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Smart city trend tracker: The top stories on SmartCitiesWorld in 2019

We round up our main takeaways from smart city developments in 2019. We’d love to hear yours.


As ever, 2019 has been another fascinating year in the development of smart cities around the world. Sometimes it can feel as if progress is painfully slow while occasionally you worry that things are ploughing ahead a little too fast before the groundwork is in place.


Reflecting on the year’s biggest stories and trends provides an interesting insight into the general direction of travel as well as the things to look out for in the coming year.


Rise in ransomware


For me personally, one of the most interesting developments has been the worrying rise in ransomware attacks against cities. The latest incident in New Orleans followed a new report which concluded that the US particularly was hit by an “unprecedented and unrelenting barrage” of ransomware attacks this year, with at least 948 against government agencies, educational establishments and healthcare providers at a potential cost of more than $7.5 billion. We expect to see more of the same next year, unfortunately, as well as more concrete action and collaborative work to boost protection.


The rise in cities prioritising and sharing their actions to combat climate change has also been noteworthy, spurred on, no doubt, by the “Greta Thunberg effect” as well as the gravity of the warnings. As cities lead the charge, the responsibility is massive but it’s no place for PR spin: we hope to see honest, open sharing of progress, strategies and support needed.


“AI will change the world and cities that master AI will get ahead. If you do not, you are at risk of being left behind.”


Finally, artificial intelligence could get more interesting next year. A report in September suggested that no city is fully prepared for the disruption AI will bring. NYC noted the need for an Algorithm Officer to oversee automation while Singapore launched its AI strategy, hailing the technology as “transformative”.


According to Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Republic of Singapore: “AI will change the world and cities that master AI will get ahead. If you do not, you are at risk of being left behind.” Will 2020 be the year cities really get cracking?


2019’s top 10 on SmartCitiesWorld


In the meantime, these were the most popular stories we covered on SmartCitiesWorld this year:

  1. Los Angeles moves legacy IT infrastructure to the cloud

In March, the city of Los Angeles announced it would undergo a major transition, moving from its LA-based mainframe to the California Department of Technology’s state data centre in Sacramento as part of a three-year, $10.5 million contract to modernise technology services.

LA’s CIO, Ted Ross, said the move would save money, better serve citizens and address the skills challenge of recruiting people to fill the jobs of the city’s rapidly retiring experienced mainframe staff.


This story addresses some core challenges many cities face, hence, no doubt, its popularity.

  1. Brussels halts 5G activity because of radiation concerns

Amid the usual 5G hype and hope, a notable, and perhaps unexpected, trend this year was growing dissent around 5G, with several councils seeing protests or concerns from a small but vocal minority of citizens.


In spring, plans to pilot 5G in Brussels were halted, pending clarity over measurement of strict radiation levels. In the UK, too, several local authorities stalled installation of 5G masts after citizen campaigns relating to health, aesthetics and more.


Eventually, the UK government took a stand, writing to all planning authorities setting out the government’s commitment to gigabit-capable networks such as 5G, the economic benefits of roll-out, the stringent safety guidelines, and also to make the key point that "only objections with legitimate grounds and evidence should prevent planning permission from being granted."


The government also plans to do more to clarify messaging around 5G and bust health myths.


Councils and telcos have also started to get to the nitty-gritty of rolling 5G out, investing in fibre foundations and figuring out the right infrastructure agreements and business models. This was a key topic we explored in our Smart IoT Connect event in London in September.


As 5G starts rolling out in cities around the world, we now look forward to seeing the promised benefits of 5G come to life.

  1. The rise of digital twins in smart cities

A digital twin is a virtual model of a physical asset, which collects information and applies advanced analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to gain real-time insights about performance, operation or profitability.


This technology is playing an increasingly important role in the creation of smart cities around the world and in addressing major public health, safety and environmental issues.


According to ABI Research, a move to holistic, real-time modelling of entire cities using digital twin technology is one of the five priority shifts cities need to make to adapt to a “new reality” where they face major threats such as cyber-attacks and climate change.

  1. These three transportation trends will define 2019


Unsurprisingly, transport continues to be one of cities’ priority areas as they battle to beat congestion and air pollution and to boost active travel and quality of life.


All the way back in January last year, Joe Boissy, CMO at Iteris, made three transport predictions for the year ahead, relating to federal policy for connected vehicles, last-mile solutions and public-private partnerships. See for yourself whether you think they came true.

  1. City scooters come to Helsinki

In March, Vuosaari, the largest district in Finland’s capital city Helsinki, announced plans to pilot a city scooter service with around 30 city scooter stations and 300 scooters. The service included both regular kick scooters and electric scooters.


Micromobility continued to be a hot topic in 2019. Although hopes remained high about the benefits these services can bring to cities, disruption and conflict about safety, licensing and more also persisted.


However, there seems now to be a clear commitment from both cities and the private sector to find positive ways ahead for the common good, with cities taking the lead in many cases.


For instance, Los Angeles announced the creation of Urban Movement Labs (UML) – which it says is a “first-of-its-kind” public-private partnership (PPP) to accelerate transportation innovation across the city.


Many cities can be described as being at a ‘tipping point’ and the decisions they take next are likely to have a significant impact on their future success.


The venture brings together stakeholders, including city representatives, citizens, the private sector and academia, to collaborate on new ideas, test them on LA’s streets and roll them out.


Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Office of Emerging Technology looks set to go ahead. The office will manage permit applications for technology-based services that use public infrastructure and judge applications on whether they “ultimately result in a net common good” as well as on costs and benefits. It will be interesting to see whether other cities follow suit.


  1. Smart cities: Beyond the hype

This report surveyed city officials and executives from telecommunications companies, system integrators and other suppliers to find out which smart city approaches are proving most successful, which vertical applications are being prioritised and what the challenges are to a truly integrated smart city.


It found that many cities can be described as being at a ‘tipping point’ and the decisions they take next are likely to have a significant impact on their future success.


With the majority of cities lacking an overarching strategy, the report raises concerns about how such an approach might impede the cities’ longer-term aspirations. It highlights the importance of breaking down silos and using an open digital architecture so data and commands can be shared across systems.


  1. Paris uses open source to get closer to the citizen

Almost all cities now talk about their smart city strategies in terms of citizen focus and benefits, rather than simply a technology drive. However, specific examples which show this in action are not always easy to nail down.


Nejia Lanouar, CIO, City of Paris, was able to explain clearly why taking an open-source technology approach allows her team to not only throw up digital services much faster and save money but to also create a better connection between the municipality and Parisians.

  1. Sidewalk Labs launches advanced infrastructure partnership

Alphabet-owned Google sibling Sidewalk Labs has rarely been out of the smart city headlines this year, from its partnerships with Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP) and Plaza Ventures to transform urban systems through technology to its controversial development in Toronto.


The world is watching for the outcome of the latter initiative which has seen intensive debate over data collection and management, citizen engagement and the role of the private sector in public spaces.


Almost all cities now talk about their smart city strategies in terms of citizen focus and benefits, rather than simply a technology drive.


Most recently, the Board of Waterfront Toronto unanimously agreed that Sidewalk Labs’ plan to create a smart neighbourhood in a disused area of Toronto’s Quayside district can proceed to more formal evaluation and further public consultation.


However, certain elements were significantly scaled back, including the amount of land, the oversight of data and the “lead developer” role.


A decision about whether to move forward with Sidewalk Labs’ plan will be made by March 31, 2020.


  1. Trend Report 2019: Mobility as a Service - Cities on the move

City leaders around the world are working to increase mobility as part of the overarching goal to improve quality of life in the places we live and work. Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) is central to achieving this.


MaaS brings together the various transportation options in a city – such as public transport, shared bikes, ride-hailing services and on-demand options – and allows citizens to plan their route, choose their preferred mode of travel and book and pay for everything via one app.


The goal is simplicity but the journey to MaaS is anything but, as we explored in this report which spotlights some early signs of progress from cities such as Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Manchester and Los Angeles.


A key question from a related roundtable that we held on the topic was whether cities risk ’missing the bus’ when it comes to MaaS.

  1. Las Vegas to get ‘first-of-its-kind’ high-tech $7.5 billion mini smart city

2019 has seen a range of flashy-looking greenfield developments announced, including Bleutech Park in Las Vegas. The $7.5 billion project is set to feature every buzzword going, from AI and autonomous cars to ’supertrees’ and self-healing structures.


Developers recently secured land for the “digital infrastructure city” and it is expected to take six years to construct.


Others to look out for include The Orbit in Canada, which aims to reimagine rural living; the US’ first from-scratch car-free neighbourhood in Arizona; and Malaysia’s Forest City.


It will be fascinating to see how many of these projects are realised as they were envisioned, how inclusive they are and how much they help improve their host cities overall.


What has been your main takeaway from 2019? Which developments did you find most noteworthy? What are you looking out for on the smart city horizon in 2020?