Originally published in Cities Today.

The world has changed significantly over the past year. We’ve experienced unimaginable loss and uprooted traditional ways of working. It has also ushered in a new era of digitisation where technology is responsible for everything, from keeping us connected to keeping us safe. It’s something that governments have taken notice of, helping municipalities realise the importance of a smart, connected city.

During the pandemic, smart city technology was used for data collection and tracking, and for keeping citizens safe. Moving forward, municipalities will be able to look towards smart city technology for everything, from improving sustainability to increasing street safety. Smart city technology spending is even expected to reach US$327 billion by 2025, up from US$96 billion in 2019. But how can municipalities start to implement technology to improve the experience and safety of their citizens?

We’ve outlined the essential elements for a smart city.

Public-private partnerships

Technology is the backbone of a smart city. Unfortunately, it’s not the backbone of all governments. That’s why leading smart cities are using startups and global technology forerunners to develop the infrastructure needed to upgrade their city.

For example, in New York City, NYCx was developed to create opportunities for businesses to collaborate with the government on persistent problems seen throughout the city — such as homelessness, traffic, and income inequality — and find ways to fix them. Unfortunately, many municipal governments are uncomfortable with the implications of working with corporations and may hesitate to collaborate.

When looking into partnerships with corporations, it’s important to first understand the demands of your city. Are you looking for systems and tools to manage transportation and traffic? Do you need sustainable offerings? Understand the “why” of the technology to ensure that vendors can meet those goals.

Second, it’s important to select organisations that have experience complying with government policies. There are many privacy implications when working with governments, and technology vendors should understand those limitations in order to develop effective solutions for smart cities.

Secure data collection

In developing smart city solutions, there’s a delicate balance when it comes to smart data use.

On one hand, data is required to recognise which problems exist and to monitor whether solutions are working. A system needs to be in place to share information and analyse contextual data in real-time.

On the other hand, there’s citizens’ privacy concerns. As the world becomes more connected and digitised, cybersecurity attacks become more common — in fact, they rose significantly during the pandemic as more people moved to remote work. Governments working to implement smart city technology must prepare to manage data collection while controlling access.

When building out the infrastructure for smart city solutions, governments need to prioritise secure data collection. This means managing the accessibility, making sure that there are limits in place for who can view citizen data. This requires improving security, including creating secure encryption. It also means teaching teams and users accountability, and how to interact with secure systems.

Digital literacy is still a relatively new concept, so government employees, as well as private sector employees managing these technologies, must be educated. Finally, data has to be accurate and without manipulation to ensure that the correct information is being analysed for meaningful solutions and results.

Smarter governments

If governments themselves aren’t technology-savvy and digitally transformed, how do they expect to create smart cities? That’s why smart cities technology should also extend into smarter strategies to run our government services.

Governments need to look into ways to digitally transform their services and collect data to drive smarter decision-making. By 2022, half of all government digital transformation will include a citizen experience metric to ensure that services delivered are citizen-centric.

Prioritising citizen-centric solutions should be the next step in creating digitally-savvy government services agencies.

The future is smart

Before the pandemic, there were many smart city successes — and failures — to learn from. But post-pandemic — with citizens expecting more from their governments and relying increasingly on technology — smart cities will become an important facet of a sustainable, safe environment.

Municipalities need to start considering their goals for connected, intelligent, data-driven city infrastructure, and work with technology providers, citizens, and other governments to implement successful solutions.