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The Future of Cities Requires Refining What it Means to be a Smart City

Over the past five years, Econsult Solutions, through its former joint venture, completed cutting edge research on smart cities around the world, exploring how leading global cities begin their smart city journey, what they were investing in, and what those investments meant in terms of return on investment. We have learned that the use of technology in cities can improve government performance, increase economic competitiveness, and allow cities to explore new solutions to their most significant problems. We have also learned that there are numerous challenges facing communities as they begin their journey towards being a smart city, and that there are obstacles and hurdles that even the most advanced and sophisticated city must overcome to make the most of their investments.

In the past two years, city leaders have been forced to rethink and refine what they mean when they think about being a smart city. A confluence of interconnected health, economic, social, political, financial, and technological challenges has meant that local governments have had to be more flexible and creative as they deliver services, protect their citizens, and invest in their economic futures. Think about just some of the huge challenges that cities are facing:

  • Healthy Communities: The COVID-19 pandemic has focused our attention on how we can help citizens remain safe in the face of a crippling epidemic affecting all corners of our communities. Communication with citizens has become fundamental to providing life saving information, and those cities with strong data analysis tools and capabilities have been better prepared to map and track outbreaks in their cities. The use of technology in providing health care, through the adoption and use of telemedicine, has allowed health care to be provided safely and efficiently through an internet connection. How we ensure equitable and secure access could also transform health care delivery and outcomes.
  • Technology Access: Of course, the use of technology in a city is only as good as the internet and technology access available to citizens. The impacts of COVID restrictions—increased numbers of workers working from home, schools providing distance learning, accessing government services online—have exposed the uneven access across cities and the difficulties in meeting those needs. Small towns and rural communities often lack the connections needed to be competitive in a connected economy.
  • Economic Inequality: The economic shifts occurring as a result of the pandemic and its impacts have also highlighted the growing economic inequality of our cities. Where you work, how you work, access to technology, exposure to COVID, and much more have contributed to extreme shifts in income levels across our cities. How we address those inequities through smart policies will be essential to future success of cities.
  • Sustainability and Resilience: While the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events predate the pandemic, cities and their citizens are experiencing the impacts on what seems to be an increasingly regular basis. Whether it be power grid failures in Texas, tornadoes in major metros, increased flooding from stormwater runoff in urban communities, or extreme heat in our largest cities, it is clear that cities and communities are being asked to address challenges at an increasing pace. We can’t afford to wait, and cities are vital to meeting the global sustainability goals.
  • Uncertain Finances: The shifts and changes of the pandemic have also created potential shifts in city finances. Cities reliant on local income, sales and property taxes are tracking how shifts in where people live and work will change that economic model. Fewer workers in offices can mean fewer lunches being purchased, reductions in transit ridership, and lower office occupancy—all of which have significant financial implications.

With all of this going on, how are cities coping, adapting, and even thriving? Over the next year, ESI is looking to learn more by addressing core questions as we study how cities are refining their definition of what it means to be a smart city:

  • What have cities learned about the use of technology during multiple crises and what does that mean for future investments?
  • How will the federal infrastructure bill and flexible ARPA funding impact city strategies and investments in technology and sustainability initiatives?
  • How are private sector partners working with cities to address core challenges in technology access, economic inequality, and resilience?
  • What will emerging technologies, like 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies mean for the future of cities?
  • How have cities integrated smart city planning with recovery planning to build sustainable futures?
  • How are small and medium sized cities meeting these challenges and what are the opportunities in those communities?

Through ESI Center for the Future of Cities, will be exploring these issues and questions through our thought leadership research and consulting engagements. Let us know what you think and connect with us to learn more and stay tuned for future opportunities to get engaged.


Steve Wray, Senior Vice President and Principal | wray@econsultsolutions.com

In this role, Mr. Wray focuses on the development and implementation of programs and projects that support ESI’s vision and short- and long-term plans. He leads the work of the firm’s principals and senior staff in developing new partnerships, expanding and building on existing practice areas, and integrating the firm’s strengths in economic analysis and thought leadership.

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