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Covid-19: the catalyst for smart city transformation

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/ jamesteohart)

Covid-19 has highlighted the need for improved digital infrastructure. And smart cities have been thrust to the top of the government’s agenda.

These urban environments will integrate physical, digital and human systems and deliver superior outcomes for citizens and businesses alike.

They’ll lead to instant mobility, social opportunities, business prosperity and greater sustainability of resources. They’ll respond to new needs thrown up by Covid-19. And they’ll be pivotal in accelerating the UK’s economic and societal rebound – evidenced by research from the World Economic Forum.

But two key developments must take place before this can happen.

First, we must equip cities with connectivity infrastructure that can handle the data explosion.

And second, we must build a truly collaborative ecosystem, where different players can come together and create cohesive, innovative solutions that make a difference.

1. The data explosion

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050.

By 2030, the world will host 43 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants. But this has raised important questions. How can people move around quickly? How can they live together safely, find opportunities, and enjoy a healthy and sustainable environment?

Covid-19, too, has created unprecedented challenges for cities. Policymakers now need to think about public safety measures alongside economic growth and sustainability.

Local authorities are already exploring new technologies. Body temperature scanning, and touchless points in lifts and shared spaces could soon be commonplace. Open office structures are being revised for transmission control. But these features – which are evolving to meet the threat of Covid-19 – all rely on flexible, agile and resilient infrastructure. 

Local authorities need to enhance core networks. These will be crucial in monitoring and controlling transport systems and public spaces, ensuring potential future lockdowns can be enforced and that electric and autonomous vehicles can be supporting, helping people to travel safely.

This is easier said than done. Local authorities face the challenge of introducing change without ripping out legacy infrastructure. They need to avoid disruption for local people, businesses and public services. Data collection and sharing must be standardized, so all parties involved in smart cities – governments, the private sector, regulators – can work together seamlessly.

They also need to consider how they will deploy the critical technology in smart cities: 5G.

Deloitte has rightly called 5G the “critical blood vessel” of urban development, which will drive the next stage of IoT development. Introducing it effectively relies on getting the right connectivity infrastructure in place to handle the data explosion. Supplying high bandwidth and low latency connectivity, across all areas of the country, will be essential.

What specific infrastructure technologies do city authorities need to look at? Two examples stand out.

National high capacity services will dramatically increase the provision of fiber-optic coverage across the country. They will help both public and private organizations access high bandwidth and lightning-fast speeds at low latency —accelerating the adoption of 5G and smart city innovation.

Dark fiber will also be key to facilitating 5G networks and increasing connectivity across cities. It will empower organizations and public services to exert more control over their network speeds and response times, giving them the tools to improve their infrastructure in a way that suits their needs.

Both technologies bring flexibility, agility and resilience, and are simple to set up – meaning that city authorities don’t have to rip out their existing infrastructure entirely and they can minimize disruption for local businesses, services and residents.

Around the world, we’ve seen Santa Cruz invest heavily in its dark fibre infrastructure  to unlock powerful high-speed Internet access for its residents. We expect to see UK cities follow its lead as smart city planning ramps up following the pandemic - but only if innovation is underpinned by a collaborative spirit.

2. The collaboration conundrum

Smart city innovation relies on open collaboration between different stakeholders, even if they’re from the same industry. Co-operation between governments, the private sector and regulators is essential to accelerating innovation.

Organizations often have their own specific needs and visions when it comes to smart city innovation, and this can lead to clashes. There is also the question of security, which relies on every player in the smart city ecosystem sharing expertise and working to achieve a standardized approach preventing vulnerabilities.

PwC has come up with a way in which the relationship between the stakeholders within smart cities can grow and facilitate smart city evolution.

It recommends a three-tiered approach, starting with traditional contracting structures between public entities and private sector providers to build base infrastructure. The second step is about facilitating the development and deployment of additional services on base city infrastructure, such as mobile transit payment cards. The third is about building a digital ecosystem in and around these core systems, creating new products and opportunities for business and government alike.

The wholesale connectivity sector is a naturally collaborative environment. Providers and channel partners come together to identify the technologies that end-customers – governments, businesses – need to innovate.

It therefore has a critical role to play in every stage of smart city development. It must help to develop digital infrastructure that’s fit for purpose, delivering resilient, flexible and agile network services at scale.

And it needs to be sharing its connectivity expertise with every stakeholder.

3. Realizing the smart city ambition

Smart cities were already a priority for local authorities across the UK, but the pandemic has heightened their importance.

Covid-19 has changed the way populations behave and interact forever. It has created new needs for social distancing and public safety on top of its devastating economic impact.

Cities now face the dual challenge of keeping people safe and achieving a swift economic recovery. This can only be achieved by investing in technology to give businesses, public services and local people the connectivity they need to thrive.

And this gives wholesale connectivity providers and their partners an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of our cities – sharing expertise, encouraging collaboration and ultimately giving urban authorities the infrastructure they need to lead a digital revolution.

Dale Parkinson, Sales Director at Wholesale, Virgin Media Business