A COVID Crystal Ball: Four Hopes for the Future of Smart(er) Communities

How can we influence what comes next? What Will We Learn? What Will We Build?

By: Chelsea Collier, Editor at Large, and Dustin Haisler, Guest Contributor

COVID-19 has accelerated the digital revolution to warp speed. We are here. And we all want to know what happens next. How will our urban landscapes change? How will our public sector systems change? How will our habits change? How will this affect how we live and how we relate to each other? Will we ever be together again? If we are, will it feel safe? How will we know?

These are massive questions to ponder and the only real things we know for sure is that we cannot predict the future. But we can be intentional about what we want to create. Here are four wishes for how we can take the lessons learned from this pandemic crisis and forge a better path forward.

Hopeful Future 1: We fully embrace a digital world.

As we entered 2020, we all felt the push of an increasing pace of technology. This was expressed differently in the private sector than it is in the public sector. 

Industry has predictably led the innovation agenda. Capitalism has the luxury of an unapologetic push for profit and a focus on the target market that can produce the greatest returns. The result is efficiency and optimization. 

This often appears to be in stark contrast to the government and social sectors, which have been slower to adopt tech-enabled norms, ranging from cloud computing to remote work.  City and nonprofit leaders spend their energy striving to stretch thin resources amidst incredible restraint. Their target market spans entire communities, especially the most vulnerable. Returns are measured differently. 

Now that we all have been forced to figure out tele-everything from work, to healthcare, to education, to city council meetings – government is having to figure it out, and fast. There have been some challenges, for sure. But amidst the chaos, there have been a few positive outcomes including greater virtual participation in city council meetings and the ability to support a remote government workforce. 

My hope is that we don’t go back and once the frenzy slows, that city leaders continue on the path to explore how technology can enable our most human capacities – creativity, collaboration and innovation. When fully embraced, our communities can be more connected.

Hopeful Future 2: We figure out the data puzzle and live an insight-rich life.

Peter Drucker’s adage ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it’ is the bellwether for smart cities. In a pre-COVID-19 existence we were excited about the deployment of sensors to measure energy efficiency and air quality, improve public safety and systematize transportation to name a few. Those things are still important, for sure, but now we’re seeing how cities leverage urban data to save lives. 

Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute states that “Data seems to be the missing link between our current situation and our post-pandemic world.” Greater transparency around supply chains means PPE and ventilators can get to where they need to go. Drone footage can identify those areas that need more stringency around social distancing efforts. Thermal imaging cameras can detect higher-than-safe body temperatures. AI-enabled chat bots and social messaging efforts clarify crucial communication. Technology can be the hero here, and we need to let it take the stage.

Oliver Wise, former Chief Data Officer for the City of New Orleans wisely directs public leaders to “get their data house in order” and that embracing open data principles can result in increased resident safety. 

Of course there are considerations around privacy. Simon Chandler with Forbes wonders, “What’s to stop (governments) from using smart city technology to monitor and suppress protests and political dissidents?  

This brings a new urgency to city leaders to both understand how to protect Personally Identifiable Information, or PII, while also gaining the benefit of aggregated, secure, real-time data. Then it becomes critical to over-communicate to the public how their data is collected, secured and used to create safer cities. With trust in government at an all time low, no one can afford to get this wrong. 

The private sector is also responding and including privacy-related language. TracetoZero, a contact tracing app, declares that they are “privacy-centric” with clear disclaimers, aggregated data disassociated from the individual, and that their database only stores information on infected status. All information and communication is encrypted. 

My hope is that private sector companies will take more of a leadership role in defining their privacy practices instead of taking uninformed opt-ins for granted. Privacy protection can become the new baseline normal. This can result in greater public trust, greater transparency and more widespread adoption. The long term benefit is more secure data to inform better decision making. 

Hopeful Future 3: We embrace our roles as civic entrepreneurs and solve problems differently.

In a crisis, everyone becomes an entrepreneur. You have to figure things out fast with limited resources. There is no time to wait for permission. There is no time for multiple levels of signature sign offs. There is no time to waste managing up. When lives are on the line, you create solutions quickly – knowing not all of them will be successful.  

Entrepreneurs know that no one person can be a team. It takes a diversity of skillset, experience and knowledge to achieve success. Applied to smart communities, this will require public sector leaders to get more comfortable with inviting other people into their problem solving. And this doesn’t mean just rewarding the people who agree with you. The people you need most are those you’ve probably never met. 

After the peak of the crisis has passed, the hope is that we continue this ‘can do / will do’ moxie so that we each can become the entrepreneurs of our own lives and the entrepreneurs of our own communities. If we can continue to bring down the barriers, we can solve more problems. 

Some cities will enable this energy and become platforms for rapid problem solving. They will learn how to invite everyone to co-create solutions. They will come out ahead. 

Hopeful Future 4: We realize that we can all be connected.

Connectivity is the most foundational piece of smart cities. Obviously connectivity is at the front and center of the COVID-19 response as so many move their lives online. The good news is that the Internet is holding up well thanks to unprecedented public/private collaboration and increased investment like cells on wheels and aerial network-support drones. There is even more federal cooperation as the FCC has granted temporary access to spectrum to boost network capacity. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has also rightly prioritized narrowing the digital divide. There are still far too many people in the U.S. who remain disconnected.  A recent article on Fortune’s website argued that we aren’t doing enough and I agree. 

Leaders at every level of government – city, county, state, and federal – must leverage their time, talent and newly-available funds for digital infrastructure to ensure that everyone can benefit from the digital evolution. This can be a collaborative, informed and forward-looking exercise as long as we are all aligned on a single goal – to connect our country

In Summary

Inertia has been upended. And so now we are faced with a choice. We can forge ahead and create a better, more future-forward reality or we can fall back. My belief is that embracing a digital, data-enabled, entrepreneurial, connected world will result in better communities. Doing so will enhance our resilience and support city leaders in serving a diversity of residents. 

Marc Andreessen calls us to “reboot the American dream.” It’s time and it’s possible. There will be differences in perspective on how to get it done. This is good. There will be differences in ability to make it happen. This is okay. But we must pledge to go beyond the short term, beyond political alignment, beyond the expected. 

When I peer into the crystal ball, I see a nation moving into the digital future with enthusiasm. curiosity, positivity and honesty. This can only become reality if we all align ourselves and commit. I know we can. And this is my hope for the future.