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Smart City Programs Need to Become Mission-Oriented to Stay Relevant in the COVID-19 Era

Eric Woods
Jun 11, 2020

Connected City

What does it mean to talk about smart cities after the coronavirus outbreak? City priorities have changed dramatically in the last few months, and many of those changes will have long-term consequences. Accepted ideas on how cities are organized, managed, and monitored have been overturned. Cities are having to adapt basic operations to new conditions, including public safety, transit, healthcare, entertainment, retail, and waste management services. They must consider new rules on social distancing, effective ways public transportation can be used safely, and management of public events. In addition, there is the huge issue of depleted budgets and a reduced tax base that will constrict city investment options for years to come. Health, safety, and economic survival have become existential priorities for city leaders today.

Despite these urgent and unpredictable challenges, cities are laying out plans that go beyond the immediate crisis. The mayor of Milan—an early epicenter of the disease—was one of the first to outline a vision for the city’s recovery that included new approaches to mobility and air quality improvement.

Cities like Milan are showing a desire to rethink traditional operating models and an appetite to move forward in a spirit of renewal, regeneration, and innovation. They realize that they can rebuild better to ensure resilience to future pandemics, accelerate the shift to zero carbon cities, and address the glaring social inequalities in many cities. These aspirational priorities must be considered as cities deal with current existential threats; they are important to the future prosperity of cities, however challenging it is to embed them in rebuild programs under short-term pressures.

Mission-Oriented Programs and Doughnut Cities Can Enhance Resiliency and Relevance

If smart city programs are going to be relevant to the new challenges facing cities, they need to be oriented to these existential and aspirational priorities. Smart city programs were already shifting to a focus on delivering better outcomes rather than showcasing technologies. This development needs to be accelerated. One way of intensifying the focus on outcomes is to adopt what economist Mariana Mazzucato has termed a mission-oriented approach to addressing long-term societal challenges. Many of the characteristics of a mission-oriented approach are echoed in the best smart city strategies, particularly the call for cross-sector, cross-discipline approaches and the need to enable a diversity of solutions within the mission context. The ambition, drive, and focus of the mission-oriented approach brings a new dimension to smart city thinking—one that will be vital to supporting post-pandemic recovery.

Amsterdam has declared an ambitious post-COVID-19 economic strategy. It is embracing the bold social and environmental objectives involved in the development of a doughnut economy as set out by another orthodoxy-shaking economist, Kate Raworth. Amsterdam’s ambition is to be “a thriving, regenerative and inclusive city for all citizens, while respecting the planetary boundaries.” The Amsterdam City Doughnut—closely linked to Amsterdam’s strategy to become a circular city—is intended to provide a framework for cross-departmental collaboration within the city and across a wide network of city stakeholders and partners.

Embedding environmental and social transformation goals in recovery strategies also offers the chance to rethink the role of technology in supporting these priorities. To remain relevant, smart city solutions must participate in this new thinking.