Originally published in SmartCitiesWorld.

Throughout the pandemic, technology innovations have been driving health and safety initiatives, helping people connect with each other and aiding researchers in discovering vaccines. Technology has helped citizens work and access healthcare and has protected citizens through increased sanitation measures. This reliance on technology has also increased interest and demand in smart cities, with 26 smart cities expected by 2025. Although smart cities have been talked about since the 1990s, the pandemic has accelerated the need for data collection and tracking to help fight the spread of the disease. Now cities are looking towards these technologies to help them survive beyond the pandemic, both physically and financially.

The case for facial recognition tech

Throughout the ongoing pandemic, smart city technology has been used in two main ways: for data collections and tracking, and for keeping citizens safe. Before the pandemic, tracking and data collection were venomously protested. Not even a year ago, facial recognition software was being protested as biased. Yet, in order to slow the spread of Covid-19, many countries across the world have been using these same technologies to track possible exposures. For example, the government of Canada released a country-wide exposure tracking app, which uses Bluetooth to exchange codes with other phones. When a user tests positive, they can log their results in the app to inform other users of potential exposure. The amount of data stored is said to be minimal and securely encrypted, but that doesn’t change the fact that Canadians are agreeing to be tracked. This is something that many would not have thought possible before the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, tracking and data collection were venomously protested

Across the world and even in the United States, facial recognition technology is also being used to track the spread of Covid-19 and monitor those who have been exposed. In Russia, facial recognition technology is being used to monitor those in quarantine, ensuring that individuals are following the directives and staying inside. In conjunction with thermometers, facial recognition software can also be used to take temperatures, helping to diagnose those who may have the virus. Although it remains to be seen whether these technologies will stop being used after the pandemic, the fact is that they are already set up for use across the world. Although facial recognition has been seen as a violation of human rights, it is unlikely that cities will stop using the technology when the pandemic ends.

In order to keep individuals safe, smart city technologies have also been employed for delivery services, such as delivering groceries to infected individuals or pharmaceuticals to elderly patients. Drones have also been employed to communicate physical distancing and health regulations, as well as to deliver medical supplies. These innovations, as well as the overall increased reliance on technology, are helping people see the benefits of a connected city, where there is equal access to broadband and internet services. With more individuals working from home or engaging in remote learning, the pandemic has accelerated the need for access to the internet.

Transforming lives

It is predicted that — due to the post-pandemic uncertainties — future smart city technology will be more focused on collaborative, data-driven infrastructure for healthcare and public security services. This is because the pandemic has shown how important public safety is — and how vulnerable cities are to extreme outbreaks. Over the next few years, as we adapt to and overcome the pandemic, there will be a growing need for public safety initiatives to track crowds and their movements to ensure that we can quickly manage and contain future outbreaks. Having these systems in place can help ease citizens’ worries, which in turn will yield more support for smart city technology and data collection.

Greater data collection may upset citizens, but it does benefit governments, as it allows for smarter investments. By analysing how citizens move and interact, cities can understand what security measures are needed and where — such as increased lighting and cameras in dark areas. Having more data can also help determine where healthcare facilities are needed and if there is a greater need for mobilised healthcare, especially as we deal with an aging population.

Data collection could also drastically change the public transportation industry after deficits and layoffs have plagued it for the past year. Using data, cities can monitor bus routes to determine better infrastructure requirements or which areas need more routes. Overall, data collection helps cities make smarter investments that benefit citizens. Due to the economic impact of pandemic-related shutdowns, cities are facing severe budget constraints, which makes smart investment choices especially important.

The pandemic has shown just how important public safety is

Connectivity will be another important factor in smart cities. With education and work becoming remote, the divide between those who have and don’t have access to the internet and to technology is becoming more pronounced. In order to function in society — and to access critical resources — individuals need devices that allow them to access the internet. It is so important that it’s even been labeled as a human right by the United Nations. With the pandemic forcing many public spaces to close, such as libraries and restaurants, many low-income families or individuals experiencing homelessness have been unable to participate in educational opportunities, access resources, or stay in touch with their families. This has demonstrated that public internet access needs to be a priority in cities of the future.

Highlighting data’s advantages

As urban centres become more connected, the digital divide becomes greater — both in terms of access and digital literacy. After the pandemic, cities will need to address these concerns in order to see success with the adoption of smart city technologies. Local governments will also need to gain public trust by increasing data transparency. Although data collection is important for smart cities, public officials will need to highlight the benefit to citizens in order to see more widespread adoption. With smart city technology spending expected to reach US$327 billion by 2025, up from US$96 billion in 2019, there is no doubt that this is the way out of the pandemic and into the future. The concern is that these technologies need to be intelligently and safely used to protect and benefit citizens.