The challenges that have come with 2020 and the coronavirus have been brutal, and they’ve led many of us to question our ways of life, and the aspects of them we want to bring forward with us into a new, COVID-normal world.
In a relatively short period of time, we’ve had to deal with working from home, social distancing, loss of connection, and an inability to move around our cities and communities in the ways in which we’ve become accustomed to.
For those working in the smart cities space, we’ve needed to change our expectations, and adjust the projects we’ve been working on. Projects monitoring traffic, public transport and parking spaces have become less of a priority; while addressing the digital divide and enhancing connection within communities has become more urgent.
As with any change, there are challenges and there are opportunities. Here, we take a closer look at the opportunities presenting themselves in the smart cities and communities space in a COVID-normal world.
The rise of suburbia
One thing that has become clear over the course of this year is the fact that our communities, and our sense of connection with them, are going to become more important than ever. Demographer Bernard Salt is tipping the rise of suburbia as a key outcome of COVID-19:
“Neighbourhoods are springing into shape. New friendships are being made. Local retail strips are being rediscovered. A new appreciation for small, struggling businesses is inspiring an uncommon local loyalty. Bike paths and parks once rarely used are now navigated with all the care of a freeway drive. The suburbs are springing into life, and the locals are loving it.”*
In this new world order, local services and amenities are more important than ever. Communities are now placing a premium on being able to access better shops, cafes, shared working spaces and other services within close proximity to their homes. Many local government areas in Australia have already implemented apps which encourage and reward shopping for goods and services locally, and tools like this which enhance the suburban experience will be increasingly important in a post-COVID world.
Data is the new oil
We’ve all heard the expression “data is the new oil”. What this means is that data is now more valuable than oil – a statement that certainly rings true in 2020.
In recent years, the role of data in decision making has become increasingly important. These days, it’s unusual for a major decision to be undertaken without data, research or evidence to back it. And in the post-COVID era, where budgets are tightened and every investment needs to count, this will continue to be the case.
The collection of data will continue to be an important service in the smart cities and communities space, and equally important will be services that can analyse and interpret data to ensure the best decisions are made.
When Amen Ra Mashariki, the Global Director of Data Lab at the World Resources Institute, spoke at the Communities of the Future event in August, he highlighted the important – but often overlooked – fact that before you can use data, you need to know what the problem you’re solving is.
It’s critical that community and place makers look at what is happening in their communities, define the problems they want to address, and then work backwards to solve that issue with data and analytics.
The human side of smart cities
During 2019, the focus for conversations about smart cities and communities started to shift away from technology and towards people. There’s been a realisation that while tech is a critical enabler, what is actually at the heart of smart cities and communities is creating better places for people to live, work, play and be.
The events of 2020 will only serve to reinforce this ideal. According to KPMG, governments and councils are seeking to co-create solutions with communities to address local challenges, celebrate places and empower communities with the skills and tools they need to thrive in an uncertain future.
Companies that focus on how they can improve the human experience of our cities, towns and suburbs will be well placed to take advantage of this attitude shift.
The path forward
So what does this mean for those engaged in creating and delivering the smart cities and communities of the future?
It means that moving forward, despite the challenges and change – or perhaps because of them – there are some incredible opportunities to reimagine how our communities should look, and how we can make them smarter.
Opportunities to reinvigorate our suburban communities; opportunities to enhance the way we use data to improve outcomes for the people who live in our communities; and opportunities to embrace the human side of making places smarter.
And what do we mean when we say smarter? We mean creating communities that best serve the people that live in them.
Companies that move forward with this at the heart of what they are doing will be well placed to take advantage of the opportunities in the smart cities and communities sector in 2021 and beyond.