Smartening Our Cities’ Infrastructure in a Post-Covid World

Posted by: Matthew Hoffer - Spire Strategy on Monday, May 25, 2020

The more things change, the more they stay the same. We are now 2 decades into the 21st century. This has given birth to a whole new world – the digital world. The way we work, collaborate and play have been fundamentally altered. Isn’t it time that our physical world caught up?

This physical world manifests itself most visibly in our cities. It is where, for the first time, more than 50% of the world’s population live.

Given the physical and financial impracticalities of rebuilding, the role technology can play has never been more important.

Our biggest asset is time, and cities infrastructure makes us lose a lot of it. From commuting to driving, from running errands to queuing, from planning journeys and waiting for connections, existing physical infrastructure can make us miserable and lose a lot of time in the process.

A New Strategic Model for Cities

It may sound oversimplified to say that technology is the answer, but…all of the tech that exists today is advanced enough, modern enough and smart enough to solve almost all of the daily issues we encounter in cities. So why doesn’t tech do just that? Because, as with any digital transformation, the main problem is not about the tech, it’s about strategy, people, processes and data. Transforming cities to make them ‘smart’ is no different.

Mayors can take the leap by figuring out what their cities stand for and what its value proposition for residents is (strategy), understand who they are serving, when, and how its employees are geared up – both knowledge and skills -- to meet the challenge (people), how the city’s regulations and ‘way of doing things’ (from accessing public transport to consuming information) can be reshaped to meet the challenge (processes) and how it understands and uses existing information to make more informed choices and predict scenarios going forward (data).

Reimagining the Mayoral Mindset of ‘What’s Possible’

Once and only when these have been figured out, should technology be considered. The good news is, on both fronts, these should and can be fast, iterative steps with quick feedback loops. Covid-19 has changed the landscape – quite literally – creating new networks and new ways in which we interact with each other. It has helped to accelerate the digital transformation imperative that already existed. Another major impact, of course, has been budgetary. This is why the biggest shift in thinking that needs to happen is to abandon the concept of ‘Smart Cities’ as a long-term, major infrastructure project costing upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars, towards smaller, iterative steps with quick feedback loops. The former takes upwards of 18 months. The latter happens within 5 weeks.

Adopting a strategic approach to technology perfectly lends itself to this new thinking and make the previously impossible, possible. For example, IoT will be the critical component in any Smart City/Smart Infrastructure play. Is IoT a technology? To be able to create an initial Smart City use case within 5 weeks, the answer is emphatically: No. 

IoT is a design language, not a technology. Mayors should look at their cities, understand what needs to change and reimagine how that change should happen. This should lead to radically different models of what their cities will look like and do. It is to these models that an understanding should be developed on what data to collect. That’s IoT:

    1. Figure out what needs to change
    2. Know what data to collect to make informed decision about how to change
    3. Apply IoT sensors to collect that data
    4. Enable AI to analyse that data to enable intelligent decision making and predictions

Explainable AI can explain how to turn Cities Smart

IoT is the bridge between data and real-time intelligence to improve infrastructure. AI is the engine that can analyse these massive amounts of data generated from IoT devices and connected systems to find patterns and augment human intelligence to improve decision making.

AI can improve automation, prediction and spotting pattern anomalies. Organisations with no AI strategy are akin to businesses with no Internet strategy in 2000 or mobile strategy in 2010. Cities are no different. And yet, for most, AI solutions are unexplainable. This makes adoption difficult.

Explainable AI makes every decision made by AI algorithm fully transparent and easy to understand for everyone, including non-technical users, helping to augment intelligent decision making. Benefits include:

  • Greater security: Processing in milliseconds, greatly reduces data-tampering risk
  • Greater resident experience: Real-time insights help improve the lives of residents 
  • Highly responsive: Edge AI (IOT enabled devices) process data with great speeds 

Cities have multiple use cases for AI-powered technologies, from maintaining a healthier environment to enhancing public transport and safety. There are many areas where Explainable AI can bring significant benefits, including:

  • Governance and Administration - Real-time surveillance, security, Object detection (crime detection, fraud etc.)
  • Transportation - Congestion, smart Parking, 
  • Environment and Sustainability: Energy management, Greener resources, 
  • Urban services - Intelligent City planning, better citizen experience.

In the context of Covid-19, high-impact use-cases of AI include smart working and sentiment analysis, all key issues for the betterment of resident lives.

Happy Residents

The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic is an unprecedented situation creating numerous challenges with shortages of staff providing information and updates to customers, employees, and partners. Policies and procedures are changing rapidly, and many governmental organisations are struggling to communicate updates to citizens in real time, understand resident sentiments, especially around issues such as taxation, benefits and government services.

Solutions include:

Key Insights and Sentiment AnalysisUnderstanding key issues and sentiments is of utmost importance in these current times, as most residents are sharing their experiences and expressing their views about services received online. Currently, there are no tools available to help cities actively manage and respond to these views.  We are deploying an intelligent and easy-to-use AI application to help organisations and cities understand the real-time flow of issues and sentiments, which augments resident experiences. 

AI to Augment Staff ProductivityShortage of staff is biggest concern for most cities, especially government authorities.  With just a few staff, digital conversational AI chatbots help organisations address citizen inquiries, provide consistent and immediate answers, and gain insights from the questions asked.

Smart WorkingEmployees who aren't used to working remotely have questions that need to be answered immediately, putting additional strain on internal support teams. AI assistants can help people to augment productivity with remote working and clarify issues quickly.

Smarten Your City in Weeks, Not YearsA discovery-to-delivery approach can result in Smart City use-cases being developed within weeks, not years, and at a fraction of the cost. Such a process of rapid feedback loops involves:

  1. Assessment and identification of problems.
  2. AI Proof of value solution for a use-case, to cater for immediate savings.
  3. Incremental AI solution, scaling-up with new features.
  4. Measure ROI and validate.


In this post-Covid-19 world, the imperative for cities to get smarter has never been greater. However, budgets are severely constrained. This should be no excuse for inaction. Drawing up an initial strategic plan can be done in under a week, whilst the first iteration of an IoT enabled technology product can be produced in a four weeks. Rather than wait 18 months, Mayors can already test-drive a first use-case that will actually make their cities smarter after just 5 weeks.

This article was co-written by Matthew Hoffer, Managing Partner of Digital Transformation advisory firm Spire Strategy and Raj Muppala, CEO at enterprise AI firm AInfinity.

Matthew Hoffer​

Managing Partner, Spire Strategy

+41 43 508 6547 | +41 78 401 6397

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