Cities have accelerated their digital transformation; will they be able to maintain it?

Posted by Marbenz Antonio on April 20, 2022

During the pandemic’s peak, city digitalization officials quickly changed the smart city plans they were progressively implementing to save lives, keep key services functioning, and save companies from going bankrupt.

They used their tools and personnel to make COVID-19 testing, immunizations, and emergency disbursements more efficient, and to deliver new services in weeks rather than months or years.

Some argue that the crisis has expedited ten years of transition and demonstrated the benefits of digital technology and data in addressing real-world issues. It also instilled a renewed faith in local government’s ability to innovate in the face of bureaucracy and limited resources.

As the epidemic progresses and cities consider the long-term picture, they must consider their current duties and obligations, as well as whether they can actually continue what they’ve started.

Some communities are nonetheless anxious about meeting up to new expectations while taking precautions to ensure that their expenditures and innovation programs last. This is exacerbated by the flood of ARPA and other federal monies, which cities are working hard to ensure offer advantages that are both financially and practically viable.

Where does local governance start and end?

One difficulty is that many locals began purchasing online for the first time during the outbreak. They now want their city to provide the same level of service and speed as firms like Amazon, and they may be disappointed.

Another factor is the broad variety of obligations cities have taken up throughout the pandemic.

According to Frank Martz, City Manager of Altamonte Springs, there are now some questions regarding where local government’s responsibility begins and ends, as well as what may be expected of them in future crises.

The difficulty for cities, he added, is to strike a balance between what’s achievable in terms of technical capabilities and the potential consequences on public confidence if financing, resources, or circumstances change.

Martz asked them to think about “whether you are putting yourselves in an unsustainable situation as a city.” And what does it mean for politics and everything else if you fail in that role? ”

More than money

Many communities supported small companies with grants, streamlined processes, and marketing programs using funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) and now ARPA.

However, because these funds are not recurrent, more effort is required to establish long-term resilience for maximum long-term effect.

During the pandemic, Raj Amin, Teem Ventures’ Founding Partner, assisted in the formation of a small business working group in the township of Montclair, NJ, comprised of volunteers with paid “day jobs” who wanted to serve their community during a tough time. The organization and its three sub-committees, with the mayor’s support but acting independently, gathered together small companies, non-profits, and community stakeholders to assist keep money moving locally.

The first focus was on gathering small company and community needs and communicating important information through a centralized email list, social media, and webinars.

Later, the group went on to promotional initiatives, such as the introduction of a “Shop, Eat, Repeat” campaign and the distribution of QR codes across the city to direct visitors to company websites.

The most recent phase focuses on a searchable ‘evergreen’ local company directory, which was built using grant funds and Teem Ventures’ pro bono resources.

The free self-registration directory has attracted more than 200 firms. Small business owners may utilize the ‘Small Business Spotlight’ to advertise forthcoming specials, link consumers to their social media channels and websites, and have their information published.

“This has been an excellent example of how to unify the town and demonstrated that we can marshal resources at a local level,” Amin remarked.

“It’s fantastic, but now that we have this energy surplus, we need to figure out how to keep this energy and innovation going.”

The organization is currently searching for additional methods to help the Montclair community, such as gathering more feedback from local business owners, increasing resident participation, building a long-term funding strategy, and assisting in the drafting of an economic development plan.

Building Capacity

Cities observed that some small firms lack basic digital abilities, such as having no website or using social media. Without the proper papers, cash-only businesses struggled to get help during the pandemic.

Going forward, addressing these concerns will be a top focus.

South Bend, Indiana, has developed a ‘digital storefront’ grant program to assist local companies in developing or improving their online presence and capabilities. To avoid small enterprises being “overwhelmed” by too many resources, the city is likewise focused on user experience. According to Denise Riedl, Chief Innovation Officer for the City of South Bend, this involves streamlining processes between agencies and combining as many applications as feasible.

Coral Gables has given a variety of training on digital literacy, cybersecurity, and e-commerce themes such as making the most of social media, online advertising, and new technology, in addition to microgrants and other forms of assistance.

Chattanooga’s Enterprise Center established a resiliency checklist in conjunction with the city and community partners to help companies, non-profits, and faith-based organizations better prepare for future disasters. The tool contains information to assist firms in obtaining the necessary documents, relationships, and skills, as well as learning about loans and grants.

Streamlined spending

With a rising desire to simplify expenditures and adopt a holistic approach, there is a growing push throughout the organization to use digital technologies and new financing.

Ubicquia is a multi-purpose smart city platform that works with existing lighting and third-party vendor solutions like cameras and license plate scanners.

The system and new apps may be implemented “in literally minutes,” according to Ian Aaron, the company’s CEO.

As cities try to reduce the digital divide, providing Wi-Fi for citizens is a key use case. The platform includes a number of ‘out of the box’ artificial intelligence applications, such as public safety video and traffic, pedestrian, and bicycle counts. Ubicquia has also developed unique AI installations to track unlawful waste dumping, garbage can usage, and micro-mobility device counts and whereabouts.

Typically, cities will begin with a small number of use cases and expand over time.

“On the same platform, we’re increasingly seeing numerous use cases across several budgets,” Aaron added.

“We can improve economics, speed projects, and deliver on the promise of real-time cities if we modify traditional thinking around how to fund, install, and monitor essential infrastructure,” he said.

Dallas is establishing two smart streetlight testbeds, each of which will test distinct use cases such as public safety and public Wi-Fi. This is being done in conjunction with a sidewalk repair and replacement project that will include more lighting to improve safety.

“We’ve found that the use cases are coming from different departments that all require new infrastructure, so the goal is to look at a single platform for the city’s sustainability,” said William Zielinski, City of Dallas’ Chief Information Officer.

Leaders agreed that the rise toward multifunctional platforms needs underpinning regulations for data-gathering systems, and many are already following in the footsteps of cities like Oakland, which have established oversight committees and standards.


Cities may use performance indicators to analyze their investments and make better decisions in the future.

The newest budget, according to Jeanne Holm, Deputy Mayor for Budget and Innovation in Los Angeles, was the “most progressive” in the city’s history, with $1 billion for homelessness and $1 billion for fairness and justice. It also includes money for the country’s largest guaranteed income experiment, as well as participatory budgeting, digital inclusion, and broadband.

In addition, the city of Los Angeles has begun a program that will redirect certain 911 calls about homelessness and other non-violent situations away from police enforcement and toward trained, unarmed mental health specialists.

According to Holm, her department is aiming to ensure that everything that is financed has performance criteria that department managers can report against and that are in line with the mayor’s goals.

Cities are creating dashboards for the first time to track how money is distributed, and spent, and the final consequences as they employ ARPA monies.

Scaling data

The pandemic has demonstrated the value of data in assisting cities in solving problems, from identifying COVID hotspots and recovery patterns to delivering assistance to people who need it most.

However, some cities are still having trouble persuading some agencies to share data, and others are worried about their capacity to maintain data initiatives as priorities alter.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Nitin Agarwal, Worldwide Lead for Smart Cities, emphasizes the necessity of shifting away from a siloed data strategy and toward a single platform that can enable integrated analytics and give greater value to data stakeholders sooner. As cities modernize their infrastructure and incorporate more technology, this is getting increasingly urgent.

“With a single platform, you’ll have all the data, and you’ll be able to monitor, manage, and control — particularly IoT applications,” he added.

“Once you have this, you can build all of the city applications on top of it, such as smart parking, smart transportation, smart garbage, and so on.”

The most important question

Through a holistic strategy underpinned by policies and an outcome-focused approach, the current influx of historic funds into US cities presents an opportunity to not only upgrade infrastructure now but also to improve communities for the long-term and transform city practices and culture in the process.

One of the first things business executives ask when they get ideas for innovative initiatives is, “How are you going to sustain it?”


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