A Preview to our Study: Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World

COVID-19 has served as a stress test for cities as businesses and services were shut down and medical facilities stretched to their limits. It has exposed weaknesses in digital infrastructure and resilience as disruptions have emerged unexpectedly with far-reaching aftershocks. Simultaneously, cities are facing mounting pressures to address vulnerabilities related to cybersecurity and climate change.

Yet the pandemic also has been a catalyst for change. It is accelerating the reliance on technology, smart innovation, and e-commerce, while transforming citizen behaviors and expectations, and redefining how people work and live.

To succeed in the post-COVID world, urban leaders will need access to evidence-based analysis showing the innovative technologies, solutions, and business models that will work best, particularly when the next disruption hits. Through our latest research program, Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World, ESI ThoughtLab’s team of economists and industry experts have sought to create a valuable dialogue on the future of cities among government, business, and academic leaders.

A survey of decision-makers spanning 167 cities worldwide

We administered an in-depth survey through personal phone interviews with city officials from 167 pre-screened cities in 82 countries. These cities are home to over 526 million residents, representing 6.8% of the world population.

Twenty-one percent of the respondents were mayors or chief executives; an additional 15% were city managers. Approximately 30% held policy or operational roles, including chief of staff, or director of planning or policy. About 20% had senior positions overseeing technology or smart city initiatives. Respondents from emerging markets tended to be mayors or deputy mayors, while those from developed economies were more likely to be city managers or directors of technology or policy.

The survey responses helped us better understand how cities are achieving their social, environmental, and economic goals and how these may change due to the pandemic. We used the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework and followed strict quality control measures to ensure the accuracy of the reported data, including vetting it with analysis from respected third-party sources, checking questionable data with cities, and reviewing the output with an advisory board comprised of academic, business, and city leaders.

Where cities have made the most progress

Cities have made the most headway on the SDGs related to people and prosperity: no poverty, decent work and economic growth, quality education, and good health and well-being. They have made the least progress on zero hunger, climate action, and reduced inequalities. With more manageable populations, small cities are typically making more progress on the SDGs than large ones. On average, 74% of cities in advanced economies are making progress on the SDGs, compared with half of those in emerging markets.

Progress being made on the SDGs (% of cities)

* Small = 600,000 to 1m inhabitants; medium = 1m to 5m inhabitants; large = 5m to 10m inhabitants.

Lessons learned from COVID-19

For 65% of cities highlighted in our study, the biggest lesson learned during the pandemic was just how crucial smart city programs were for their future. This was a particularly critical lesson for cities in the Middle East and Europe. The pandemic also drove home the need to work differently. Almost four out of 10 cities learned the value of collaboration between the public and private sectors to address today’s issues. About a third found that remote working could boost staff productivity, while 28% learned that crisis management was vital for city leaders and workers to cope with unexpected disruptions.


The rise of Cities 4.0

With citizen expectations rising and businesses gearing up for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the most successful cities will be those that are not only advanced in using smart technology but leveraging available data and resources in new ways to drive their SDG priorities. We call these cities, Cities 4.0.

Our many discussions with global city leaders have made it clear that the pandemic has been a major milestone for significant technological, business, and social change, which will continue long after the health crisis ends. The most successful cities will need to be digitally transformed, citizen-centric, fully sustainable, as well as skilled in the new ways of doing business. Moving forward, city leaders will be able to utilize our research as a roadmap to becoming a 4.0 city of the future. They can also take the four steps current 4.0 cities follow to advance their SDG agenda:

(1) regularly monitor and assess SDG efforts,

(2) ensure SDG programs are widely supported throughout government,

(3) designate a department to take the SDG lead, and

(4) undertake a voluntary local review of progress on the SDGs.


Our full findings from this year-long study will be publicly available on March 30, 2021 by visiting www.citysolutions.riskierworld.com. We also invite city leaders to our Smart Cities Strategy Summit produced in collaboration with CityAge, NTT, Bentley Systems, and Axis Communications. The summit will bring together city leaders from around the world to exchange views on solutions for a post-pandemic world. Unlike other urban-focused events, the Smart Cities Strategy Summit is an invitation-only interchange that will provide a virtual forum for a cross-pollination of ideas and practices, drawing from our research. You can see the full line-up of panelists and presenters, as well as request an invitation by visiting: https://www.cityage.com/citiessummit

Lou Celi is the CEO of ESI ThoughtLab, a company he founded in 201to create visionary thought leadership that sits at the intersection of economics, technology, and management strategyLou has nearly 40 years of experience as a corporate leader, author, speaker, entrepreneur, and consultant. During that time, he has helped top organizations build their business with corporate and government decision makers. A pioneer in evidence-based thought leadership, Lou has led a broad range of research initiatives on the digital transformation of cities, industries, companiesand management practices 


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