiatives have the opportunity to increase, enhance or implement more digital services for citizens with this in mind. A recent study by the Urban Institute found that over 90 percent of respondents have provided expanded access to smartphones, computers and tablets and are providing digital literacy training to residents during COVID-19. The same study reported that  Los Angeles Unified School District increased the number of students with a laptop and internet access in the district from 33 to 96 percent since the beginning of the pandemic.  

Strengthening online services for municipalities can include modernizing their community development strategy or online citizen reporting tools. Providing online access to frequently used services can help limit exposure resulting from face-to-face interactions so citizens feel safer, boosting engagement.

Changes in urban mobility

A majority of cities experienced a decrease in road traffic during the initial months of stay-at-home orders, with car traffic plummeting by nearly 30 percent nationwide. However, that trend is not expected to continue for the long-term. The New York Times reported that many city officials around the world are concerned over the possibility of gridlock being worse that before the pandemic, as people will try to limit the use of public transportation in buses and subways, and instead use either personal vehicles, private ride-sharing services or e-scooters.

As a result, cities are likely to see an increase in the number of motor vehicles on the road. The Washington Post reports that the Washington D.C. region, Los Angeles and New York City’s traffic has started to rise, and is now between 79 and 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels.  Major cities have an opportunity to invest in traffic sensors and smart parking-management tools to handle the expected surge of vehicular traffic and alleviate common transportation problems such as congestion and accidents.

Enhanced communication alerts

COVID-19 proved that municipalities should have strong communication alert systems in place. A GovLoop poll found that there was a 35 percent increase in residents going to digital channels to find out relevant information about the coronavirus. Some cities recognized this need and leveraged artificial intelligence (AI) to deploy public health alerts and respond to citizen inquiries in a conversational manner. Other cities’ needs may be more fundamental, like making sure they have network infrastructure that can handle the surge in communication needs during large-scale incidents.

COVID-19 has energized the discussion of what it really means to be a smart city. The conversation now extends beyond traditional smart city tools such as IoT sensors and connectivity to how smart urban mobility, digital services and communication will work for the public. By implementing smart city and digitized systems, municipalities are investing in their long-term viability while also saving money down the road. These investments are likely to significantly improve services at relatively small cost for municipalities, as well as keep the city safe during a public health crisis.