Cities had to get smarter faster than ever in the last 19 months as they faced the coronavirus crisis, the racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd, climate-related extreme weather events and more. But these rapid operational shifts may have some long-term benefits, according to attendees at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo last week outside of Washington, D.C. Smart Cities Dive editors asked attendees for their take on the pandemic's lessons or silver linings, as well as what misconceptions about the concept of the smart city remain a concern.
The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What good, if any, has come out of this pandemic for smart cities?
"It has shown us an extra dimension that needs to be paid attention to in terms of community and public health. It's such an important aspect of things. We haven't really considered that dimension very seriously [outside of] the public health domain, but now it's front and center." — Rajaram Bhagavathula, senior research associate at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
"The focus on the constituencies. What's best for the people? And that's a really good change as opposed to, 'What's best to my corporate constituencies?' or 'How do we make money?' I think there's a renewed focus on the citizens, and how do we hear from them, and how do we protect them, how do we get them the information that they need to make their lives better?" — Robert C. Patterson Jr., chief strategist and senior enterprise architect at Hewlett Packard Enterprise
"The ability to connect everybody and still increase efficiency and effectiveness of what services are being offered by municipalities. It has advanced connectivity, it has increased the communication and collaboration between city stakeholders, your citizen and your municipality." — Nicolette Reyhani, director of sales at Cocoflo Innovations
"We got forced to move things online. … And now people are like, 'Oh, this makes my life a lot easier, this is actually a lot more accessible, it gives me a lot of time back in my day, I want to keep doing it this way.' … Thinking back now about how arduous it was to get dressed, get in line, wait in front of a bunch of people, fill out the clipboard … [People] just want to do it online. … And I think now that so many people want it that way, cities have no choice but to provide it." — Matt Leger, research manager at IDC Smart Cities & Communities
"Things are just getting done in a much faster way — implementing new technologies and prioritizing budgets for a remote workforce. I'm hearing from a lot of software companies that they realize people are working from home, so let's give them what they need to do that." — Bar Asherov, head of sales for North America at Zencity
"It created so much more emphasis on all these ideas that sounded like science fiction to certain audiences for so long. ... I think everyone in these rooms at this conference is aware of what can be done through virtual connections and installing networks that connect people." — Chase Berenson, senior consultant at E-Source
"The cities themselves are figuring out how to work better on their public-private partnerships and understanding that they need to help figure out how companies can work with them." — Amber Cobb, director of partnerships at RIoT
"In the parking space, because people were not coming [downtown] and paying for parking, [nor were cities] enforcing parking downtown, they repurposed a lot of those spaces for parklets or outdoor dining, which is a really creative solution, and that was a positive benefit that came out of that." — Conor Kelly, director of enterprise solutions at Passport Labs
"It has been proven that when we as a people decide to beat a common enemy, we can do it, and we can do it very quickly, and we can rally and make it all happen and go through dramatic changes very, very quickly. And I think with that realization, let's go for the next big thing." — Paul Hoekstra, mobility business unit director at TNL USA
What's the biggest misconception people have about smart cities?
"It's not clearly defined. ... It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I think the misconception is sometimes how broadly the term is used and what exactly it applies to." — Conor Kelly (Passport Labs)
"You might talk to someone who says, 'Because I'm a police officer, my version of smart cities is having connected police materials,' or, 'Because I work for Parks and Rec, my version of smart cities is having better irrigation systems in the parks that understand how they are being used.' And really, it has to be all-encompassing and outside all of those silos." — Chase Berenson (E-Source)
"That it's strictly Internet of Things (IoT), meters, all that stuff. I think it's a catchall term for virtualization, modernization." — Jeff Martin, chief financial officer and co-founder of Cocoflo Innovations
"That [cities] always have to implement the newest technology. I don't think a smart city always has to be at the top of the game… I think a smart city is just one that is able to really understand priorities and say, 'OK, we're going to focus on this,' and gets it done and gets it done fast." — Bar Asherov (Zencity)
"Smart cities are not an off-the-shelf kind of thing that you can just buy and implement. Smart cities has to be a strategic mindset, a cultural implementation across the gambit of services and functions and infrastructure. It's all got to come together, and you've got to figure out a starting point. And then, based on that starting point, you kind of implement and build from there." — Robert C. Patterson Jr. (Hewlett Packard Enterprise)
"[That] Big Brother is trying to implement technology to keep an eye on you. … In fact, it's the complete opposite of that, it's using technology, using the data that's collected from the roll-out of that technology, to better serve you. It's about trying to implement technology to make your going to city hall a much easier, seamless experience." — Matt Leger (IDC Smart Cities & Communities)
"The biggest misconception is what to do with the data. … What do you do with that data when you have it, or what does a mayor do with that? Companies like mine, we try to help them understand how they can use [data] for situational awareness [or] decision support." — Frank DeFina, business development manager for urban environment, North America/UK, at Vaisala
"That the technology is mature and is ready to be deployed. In reality, there is a lot of good potential out there. What we want to see is, how do we effectively deploy [technology] so people can increase the quality of their lives, increase the efficiency of transportation? Our goal is to make sure we live up to the potential." — Rajaram Bhagavathula (Virginia Tech Transportation Institute)
"I think the biggest misconception is [that] we are not there yet to deploy at scale. … For each intersection, how do you analyze it? How do you model it? How do you test it? And how do you deploy it? If we are to do 100 or 200, we just do it like making cookies. We know exactly what to do." — Paul Hoekstra (TNL USA)