Tech and the Post-Pandemic City

To steer American cities into the future, public and private sectors—and citizens—must work together to build broad, lasting support around complicated issues such as transparency and data privacy.

8 minute read

April 6, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By Sara Maffey

Coronavirus and Transportation

Ned Snowman / Shutterstock

When Google introduced the world to Sidewalk Toronto in 2017, the company hailed the project as an "urban innovation" that would "make cities more sustainable and affordable for all."

The project, an effort by the world’s most recognizable tech company, aimed to bring private and public interests together and make the city of the future a reality.

Google, however, axed the project in May 2020, citing "unprecedented economic uncertainty" brought about by COVID-19.

Then, in late February of this year, another high-profile Google-related project dissolved when the city of Portland, Oregon ended a partnership between with a Google-spin off called Replica—this time over concerns about data privacy. The collaboration aimed to deliver "privacy-safe, real-time data on how people move around the Portland area."

If Google is unable to make the sustainable cities of the future happen, who can? What is the roadmap for startups around the world? And how would COVID-19 factor into the development of this nascent field?

There's reason to believe that, in addition to the pandemic, what ultimately doomed these projects was a gulf of intention and misunderstandings between the company, the city, and the community. The divide between interests is endemic to many large-scale development projects, where a lack of shared information regarding needs, demand, and business interests creates mistrust and misalignment. Add data privacy and surveillance concerns into the conversation, and many in the public never got past initial perceptions of a breach of trust and a lack of transparency.

Now, with coronavirus vaccines being rolled out across the world, citizens, cities, and tech companies are again faced with the task of embracing trust and transparency in smart city development. Success will ensure that innovations better respond to the next global—or local—crisis, building stronger, more inclusive communities.

To better understand how to do accomplish these goals, let's examine the roots of what smart cities aim to achieve.

Foundations and Fundamentals

All cities are ecosystems. Smart cities leverage technology to drive innovation in these unique ecosystems to serve all aspects of the community. There are eight "generally recognized subjects that combine to make a city smart," according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers: mobility, healthcare, security, water, energy, engagement and community, economic development and housing, and waste.

When an ecosystem of data is broad—incorporating diverse streams of information and cross-pollinating data between the silos that typically inhibit cooperation—it can create better outcomes that drive innovation.

While it wasn't the first smart city initiative (that title either goes to "A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles" or Amsterdam’s 1994 De Digitale Stad) one could look to Singapore’s $2 billion sprawling cyber metropolis as a primary example of a modern smart city success.

Singapore, a nation with a total population of 5.8 million and a population density of 20,777 people per square mile (compared with Manhattan, which has a population of 1.6 million and is 3.5 times more densely populated), regularly tops best smart city lists because of its overarching commitment to the integration of technology across various citizen matrices.

The program, which began in 2014, includes 1) the implementation of mobility tech that incorporates an autonomous vehicle fleet for the elderly and disabled, a self-driving shuttle for students, and an open data program to drive future efficiencies in transportation planning; 2) digitized healthcare, which offers web-first appointments; 3) a "Smart Nation" app that supports industry and academic data-sharing initiatives to encourage businesses; and 4) an open-data portal tech and various accelerators that bolster holistic industry growth and innovation.

The importance of these advancements, in tandem with broad adoption, comes into stark relief when examining the nation’s COVID-19 response.

Smart Cities and the Pandemic

Singapore's COVID-19 infection rates have been near zero for months, thanks in part to its widely adopted contact tracing program, TraceTogether.

As a consequence of the nation’s existing government technology infrastructure and the population's general familiarity with its efforts, Singapore launched the TraceTogether app in March 2020 to a population-wide adoption rate of about 80%. As of March 29, 2021 in Singapore, only 30 people have died since the onset of the pandemic; its rolling seven-day average of new cases hasn’t surpassed 20 in the last 30 days.

In comparison, New York's contract tracing app wasn’t unveiled until October 2020—seven months later—and the state’s seven-day average of new cases is hovering around 10,000 over the last 30 days.

The Backlash

Even highly developed ecosystems contain downsides and detractors, especially when one considers the amount of raw data necessary to run an effective contact tracing program, which can be a lightning rod for controversy.

Human Rights Watch has expressed concerns around programs like Singapore's, fearing that "such tracking could open a dangerous new front in the surveillance and repression of marginalized groups." New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in December 2020 signed a law that forbade law enforcement from accessing contact tracing data.

These important conversations should happen in the public sphere, because they highlight the most significant takeaway when we consider Google’s experiences in Toronto and Portland: The private and public sectors need to address complicated issues like privacy head-on in good faith to assuage public opposition and build support.

Because the Singapore government waffled on prioritizing the protection of citizen privacy, allowing police to use data for criminal investigations despite public outcries, public trust eroded and the entire digital ecosystem faces a setback.

Private Efforts, Public Concerns

The success of a smart city is contingent on some level of efficient data analysis, but there exists today a "generalized anger and anxiety" about potential abuse when personal data is at play. The U.S. Congress has gone so far as to consider breaking up the biggest Big Tech companies and "ban[ning] harmful surveillance capitalist business models."

A better solution to the anger and anxiety of the public might be awareness campaigns that build partnerships, increase transparency, and address the public’s needs and concerns.

With a few exceptions, data can be aggregated, anonymized, and thoughtfully compiled with an earnest attempt to minimize conscious and unconscious biases—and further advance machine learning systems that will eventually eradicate those biases.

The public must explicitly be made aware of the challenges around anonymizing personal data, reducing system biases, and tech’s focus on protecting the people at the heart of these initiatives: citizens. This is among the most critical hurdles to building public trust. Smart cities present a significant opportunity to equitably provide public services and resources and inform discussions that allow all stakeholders to understand each other’s needs. Data can be used to democratize the development process and the public must be ensured that the priority is social gain, not solely private profit.

The Opportunity of Technology

As we watch local housing markets skyrocket during the pandemic rush of talent to secondary and tertiary cities and as employers allow location flexibility and people seek more space and lower cost of living, housing security and affordability will continue to be major concerns for the foreseeable future. Smart city innovations across manufacturing and analytical processes can help alleviate these problems, but only if leaders are willing to ask themselves hard questions about the foundations of our metropolises and who benefits from the status quo.

We must give city planners tools that enable them to make smarter, better informed decisions for the citizens they serve. We must find ways to broaden and democratize the public input process—gathering data to understand real community needs for grocery stores, parks, workforce and affordable housing, amenities and services—using technology on a regular basis, not only when a study or controversial project demands public input. Urban planning is a science, not an art, and we must make it easier for real estate developers to understand the demand of citizens and begin conversations with a more transparent and organized understanding of what a city and community need.

Smart Cities allow planners to elevate the historically limited and bureaucratic planning process they are forced to rely upon by expanding the gathering and use of data to inform decision making that leads to more inclusive communities for all stakeholders. If planners operate without understanding the needs of the people they serve, we all risk losing the progress we’ve made through a cascading erosion of trust.

We must first identify the most immediate problems and the most valuable resources and amenities to equitably disperse across cities, then offer to include every stakeholder as a good-faith partner in the process—especially when deciding how data is gathered and to what extent it is used.

A Beginning, Not an Ending

While much has changed since Google shuttered Sidewalk Toronto, many important lessons remain—and projects around the world are better for it.

As we continue to imagine successful data-enabled cities, it’s up to us to create authentic excitement and cooperation among a broad spectrum of partners while overcoming the economic and social challenges that lead many ambitious projects to failure.

The diverse residents of cities across the world are now at a crossroads: We can keep building cities the way we always have, or we can collaborate across class, race, gender, and political ideology to build on a fairer and more efficient foundation of data. It’s up to our generation to give city planners and local officials the tools they need to provide public transparency and build the trust necessary for successful, effective public-private partnerships.

Sara Maffey is the Head of Industry Relations at Local Logic, where she combines her passions for real estate development and placemaking with data analytics and proptech. Maffey has deep experience throughout the built environment lifecycle from site selection and economic development, to construction management and commercial asset strategy. Local Logic is a data and analytics platform that quantifies the qualities of any given location—from suburban homes to urban high-rises and retail. Founded by a team of urban planners, engineers, data scientists, and real estate experts, the company combines geospatial, user-generated, and real estate data to offer a holistic perspective on cities, the way people perceive and value it, and how technology can introduce transparency into the real estate market.
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