The COVID-19 pandemic has infected many vulnerable emerging markets with reduced revenue and increased uncertainty. As recession looms, crucial investment channels are drying up, seemingly creating a divide between those projects that are already underway and those that now face an uphill battle to secure the funding they require to get off the ground. This appears to be the case in the smart cities market, where major projects are being canceled while others find a new sense of purpose in a post-COVID world.
The big smart city cancellation of the COVID-19 era so far is undoubtedly Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto. The Quayside redevelopment project was still in planning phases, held back by a resolute citizen movement that focused on issues of data privacy and corporate control of typically government roles. Despite impressive designs and bold PR campaigns by Google, local resistance may have been enough to stop the project, however, in the end it was the COVID-19 outbreak and economic downturn that put the final nail in the coffin.
“As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan,” Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff said as part of an official statement. Others, however, highlight the unquestionable influence of the citizen-led resistance on the final decision and the huge implications of that for future smart city projects around the world.
“This is a major victory for the responsible citizens who fought to protect Canada’s democracy, civil and digital rights, as well as the economic development opportunity," said former BlackBerry chief executive Jim Balsillie. “Sidewalk Toronto will go down in history as one of the more disturbing planned experiments in surveillance capitalism.”
In India, work has come to a standstill on almost all of Prime Minister Modi’s 100 Smart Cities projects, as lockdowns crippled supply chains in the already highly-criticized initiative. As public attention switches to health, more scrutiny is being aimed at the government’s strategy for neglecting this vital element from the outset. Urban renewal and retrofitting program Smart City Mission, reveals that only 69 of 5,861 projects selected since 2015 have focused on health infrastructure and capacity building, that’s a little over 1% of total projects.
While coronavirus and recession will create delays and provide a good excuse to cancel for some smart city projects, the same reasons provide the motivation to reset and push harder for other smart cities. In the southern Australian city of Adelaide, the government is resetting its smart city strategy and roadmap, bringing together programs of work from across council as it looks for ways to “reactivate” the city post-COVID-19.
“COVID really has sharpened our focus on the need to really get our house in order in the data space,” said Kim Hunt, Innovation Projects Manager for the city of Adelaide. “We already knew that, but I think what it's done is shown us in very real terms that data is a critical resource, and certainly one that will help us manage our city better in future if a crisis should hit us again, but also [allow us to] enhance that everyday citizen experience when using our city. All roads for us at the moment lead back to data.”
As the world returns to some kind of normality, cities will soon realize that all the important long-term reasons that we needed smart cities before (urban overpopulation) are still there and we may have a few more. The science suggests that COVID-19 may not just represent a challenging point in human history but actually become a new part of the landscape, one that forces us the change the way we live, especially in densely populated urban areas. There are no assurances that a vaccine will be successful or offer defense from new strains as the virus mutates, which could make mitigation methods a vital part of the future urban landscape.
“It is important to put this on the table: this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away,” WHO emergencies expert Mike Ryan said on May 13th. “I think it is important we are realistic and I don’t think anyone can predict when this disease will disappear. There are no promises in this and there are no dates. This disease may settle into a long problem, or it may not be.”
That kind of uncertainty is the bain of investment for large, long-term projects like smart cities, so we should expect more delays and cancelations as key stakeholders struggle with big decisions. A quick return to normality would result in limited smart city cancelations, however, and if COVID is here to stay, then innovative smart urban technologies represent some of our best solutions to keep citizens safe and comfortable.
"With the COVID-19 outbreak, technologies such as drones, real-time dashboards, new types of surveillance, etc. have emerged. These are being used by cities in Europe as the world moves towards a digital-only lifestyle,” reads a review of 4 European cities by Silicon Canals. “Besides this, there’s an increase in the adoption of e-health and e-government services and trends such as online education and remote work. This has, in turn, resulted in a huge drop in traffic and pollution. Further, COVID-19 has left remarkable changes in manufacturing as it accelerates digital transformation strategies.”
While very young smart city projects, or those with pre-existing issues, will be more vulnerable to delay and cancelation during the turbulent months and years ahead, the majority of smart city projects will survive and many more will be born out of this crisis. Whether COVID becomes a new part of human life or a very strong warning sign, our smart technology will be fundamental to the future of health and urban life.