COVID-19’s Profound Impact on Smart City Buildouts

In December of 2019, to write the article, “Partnerships and Connected Technology Vital to Smart City Buildouts”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debra Lam, Managing Director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). We discussed its Georgia Smart Program (AKA: Georgia Smart) that was unveiled in 2018 with support from Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company.

Georgia Smart includes the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge, an award-winning funding and technical assistance program that is offered to cities, counties, and consolidated, city-county governments—of any size—in the state of Georgia on an application/award basis.  It empowers winning communities to envision, explore, and plan for their “smart” future through:

  • Up to $100,000 in grant funding–a number that has doubled since the program’s start;
  • Technical assistance and funding from a Georgia Tech researcher;
  • Access to a network of peer governments to share best practices; and
  • Access to a local, national, and international network of experts for advice.

Smart Cities Defined

Since not all smart cities are created equal, I started the conversation by asking Ms. Lam to provide Georgia Tech’s definition of smart cities.

“We define a smart city as a continuous improvement process—leveraging partnerships with research teams, regulatory bodies, utility companies, community supporters, technology providers and those who enable infrastructure buildouts—to position technology and technology integrations to improve the quality of life for residents in our communities,” she explained.  “With the power of analytics driving projects and tying technologies together, we work collaboratively to build custom, community toolkits with information and tools to address their biggest issues.”

With the why being all about improving the quality of life for residents and communities, and the how being technology, I found myself wondering how a pandemic year—2020—is impacting smart city programs like Georgia Smart.

COVID-19’s Impact on Smart City Priorities

Early in 2020, IDC predicted that the number of smart city projects would increase by 14% compared to 2019.  But in November of 2020, the GCN reported that investment priorities took a turn because of the pandemic.

For one, cities have been investing more than originally planned in smart transportation.

“With less money and more scrutiny on the allocation of new, spending on IT initiatives, some agencies are looking for solutions with a clear return on investment or that align with socioeconomic initiatives, such as reducing carbon emissions,” said Jean Pilon-Bignell, vice president of business development, government and smart cities at Geotab.

“Many governments are looking at how they can potentially make changes to become more efficient,” added Pilon-Bignell. “For example, many are using expensive legacy systems for monitoring, planning, and managing traffic operations. The majority of these systems are static and therefore only collect traffic information in set locations. While these systems worked for cities or transportation departments during more normal, pre-pandemic times, new and more versatile technologies are needed in our volatile, post-pandemic world.”

The other area where cities are investing more than expected is in the technologies to support hybrid, working models including:

·       Security

·       Data sharing

·       New Applications

·       Digital workflows

·       Videoconferencing

Technology Investment Increasing Despite Budget Shortfalls

Although the IDC says that 2,100 municipalities are reporting budget shortfalls of up to 20%, Ruthbea Yesner, vice president of IDC’s Government Insights and Smart Cities Division, says that IT budgets aren’t likely to decrease as much as overall budgets.

“IT is essential service, so everybody knows they can’t further cut IT, because IT is the thing that’s enabling all the operations,” she says.
Georgia Smart’s New Winners

As for Georgia Smart, the program is still going strong. It announced its third class of winners in August 2020 and include:

  • Clayton County “Smart Pedestrian Planning”:  Building a decision support system for transport project prioritization to promote mobility and equity, and to identify smart technologies to support walkability throughout the community;
  • Sandy Springs “Streamlining Suburban Transit”:  Developing a pilot, transit-signal priority system for the MARTA bus service through the use of an application programming interface – with the goal of reducing transit time for riders;
  • Savannah “Civic Data Science for Equitable Development”:  Building new, decision-making tools using a city data hub and analytics platform for programmatic outcomes for vacant and blighted properties; and
  • Valdosta “Traffic Monitoring and Communication System”:  Developing a smart-traffic, management system that will connect all 128 traffic signals in Valdosta for increased safety and efficiency.

“As an institution of Georgia, Georgia Tech is foremost committed to making our state better,” said Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera. “We’re very excited about Georgia Smart’s third class of winners, who will be able to use our preeminent research and technology to improve lives, livelihoods, safety, and equity — no matter their community’s size, population, demographics, or income level.”

Because COVID-19 isn’t the first or last threat to our way of life, all evidence points to smart cities, and investments in the technologies that enable them, as growing priorities. Award-winning programs like Georgia Smart, with major support by Georgia Power, provides a blueprint for other cities and utilities that want to positively impact the lives of residents and customers through smart city programs.

https://smartcities.gatech.edu/georgia-smart.

Dig Deeper

Learn More about Georgia Smart by Visiting https://smartcities.gatech.edu/georgia-smart.

Read “Partnerships and Connected Technology Vital to Smart City Buildouts” for interview with Debra Lam

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