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UK smart cities need to advance in response to Covid-19

With 50% of the world’s population living in cities and 70% projected by 2050, in the wake of Covid-19, it is now more important than ever to stay ahead of the curve, says Global Data.

Many of the short-term fixes and even long-term cures envisaged for the illness of urban and wider society so vividly and exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic lie, at least in part and sometimes almost completely with ICT.

GlobalData forecasts the market for smart cities to grow from $458 billion in 2019 to $624 billion by 2024, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.4%, with the biggest growth coming from transportation, infrastructure, and grids.

Tony Cripps, principal analyst at GlobalData commented, “Creativity of thinking by UK cities and companies will be a necessity for managing the business impacts post-Covid-19, a fact that necessarily places the use of advanced ICT very high on what looks set to be a reinvigorated smart cities agenda.”

Naturally, building supply chain security and flexibility, focused on resilience and adaptability, have been among the highest ICT-dependent priorities both for cities and beyond during the respond phase of the crisis, along with access to a wide range of other citizen services that have largely had to switch to the online world due to lockdown. 

In the longer-term, large scale infrastructure projects will be a good investment vehicle once the country comes out of the crisis, creating further opportunities for ICT suppliers in and of itself.

This is already visible in the shape of projects such as High Speed 2 (HS2) and Lower Thames Crossing, both approved pre-Covid and both of which will generate significant opportunities for ICT suppliers in due course of time.  

The UK’s telecoms and Internet underpinnings need to be thought of more as critical infrastructure than as a patchwork of cutting-edge technologies papering over Victorian foundations. 

Cripps continued, “GlobalData has long advocated that reliable, fast and scalable broadband should provide the basis for any smart city and it is hard to think how the UK cities, or the country as a whole, would have coped without the level of service already provided.” 

The freight and logistics sectors are already coming under increased scrutiny as a result of the lockdown, with greater calls for the use of last-mile technologies such as drones and delivery robots, as well as autonomous vehicles, as a means to help enforce the social distancing.

Much of this enthusiasm is likely to come to nought after the outbreak is over as the environmental and safety cost of the mass use of drones and delivery robots is considered more thoughtfully.

However, that is much less likely to be the case in the realm of public transport, which was already sitting on the cusp of an ICT-induced revolution even before the coronavirus outbreak. 

Some cities are already deploying analytics for buses and other forms of public transport in order to enforce social distancing. But, while this may be seen as prudent, or even a necessity, in some cities or even countries as a whole – as well as lucrative opportunities for ICT suppliers – there is inevitable concern that such initiatives may see us creeping ever closer to the permanent expansion of surveillance powers, widely-feared by both civil liberties advocates and many private citizens through the use of technologies such as AI-enabled facial recognition. 

Cripps concluded, “Expect privacy and the data security of citizens more generally, to become not only a central precept of future smart cities conversations but also a huge political football (if it isn’t already) once the current crisis is over. 

“Technology’s role in bringing this about is going to be central as is the willpower of the government to make it happen. This is not a time for counting our blessings but for truly smart cities to finally be given life.” 

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