The global smart cities market is projected to grow to nearly $3.5 trillion by 2026, driven by investment in everything from connected street lighting systems to smart electrical grids.
The COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted global economies and supply chains, and some might thus expect public officials and company leaders to put the brakes on large-scale smart city investments.
Switzerland-based global electrical technology corporation ABB has a very different perspective and has been fieldling more inquiries than usual since the pandemic’s onset. Recent weeks have dramatically demonstrated how important it is for communities to be able to adapt and respond in the face of cataclysmic events, which requires them to have resilient systems in place.
“That’s the whole thinking about resiliency,” Marija Zima-Bockarjova, ABB’s smart cities and solutions research, development and marketing manager, said in a recent interview with PYMNTS. “Yes, this is a pandemic, and this was very tragic to many parts of the world, but it should provoke our thinking. … There are so many impacts that we’re dealing with that we need to be able to address and prepare for.”
ABB’s focus on smart cities is an outgrowth of its work in designing and building complex electrical systems, including entire grids.
A Renewed Focus on Smart Cities
Smart city initiatives around the globe are often built around using connected technologies for improving transportation, buildings, electrical power delivery and water infrastructure — an approach ABB has also embraced but with a focus on building “sustainable” versions of these systems in whole and in part in communities around the world. Deployment of these smart city initiatives tend to have an array of benefits, but there is no standard method to revitalizing existing infrastructure with connected technology.
“There is not one single recipe [that says], ‘That is a smart city, that is not a smart city,’” Zima-Bockarjova explained. “It’s a continuous evolution and journey.”
The pandemic has brought one aspect of smart city technologies to the forefront for many businesses and agencies: rethinking how connected building systems should be built going forward. Buildings are complex systems, involving the circulation of air, water and electricity. Smart sensors can ensure these resources are delivered cleanly and efficiently. Intelligence of Things (IoT)-based technologies can employ remotely operated sensors that help buildings maintain satisfactory levels of air quality and sanitation, which are key considerations as offices and shops reopen.
“We’re finding more requirements and requests for everything that has to do with health monitoring in buildings … and for the concept of resilient cities,” noted Michael Lotfy, senior vice president with ABB’s Smart Buildings Solutions department. “Digitalization has become more front and center. The market is adapting quite rapidly.”
Technology providers have already introduced solutions that can take employee temperatures before they are admitted into offices and other worksites.
“If a temperature is within the normal [range], you get access to the building, and it’s all tied to the building technology itself,” Lotfy noted.
This is not the only example of companies and agencies rapidly deploying IoT-based technologies to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis. Software providers have repurposed existing smart city platforms to help agencies manage hospital capacity and public safety resources during the pandemic. Other communities have turned to smart city technology to assess crowding levels and compliance with social distancing policies.
Adapting to a Post-COVID-19 World
These applications demonstrate how IoT is helping organizations adapt to some of the new realities of life amid the COVID-19 crisis. Such technologies may hold even greater promise in helping communities adapt as economies steadily reopen, however. IoT systems can be embedded in public transit systems to efficiently manage capacity while avoiding overcrowding, for example. Smart power grids can monitor and repair themselves and manage transmission due to damage or surges in demand. Robust communication platforms can help firms and agencies collaborate remotely, with more reliability and functionality than the ad hoc systems that were employed immediately after the pandemic set in.
Lotfy noted that smaller-scale smart technologies may steadily give rise to larger systems that can benefit entire societies.
“I think we will start to see significant leaps into having really connected cities and buildings in the city,” he said. “When I look at it, [it goes] from smart building, to smart mobility, to smart infrastructure. The awareness of energy sufficiency and sustainability will grow from big to small, from community to society to city and country. People will pay more attention [to] the impacts of energy consumption [on] the planet.”
The pandemic could force public and private institutions to grapple with these big-picture socioeconomic trends, whether they were prepared to do so or not. Zima-Bockarjova said this creates an opportunity for officials to assess the sustainability of underlying infrastructure systems and reliance on fossil fuels — another sector of the economy the pandemic has shifted.
“It is clear the growth in electric power consumption is much faster than any other,” she said. “It is forecast that electricity will be the oil of the future — it will grow faster than demand for oil.”
The pandemic has also prompted institutions large and small to think about how they are connected to each other and the technical infrastructures that support them.
“We tended to think before COVID-19 that we are invincible, that we have the technology to tackle everything,” Lotfy said. “And then this small, tiny virus just made us all stay home. This could lead to a resilient city that can tackle not only a virus outbreak, but other challenges that might come in the future. I think it will give us a lesson that we really always needed: Always prepare for the worst of things, which we did not do in the past, and really take more care of our planet and environment and the communities we live in.”
These are important concerns for communities and entities looking to build smart cities and add IoT technologies to their infrastructures. Those that do embrace connected technologies will not only be better prepared to weather the rest of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the future and any challenges it might bring.