May 14, 2020 - Technology

Coronavirus derails smart city projects

Kim Hart, author of Cities

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.

Go deeper

Increased armed presence planned for D.C. tonight

Demonstrators stand around a fire during a protest near the White House in response to the killing of George Floyd. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Government officials say plans are in place for a significantly heavier armed presence on the streets of Washington, D.C. tonight in response to the increasingly violent protests linked to the death of George Floyd.

What we're hearing: "Tonight you will see increased presence, both police...other agencies, and National Guard presence," a source familiar with the government's plans said.

Updated 41 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 4 p.m. ET: 6,226,408 — Total deaths: 373,973 — Total recoveries — 2,672,161Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 4 p.m. ET: 1,799,747 — Total deaths: 104,702 — Total recoveries: 444,758 — Total tested: 16,936,891Map.
  3. Public health: Nearly 26,000 coronavirus deaths in nursing homes have been reported to federal health officials —Coronavirus looms over George Floyd protests across the country.
  4. Federal government: Trump lashes out at governors, calls for National Guard to "dominate" streets.
  5. World: Former FDA commissioner says "this is not the time" to cut ties with WHO.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: The virus didn't go away.

New York City to impose curfew amid ongoing protests

Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

New York City will be placed under curfew on Monday from 11pm until 5am Tuesday morning following days of protests over the death of George Floyd, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday.

The big picture: Demonstrations in New York, like in cities across the country, turned violent over the weekend as protesters clashed with police late into the night. The number of police officers on the streets of New York will double from 4,000 to 8,000.