Singapore, Helsinki and Zurich have come top in the 2020 Smart City Index, in a year that saw many European cities fall in the rankings. The Smart City Index ranks cities based on economic and technological data, as well as by their citizens’ perceptions of how ‘smart’their cities are.
In collaboration with Singapore University for Technology and Design (SUTD), has released the 2020 Smart City Index, with key findings on how technology is playing a role in the COVID-19 era in a way that is likely to remain.
Hundreds of citizens from 109 cities were surveyed in April and May 2020 and asked questions on the technological provisions of their city across five key areas: health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities and governance.
Reflected in this year’s rankings is that cities have ever differing approaches to technology as managing the pandemic has become increasingly important in local politics.
We cannot ignore the impact of COVID-19. Those with better technology manage the pandemic better. Smart cities are not the solution, but technology helps.
It is also clear that the COVID-19 crisis is likely to widen inequalities between the haves and the have-nots of connectivity, both among and within cities. This is an aspect that will capture the attention of analysts and governments, both central and local.
“Smart cities closer to the top of the rankings seem to deal with unexpected challenges of the devastating pandemic with a better outcome.”
– Professor Heng Chee Chan, Chairperson, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, SUTD.
The growing importance of second cities
This year’s rankings also highlighted the ability of countries to develop cities beyond their capital. In the 2020 rankings, Bilbao fares better than Madrid, and Birmingham this year improved by 12 positions whereas London jumped just five.
Look at France. The Paris region accounts for a sizeable part of the economic activity of the entire country. But then look at the US, China, Australia or Taiwan, and second cities have become more important, sometimes more so than the capital.
As a signal of a country’s development, it’s important to develop those cities, and I recommend that policy makers promote competitiveness of second cities to improve the overall economic health of a country.
City economies like Hong Kong and Singapore, and to some extent the UAE, may be at a disadvantage because they are less able to develop second cities.
The economic conditions of a country are the foundations
Everything else being equal, smart cities help citizens more, the researchers concluded. But cities have widely different infrastructures to start with.
For this reason, in cities that are already highly developed, such as Zurich or Amsterdam, technology plays a marginal role as there is little to improve. By contrast, in cities such as Bogota or Mumbai, technology makes a big difference.
Therefore, the biggest changes in the ranking from year to year happen in the least developed economies as it doesn’t take much for citizens to perceive great improvement.
And so, technology is marginally more important in less developed countries. Therefore, African cities at the bottom of the ranking such as Abuja, Nairobi and Lagos, would do well to prioritise its implementation.
Major differences within countries
Smart is a relative term. Different cities use technology for different things. That might be preventing traffic, in the case of Paris, or improving citizen participation through offering free Wi-Fi in Ramallah.
Chicago has an ambitious technology plan based on hyper-connectivity; Abu Dhabi has an eco-friendly project and Birmingham is one of cities in the UK ranked best for mobility.
This is why we see vast differences in the smartness of cities within the same country. They differ in terms of their economies, inequality levels (e.g. access to health) and policies.
Countries are no longer economic units. Mayors and local authorities increasingly have the power to improve the wellbeing of citizens by implementing technology. The American city of Boston is a good example of how management of its city by its mayor makes a big difference.
In this ranking’s context, a ‘smart city’ is an urban setting that applies technology to enhance the benefits and diminish the shortcomings of urbanisation for its citizens. The ranking is the first of its kind in that it measures the perception of citizens in terms of the impact of technology on their quality of lives.
Other rankings that measure the ‘smartness’ of cities are typically driven by a specific industry and focus on types of technology.