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An ESI ThoughtLab report on sustainable development goals in 167 cities, representing nearly 7 percent of the world’s population, found that the coronavirus has accelerated technology growth worldwide as planners, administrators and businesses consider the post-pandemic realities of urban centers. Claire Swedberg explains why and how IoT Growth in Cities was Accelerated by COVID-19.

Global Study Shows IoT Growth in Cities Accelerated by COVID-19

By Claire Swedberg

Analytics company  ESI ThoughtLab (ESITL) has found that technology, including Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, is at the forefront as municipalities plan their COVID-19 pandemic recovery, along with sustainability initiatives. According to the company’s recent report, released this spring and titled “Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World,” COVID-19 served cities an unexpected stress test. The study found that cities are investing in technology-based solutions to meet sustainability development goals (SDGs) at an accelerated pace.

Lou Celi

To make that transition possible, says Lou Celi, ESI ThoughtLab’s CEO, a dual effort needs to be made to ensure citizen support and cybersecurity for IoT rollouts. ESITL collaborated with a coalition of businesses, government agencies and academics to conduct the overarching research, which explored 167 cities in 82 countries on all continents, representing 526 million residents (6.8 percent of the world’s population). The organization studied and interviewed cities to learn about their SDG efforts, including their existing and planned use of IoT and other smart technologies.

The project, which launched in early 2020, took approximately a year to complete. This was accomplished during the pandemic, and tracking will continue going forward in order to compare data following the outbreak. The IoT plays a part in the study, with the researchers examining the intersection of technology and sustainability goals. “It was a real watershed study,” Celi says, and cities were found to be already well invested in SDG and smart-city solutions, with most seeking to accelerate their adoption.

The study focused on urban rather than rural areas. “More than half of the world lives in cities, and that’s where social and environmental issues require the most attention,” Celi says. The research team’s survey used a scoring methodology that allowed them to categorize cities by their progress against the United Nations’ 17 SDGs. Cities were categorized in three stages of SDG progress—implementers that were still in the early stages, advancers that were making progress, and sprinters that have made the most progress on SDGs—and about 22 percent of the cities studied were sprinters.

When gathering information, ESITL collected quality-of-life data from such sources as the  World Bank,  Numbeo, Spain’s  University of Navarra and the  IESE Business School. The organization also conducted interviews with urban leaders and experts. “To identify best practices and provide case studies, we had in-depth discussions with government decision-makers and business leaders in smart cities around the world,” Celi states. ESITL established a multi-disciplinary advisory board to review the results, which consisted of city leaders, corporate executives and academic experts.

The study found that while IoT and other technologies are already being adopted to meet SDGs, COVID-19 has punched the gas pedal, with 65 percent of cities interviewed indicating that the biggest lesson they learned during the pandemic was how crucial smart-city programs are for their future. “One thing that’s very clear is that the pandemic has led us into an undeniably digital-first world,” Celi states, adding, “We knew the digital economy was coming, just not this soon.”

Smart-city solutions already yield sensor data that drives intelligence, Celi says, ranging from traffic control to air-quality measurements and infrastructure management. Now, he reports, “Cities are upping the ante. They are adopting transformative technologies, the exponential ones like IoT, blockchain and AI [artificial intelligence], as they try to harness data.” The cities that are most advanced in the use of smart technologies and are achieving the most progress in meeting their SDGs are those described as Cities 4.0, which are gearing up for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Such cities are advanced in using smart technologies and data to drive their social, environmental and economic agenda. Some examples, the survey found, include Athens, Helsinki, Moscow, Philadelphia and Tallinn. All 20 of the 4.0 cities have made large investments in IoT and cloud-based technologies, while 84 percent said they are currently making large investments in the IoT. On average, the study found, cities currently use six types of data, including biometrics and behavioral data, and will be using seven in the next three years. Those at the forefront of adoption—the sprinters—are expected to increase some of the fastest growing digital technology sources to nine.

When asked if the pandemic has had a lasting impact on their planning, 69 percent of the respondents indicated they are reconsidering urban planning and the use of space. More than half (53 percent) said the pandemic has permanently changed how people live, work, socialize and travel in cities. For 36 percent, COVID-19 exposed the weaknesses in cities’ operational continuity capabilities.

“Cities have changed dramatically since the pandemic,” Celi says, “and we’re not going back. They’re going to be using technology to reposition their cities and their focus is going to be on SDGs.” Additionally, 65 percent of respondents reported that the pandemic has demonstrated how crucial smart-city programs are for a city’s future. “Cities’ use of the IoT, from interconnected devices, is already very high, but it will be growing even faster and converge with other digital technologies, such as cloud, 5G and edge computing.”

According to the study’s results, two key challenges must be considered as technology expands in cities: public investment and security. As technology is adopted, Celi states, “It must be done in a smart way for security, and with citizens onboard.” With regard to security, 60 percent of cities indicated they still have cybersecurity vulnerabilities with their technology deployments. Smaller cities are the least secure, he notes, with only 29 percent reporting that they are well-secured against cybercrime.

“We found cybersecurity was a very big issue,” Celi states. “IoT raises a lot of digital risk.” Bad actors could do damage with cyberattacks, he explains, and the incidence of such attacks rose by about 50 percent during the pandemic. “The lesson is that cybersecurity should not be an afterthought. It should be something adopted initially.”

According to Celi, the most successful deployments were those from which the public gained benefits, while also reducing concerns about privacy. Already, the use of technology during the pandemic has lowered the level of privacy worries as citizens grow accustomed to having more technology in their lives to solve common problems. Based on the survey results, he says, the public’s data-privacy concerns have yielded to the realization in the past year that digital solutions can improve safety and lifestyle. Still, he adds, without a concerted effort to include the public in technology deployments, privacy concerns can result, leading to mistrust.

Cities with high levels of citizen participation tend to be those with stronger communities and more empowered citizens, the study indicated. Those deemed sprinters used a variety of techniques to bring the public onboard, such as ensuring that disadvantaged populations were included in technology capture and use, as well as providing gamification and incentives. City employees need to be brought into the decision-making process as well, the research found, in order to make technology adoption successful and inclusive. Other potential headwinds ahead for SDG efforts may include regulations, finding the right partners and keeping pace with technology changes.

Going forward, Celi says, “Our big push is going to be ‘What’s next?’ What everyone wants to know is, ‘What’s Main Street going to look like in three years?'” ESITL plans to continue researching the SDG progress and technology use of cities as the pandemic ends. He offers some predictions in the meantime: Remote work will continue, he says, and that affects cities in numerous ways, ranging from transportation to the environment. “One of the lessons learned from the pandemic was that there are ways to run a city with less of a carbon footprint.” As COVID-19 eases, he adds, “I think there’s more of a social awareness that we have to be better at keeping people and the planet healthy and safe.”

The study found that cities have been making strides in meeting their SDG goals. “I wasn’t expecting that so many cities were already embracing SDGs,” Celi admits. “But I was happy to see the correlation between technology and the SDGs.” As efforts build to meet sustainability demands, the research indicated that the most successful deployment consists of a collaborative effort. City governments benefit from working with partners ranging from businesses, associations and universities to other cities, federal agencies and multilateral organizations. “We need to work together to find the solution. And through the enlightened use of technology, we can help make the world a better place.”

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