More than just “smart”, cities must be ‘future-ready’

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Cities around the world have long been experimenting with technology to become ‘smart’ through initiatives such as using sensors to improve traffic management and applying AI solutions to increase energy efficiency – with varying degrees of success. Most have not lived up to the hype. Promised improvements in public services, economic development, and citizen’s lives remain largely theoretical.

Combined with this, the acceleration in catastrophic weather events, natural disasters and global health emergencies means that cities don’t just need to be smart, but also ‘future-ready’. In other words, they must build the foundations for both prosperity and resilience in the face of predictable and unpredictable challenges and adapt to fast-changing social and economic situations.

Based on the findings of a recent survey of over 200 city officials across six regions globally, conducted by ThoughtLab and co-sponsored by Cognizant, the study ‘Beyond smart cities – to future-ready cities’ identifies six key imperatives officials need to consider as they work towards improving citizens lives and creating resilient cities of the future:

  • Develop three-point ecosystems to supportand execute on the future-ready city vision: These ecosystems span three key groups: local governments, infrastructure providers (telcos) and integrators (tech partners). Alarmingly, our research shows only 46% of city officials reported making good or very good progress in developing an ecosystem, with half citing a shortage of the required skills and expertise as an obstacle to becoming future-ready and 65% struggling to find the right technology suppliers.
  • Design ecosystems with the right dynamics: Mutually beneficial relationships between all ecosystem partners encourages innovation and makes successful initiatives more sustainable in the longer run. However, these ‘win-win’ situations do not always emerge naturally, so they must be built into the ecosystem’s dynamics from the start.
  • Create individual solutions with a shared foundation in mind: A clear vision must guide all stakeholders. This doesn’t mean that rolling out a fully prepared integrated solution will work – it often doesn’t. Instead, those involved need to focus on individual initiatives that leverage the foundation of previous solutions and help keep costs under control and popular buy-in by delivering faster results.
  • Embolden tech choices, supported by ecosystem partners: Respondents identified a wide array of technologies they believe will be key to realising future-ready goals. Embracing technology such as automation, AI, electric vehicles, mobile tech, cloud, digital twins – all enhanced by 5G – is essential for creating a strong foundation for the future to build on.
  • Share data by default: More than 70% of survey respondents say they will prioritise in the next five years a range of data-related activities such as analysing, gathering and managing data to meet their future goals. That is excellent news, as keeping data in siloes will lead to missed opportunities. Importantly, data needs to flow not just within local governments and the city business ecosystem, but often also across jurisdictional borders. Here the picture is grim, with only 35% saying they are proficient at this.
  • Take privacy concerns to heart: Concern about cybersecurity and the potential for citizen surveillance is widespread and must be addressed. Currently, only 30% of cities avoid collecting and using data because of concerns around privacy. It is reassuring to see, then, that 74% of local officials surveyed intend to prioritise data protection in the next five years.

Speaking on the findings Eduardo Plastino, Director at Cognizant Research (pictured right) commented: “Local governments and their partners in the private sector have an excellent opportunity to boost the future-readiness of cities as 5G becomes increasingly available at a time when they have had the chance to learn from both the successes of and disappointments from previous ‘smart city’ projects. Creating strong ecosystems of local governments, infrastructure providers and integrators will help us succeed in making the most of this opportunity and overcome challenges by being able to pool financial resources, talent, and knowledge.

An important aspect will be for cities and their partners to design urban “sandboxes”—safe spaces for experimental efforts that could safely fail to deliver the expected outcomes without substantial negative impacts but could also lead to outstanding, sometimes unpredictable results. This requires a mindset shift, but it could pay off handsomely.”