Technology and smart city adoption during COVID-19
Silvia Brunetti
21 May 2020

In a world crushed by a global pandemic, with suffering retail ecosystems, the possibility of voice-enabled contact-free technology, autonomous deliveries, health data monitoring feels very relevant. In this blog, we will discuss the new technologies that enable smart cities and their implications, especially in the context of a global pandemic.


The concept of smart cities is quite broad and complex, in a nutshell, a smart city leverages technology to improve efficiency and connectivity. Whether it’s air quality, transportation, disaster response or more simply finding parking, or opening doors without your voice, the objective of a smart city is to improve people’s lives by making things faster, more effective and promoting a better usage of resources.


Smart homes and cities are here now and may rapidly accelerate as a result of the pandemic.


Our global multi-phased research study, Retail Revolution, created to track perceptions, adoption and usage of smart technologies, showed that in smart homes across the world, people are already using several smart technologies. 23% claim to own smart lighting, 29% a smart speaker and 48% a smart TV. We are now seeing early evidence that we will see growth not only in terms of device ownership but also in terms of usage driven by the implications of Covid-19; more time at home, a need to control and understand our environment and to track health in real-time. A recent UK study showed that 50% of people are using voice more during the lockdown, some are experimenting with new uses, and 40% predicted continuing to use voice more in the future. Highlighting that, voice-controlled technology is likely to grow even further in the next few years as new behaviours become ingrained into people’s routines.


Beyond smart homes, many cities from Copenhagen to New York are already using smart city features such as open data systems and interconnected sensors to improve citizens’ lives. For instance, Seoul built a big-data platform powered by a large system of sensors which integrates information from all government organisations, hospitals, financial services, mobile operators and other services to improve decision making at the local level. Its “Citizens as Mayors” smart city philosophy empowers everyone, citizens, policymakers, but also businesses to access and use real-time data.


This structure has already proved to be quite agile and useful in managing the pandemic as the centralised administrative data system, combined with a mobile app, was used to alert citizens of potential contagion threats. A sophisticated AI-powered warning system, in fact, tracked people’s movements and symptoms and displayed the anonymous info on a public dashboard, down to visited restaurants and cinema seats numbers, which is an invaluable source of information both for people, public health officials and businesses.


There are many examples of smart technologies that are currently being used to address the challenges of the pandemic, and this is not only concerning authorities but also businesses. Some retailers in China are using thermal imaging cameras and face recognition technology to identify and screen people from accessing stores. Similarly, Amazon is now trialling an AI system to enforce social distancing at its warehouses, and Uber is trialling facial recognition to monitor drivers wearing face masks.


AI-powered systems, IoT, and their interconnections with open-data systems are at the core of Smart cities and of the global response to the pandemic. They encourage communication, connectivity, system efficiencies and coordinated action at a local level. However, they also present challenges in the context of data privacy and security. With more and more governments and businesses around the world, considering the implementation of smart technologies and surveillance systems, the privacy question is real.



From top-down to ground-up.


Smart cities have always resonated with a more top-down model focused on regulation and control. And this is still the case with many smart city projects running into community opposition from local residents who object to companies and governments’ approach to privacy and intellectual property.


Seoul’s contact-tracing app has been somewhat challenging from a privacy perspective. Even though the data is anonymised, the granularity of the data published lead to revealing people’s identities and details of their personal lives which, in some cases, led to online harassment and social stigma.

Many companies are now rushing to implement tools to monitor symptoms, but experts warn they can be inaccurate and violate privacy.


The world is rapidly changing, and so are people’s fears, expectations, attitudes and opinions, which is opening new opportunities to implement novel technologies and systems. In a recent EY study, 53% of respondents claimed that they would be open to sharing personal data to help monitor and track an infection cluster. Nonetheless, we also know from our Retail Revolution research that more than half of people interviewed expressed concern for how much data is being collected by new technologies and around 65% were worried about the privacy implications. The recent shift in attitudes and behaviours means that some might be open to give out more than they normally would in response to a situation of emergency, yet, this doesn’t mean that their fears and perception of data collection and privacy have changed altogether.


Implementing any of these systems will require engagement from a large proportion of the population, but if people don’t feel meaningfully motivated, consulted or secure, there will be resistance. We must be careful with people’s trust, as the old saying goes, trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair.


How far are we and should we go with data collection and tracking? What are people willing to sacrifice now and in the future for the purpose of efficiency gains, ease and a sense of security? What happens to the data being collected? Will we ever be able to turn back the clock? These have, to date, been theoretical questions of niche interest, but will soon necessarily be practical questions, of global interest.


Capitalise on the opportunity while keeping consumers’ needs at heart


This moment in time is both an opportunity and a risk, on the one hand, it could fast-track the rate of adoption of certain technologies and increase pressure on different systems to innovate and deliver better services for everyone. Thinking about Smart cities, voice technology, online shopping, augmented reality etc.… On the other hand, there is a considerable risk in taking things too far and jeopardising that carefully built trust.


People care about their data, about transparency, about retaining a sense of control and agency when it comes to their own personal information. Allowing a post-Covid sunset clause and the possibility for consumers to change their minds would yield positive results and encourage compliance, or at least send the right message. In the absence of certainty and rushed by quick responses, both private and public institutions should keep people’s needs at heart. Top-down approaches seem fairly common in the implementation of smart cities and new technologies, but they rarely work in the real world. Businesses now have the opportunity to get closer to their audiences and better understand them, help them, entertain them and be there throughout the crisis. Smart cities, smart homes and smart personal health can be used for good, to help manage resources, community cohesion, to help those who are most vulnerable as well as providing better and more tailored services to people. However, we must be mindful about surveillance and privacy, and about the trade-offs between health, community well-being, sense of security and individual rights.


Technology is stepping into new roles to help people have a better life but also to help our society and businesses bounce back from the situation of emergency. The current crisis may provide the inertia for the next wave of innovation. Blurred boundaries between different categories as services become more integrated. The addressable market will get bigger powered by new data-sets whilst respecting privacy. New players, who might not have been in businesses’ direct competitive set, are now competing for the same resources of consumer attention, data and marketing spend. Business as usual is not an option anymore, and we must keep agile, creative and focussed on people and communities.


About the Retail Revolution

To better understand the effect of AI technologies on people’s behaviour today, and in the future – OMD’s global research study, Retail Revolution, explores AI adoption and usage and what these burgeoning trends mean for our clients. Through multiple research phases, including quantitative and qualitative methodologies, we have tracked over 30 thousand respondents across 13 global markets, 21 shopping categories and 65 future retail scenarios. With a wealth of data on people’s adoption, usage and openness to smart technologies, we can create more valued and valuable brand experiences as a result. For more information, please contact [email protected].


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