May 14, 2020 - Technology

Coronavirus derails smart city projects

Animated illustration of a building with a light switch being flipped on and off.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Large smart city projects were getting a lot of attention and investment from city halls before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, those budgets have all but evaporated and priorities have shifted dramatically.

Yes, but: Some smaller-scale innovations could help cities as they fight to recover from the crisis.

Driving the news: Citing "unprecedented economic uncertainty," Google sister company Sidewalk Labs last week abruptly halted its high-profile bid to transform a formerly industrial Toronto neighborhood into a mini city of the future.

  • "Privacy became a lightning rod" in the Sidewalk Labs proposal, said Alex Ryan of Toronto's MaRS Solutions Lab. "The next proposal will be much less tech-centric and will involve other civic innovation that doesn't involve sensors and data."

The big picture: Local economies have ground to a near-halt due to the pandemic, and cities' precarious financial situations will force tough decisions about what services and products to fund.

  • "It speaks to the economic place we are in right now," said Brooks Rainwater, director of the National League of Cities' Center for City Solutions. "We’re seeing what could be a $250 billion shortfall in local governments year over year, so it won’t just be this year, it will be next year as well."

Still, some tech tools will likely play a crucial role as cities and companies look to open up offices, shops and public spaces over the next several months.

  • For example, dynamic curbs with lights embedded in the pavement — allowing an area to instantly switch between sidewalk and vehicle roadway depending on the time of day — could become much more common as cities look to extend pandemic road closures, Ryan noted.
  • Contactless entry and payment technologies are being considered for public places like transit stations. Autonomous drones may be increasingly used for deliveries and monitoring.
  • Companies are looking to use new digital tools like thermal cameras for temperature screening to help identify possible COVID-19 cases as workplaces reopen.

Be smart: Not unlike what Sidewalk Labs encountered in Toronto, cities need to be careful about technological solutions around reopening that raise privacy concerns.

  • Case in point: Just half of Americans say they'd participate in a voluntary coronavirus "contact tracing" program tracked with cellphones, according to the latest Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index.
  • That underscores deep resistance to turning over sensitive health information and mistrust about how it could be used.

The bottom line: "People are starting to flex their muscles and use this experience to be thoughtful about what kinds of technologies they do want to bring in, and not just experiment for the sake of experimenting," said Kelsey Finch, senior counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, during an Internet of Things Consortium webinar on smart cities I moderated last week.

  • "But we have to make sure we putting appropriate structures are in place, that decisions aren’t being made out of public view, and that we’e not trading more privacy than necessary," Finch said.
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