How responsible use of data and technology will shape the future of cities

By Will Barkis | April 2, 2021

Editor’s note: Data, digital transformation and technology use in cities now and coming out of the pandemic will be the focus of the upcoming “Data and the future of cities” virtual event that Orange Silicon Valley will host on April 7. Guests will include Joy Bonaguro, the Chief Data Officer for the State of California, Julie Lein, Managing Director of the Urban Innovation Fund, and Joe DiStefano, co-founder/CEO of the startup Urban Footprint. See the official event page for information on how to register.

The science fiction writer William Gibson famously said that “The future is here; it is just unevenly distributed.” What does that future look like with respect to the meaningful and responsible use of technology in cities, both now and as we emerge from the pandemic? Looking ahead after the events of 2020 and 2021, three trends are predominantly shaping the post-pandemic future of cities:

Everyone—governments and elsewhere—are being forced to respond to the pandemic by digitally transforming and information and communication technologies are now considered essential.
The technology industry continues its rapid, sometimes exponential, rise.
The pandemic has refocused our priorities.

So what are the implications of the interactions of these three trends for decision-makers who fund new technology deployments in the years ahead?

What’s essential

In 2020, the world adapted to conditions under the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerating the adoption of remote teamwork and learning, sales and customer service, and even security practices—all thanks to the adoption of cloud-enabled tools and other technologies. McKinsey & Co. reported results from a survey that showed companies had accelerated their digital transformation efforts by seven years in less than a year. In Q2 2020, Zoom joined Pokémon Go and TikTok as the only apps to be installed over 300 million times in a single quarter. Even our language has been forced to race to keep up with the explosion of pandemic-related neologisms such as “zoom fatigue,” “social distancing,” “bending the curve,” “you’re on mute,” “WFH,” “the new normal,” and more.

The reality of “lockdowns” and working from home has meant that local and regional governments have been forced to be innovative simply to keep functioning: Cities have had to digitally transform to continue providing essential services to their residents. They have also adapted to the need for new services to address the pandemic: testing, hospitalization rates and capacities, changes to cleaning protocols and logistics, contact tracing, phased closing and opening of businesses and schools, equity metrics, vaccination, and so much more. This pandemic has presented many challenges at all levels of society, and digital technology is proven itself essential to addressing many of them.

Meanwhile, the question of responsible next steps is not just limited to governments but extends to organizations of all kinds that have undergone massive digital transformation in response to the pandemic. From businesses, to schools, to libraries, to restaurants, and to grocery stores, digital technologies were essential for continued operations and organizations have been forced to transform and innovate just to survive. Finally, individuals—we and the residents of our communities—have also undergone a massive digital transformation to access our doctor appointments, children’s schools, and workplaces. Across the US, 43% of workers are working remotely. In tech-heavy regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, that share reached 60%.

In practical terms, the pandemic has put the focus on essential products and services. Information and communication technologies are now considered, even more so than before, essential. ICT is a must-have not a nice-to-have. Cities have been in the process of becoming cyber-physical systems for some time and that change accelerated in 2020. What this means for the future of commercial real-estate in cities or the future of the workplace is unclear—and beyond the scope of this blog piece. For instance, a new survey by KPMG shows most major global companies no longer plan to reduce their use of office space after the pandemic. Just 17% of chief executives intend to cut back on offices, down from 69% in the last survey in August.

The most important take away for the future is that all of that digital transformation—of government, of organizations, of individuals—is now a platform that we can build on for the next stage of smart cities.

The technology industry’s rapid rise continues

Silicon Valley showed no signs of slowing down. 2020 was a record year for venture capital at $46 billion, fueling a record 67 megadeals in Silicon Valley and 41 in San Francisco. In aggregate, Silicon Valley and San Francisco companies increased market capitalization by 37%, reaching nearly $10.5 trillion by the end of the year. Innovation thrived, making major advances in technology. OpenAI’s GPT-3 language model was released in June 2020 with 175 billion parameters and the ability to generate text that is so high quality that it is difficult to distinguish from text written by a human. Forbes called it “the most important advance in AI in years and the largest artificial neural network ever created by 10X. Alphabet’s DeepMind announced that it had solved the 50-year-old grand challenge of the “protein folding problem” cutting the job down from months to hours which could speed up drug discovery. At the end of 2019, Google achieved “Quantum Supremacy” by demonstrating that its quantum computer was the first to perform a calculation that would be practically impossible for a classical machine. High-speed, low-latency 5G connectivity is being deployed widely. The Internet of Things continues to grow through improved sensors, data analytics and ever-better connectivity such as LoRaWAN and NB-IoT. And the list goes on.

My favorite quote that I think gets closest to giving a sense of how big an impact these technologies are going to have on humanity is from Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai. Speaking at the World Economic Forum last year he said that: “AI is one of the most profound things we’re working on as humanity. It’s more profound than fire or electricity.” Let that idea sink in.

Keith Strier, VP Worldwide AI initiatives at NVIDIA, put it in more practically, though still in expansive terms at the Hello Show by Orange Silicon Valley in October 2020: “Harnessing the full spectrum of artificial intelligent and automation technologies will impact every segment of the economy—impacting how we live, how we work, how we play, how we care and connect with others, how we explore new worlds, and how we govern this one. This revolution is playing out in our cities, in our health systems, in our schools, in our shopping malls. It is pervasive. It is expansive.”

The amazing thing is that for as far along as it feels like we are with information and communications technology—going back to the microprocessor, “Personal Computers,” the Internet and the World Wide Web, smartphones, Web 2.0, and beyond—we are only at the dawn of exponential technologies like AI and robotics. We are nowhere near the second half of the chessboard. I will go one further and say this. Externalizing intelligence and using it in collaboration with our own intelligence will likely be the greatest problem-solving tool humans ever invent. This is why studying the “AI City” concept and what AI means for products and services in the city context is so important. The same can be said for 5G. Ditto for the Internet of Things. In looking at multiple variables and the future of cities, the group of variables is becoming a very large set.

There are still a number of fundamental questions we need to address with respect to data in the city context to take advantage of these advances in technology:

How do we design our systems, policies and cultures to get the balance right between making people’s lives easier, safer and convenient while also respecting their privacy and their expectations around the use of their data?

How do we make sure that products and services are provided in responsible ways, both fairly and equitably, especially as digital services become essential for learning, working, playing and staying connected to family and friends? How do we embed ethics within every aspect of the research and development and deployment of technology in our communities? There are an immense number of different dimensions surrounding the ethical creation and use of technology including the culture and community of people creating that technology. How do we ensure innovation has a “human inside”?

How do we practically and tactically make sure that we get the most benefit out of our data while minimizing the negatives? Are there data governance models such as “data trusts” that can enable getting the optimal value out of data? The MIT Technology Review just published an interesting piece on them in the latest issue. Are there data infrastructures or algorithmic design such as performing computations on encrypted data to mathematically prove privacy?

Are there standards or frameworks that we can establish to enable more scalable deployment of smart cities or internet of things technologies? They say that all politics is local and one offshoot of that is that every city almost has its own operating system. How do we build layers of abstraction that create common operating systems for cities?

The pandemic has refocused our priorities

Contrast those developments with the reality facing cities in the midst of our global pandemic. The National League of Cities recently released the results of a survey with responses from more than 900 US cities showing that the average US city had a 21% reduction in revenue (tax revenue) and a 17% increase in costs. Cities are faced with the challenge of not laying people off amidst budget shortfalls while still providing the services needed in their communities. And as I pointed out above, many of these services are directly related to the challenges of the pandemic itself, such as testing, vaccination, contact tracing and more. Peter Ambs, the CIO of the City of Albuquerque, said before the pandemic that, “The key goal [of IT] is to keep the City in good financial condition through prudent management of assets and liabilities.” In many cities, that is even more true now than it was then.

Stepping back to a more fundamental level – and I think I am not alone in feeling this—the pandemic has challenged me on a personal and familial level – to question my own assumptions and personal values and family values: what is truly “essential” to me? What does it mean to have a partner, my wife, who would work extra shifts in the Intensive Care Unit for COVID-positive patients? How would we balance the education of our children with their – and our and my wife’s patients’—personal safety and health? How do you maintain important loving social relationships with friends and family and neighbors and co-workers and really your whole community in the face of “social distancing”? What really matters to you and why? I think a lot of us asked ourselves those questions this year—consciously and sub-consciously.

And I don’t know how to articulate the answers that I arrived at other than to say people are important and community is important and a lot of the non-essential stuff hasn’t been a big part of my life this year I guess. The essential stuff is essential and the non-essential stuff is non-essential: I guess that is a bit of a tautology.

Building back up off of that train of thought, I think some of the major city-level changes we are going to see over the next few years relate to our collective answers to the questions about values and essentials and how we want to live in our cities and communities as we explode out of our hunkered down “socially distant” lives of the pandemic. Many cities opened up outdoor dining areas when inside dining was closed. Car parking was taken away to provide more boulevard space for restaurants and bars and physically distant walking space. The “safe streets” movement took off, closing off some streets within each neighborhood to not allow through traffic so as to make a safe space for people to walk and bike and stay physically distanced has led to a lot of people really getting outside more in their communities. Bike purchasing has absolutely exploded in the US and Europe. I am sure those trends are just the tip of the iceberg and maybe Joe DiStefano, Founder and CEO of UrbanFootprint can probably take us to a whole new data-driven level of understanding there. One of the major challenges of understanding what is likely to happen post-pandemic is understanding the long-lasting changes to human behavior the pandemic has made and which things will revert back to how we were before.

I do think the interplay of these changing priorities and technology developments relates back to the very definition of “smart cities”. I helped craft the definition of smart cities that Former San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee put forward when he co-chaired the US Conference of Mayors committee on Technology and Innovation: “Smart Cities are locally-defined with common features including resident-centric services, a focus on problems based on community needs and priorities, data-driven processes, and sensors and connectivity.”

For 2021, I still think the emphasis is on “locally-defined” but I would say there are certain key priorities that many cities in the US are facing:

1. COVID-19

2. The economy and jobs

3. Equity including racial justice

4. Climate action

From now until the pandemic ends and COVID-19 drops to a background endemic level, I think that “smart cities” products and services need to address the fundamental fiscal reality and challenges cities face and focus on those four fundamental priorities to make an impact in 2021. Innovation that addresses those problems will be prioritized over “advanced” or “emerging” use cases. To twist the old expression, “It’s COVID and the economy, stupid.”

Finally, to bring it all together, here is my prediction for the future of cities. The years of digital transformation that COVID-19 compressed into weeks and months—for people, organizations, and governments—will serve as a platform for significant advances in deploying digital services in cities. Much of this may look like the trends in big data, cloud computing, containerization, dev ops/no ops, and other technology areas that have been changing organizations for years and will continue to do so for years to come. Data will be at the core of all of these developments and there is no question that data is going to play an increasingly essential role in the future of cities.