Singapore, Helsinki and Zurich topped the 2020 Smart Cities Index, in a year in which many European cities fell in the rankings. The Smart Cities Index ranks cities based on economic and technological data, as well as their citizens' perceptions of how “smart” their cities are.

The Institute for Management Development, in collaboration with the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), has published the Smart Cities Index 2020, with key findings on how technology is playing a role in the COVID-19 era. in a way that will probably stay.

Hundreds of citizens from 109 cities were surveyed in April and May 2020 and asked questions about their city's technological dispositions in five key areas: health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities, and governance.

This year's ranking reflects that cities have always different technological approaches, as the management of the pandemic has become increasingly important in local politics.

"We cannot ignore the impact of COVID," said IMD Professor Arturo Bris, who led the ranking's work as Director of the Center for Global Competitiveness at the Swiss management institute that supports it.

“Those with better technology handle the pandemic better. Smart cities are not the solution, but technology helps ”, he explained.

It is also clear that the COVID-19 crisis is likely to widen inequalities between those who have and those who do not have connectivity, both between and within cities. This is an aspect that will capture the attention of analysts and governments, both central and local.

"Smart cities closest to the top of the rankings seem to deal with the unexpected challenges of the devastating pandemic with a better outcome," commented Professor Heng Chee Chan, president of the Lee Kuan Yew Center for Innovative Cities at SUTD.

The growing importance of second cities

This year's rankings also highlighted the ability of countries to develop cities beyond their capitals. In the 2020 standings, Bilbao fares better than Madrid, and Birmingham this year improved by 12 spots while London climbed just five.

Look at France. The Paris region represents a considerable part of the economic activity of the entire country, ”said Bris. "But then look at the US, China, Australia or Taiwan, and the second cities have become more important, sometimes more than the capital."

"As a sign of the development of a country, it is important to develop those cities," he added, and recommended that policy makers promote the competitiveness of second cities to improve the overall economic health of a country.

Urban economies like Hong Kong and Singapore, and to some extent the United Arab Emirates, may be at a disadvantage because they have less capacity to develop second cities, he said.

The economic conditions of a country are the foundations

All things being equal, smart cities help citizens the most, the researchers concluded. But cities have very different infrastructures to begin 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. On the contrary, in cities like Bogotá or Mumbai, technology makes a big difference.

Therefore, the largest changes in the ranking from one year to the next occur in the less developed economies, since citizens do not need much to perceive a great improvement.

Therefore, technology is slightly more important in less developed countries. Therefore, African cities at the bottom of the rake, such as Abuja, Nairobi, and Lagos, would do well to prioritize their implementation.

Large differences within countries

Smart is a relative term. “Different cities use technology for different things. That could be preventing traffic, in the case of Paris, or improving citizen participation by offering free WIFI in Ramallah, ”Bris said.

Chicago has an ambitious technology plan based on hyperconnectivity; Abu Dhabi has a green project and Birmingham is one of the UK's top-ranked cities for mobility.

That is why we see great differences in the intelligence of cities within the same country. They differ in terms of their economies, levels of inequality (eg access to health), and policies.

"Countries are no longer economic units," says Bris. Mayors and local authorities increasingly have the power to improve the well-being of citizens through the implementation of technology.

"The American city of Boston is a good example of how the management of its city by its mayor makes a big difference."

In the context of this ranking, a “smart city” is an urban environment that applies technology to enhance the benefits and reduce the deficiencies of urbanization for its citizens. The ranking is the first of its kind because it measures the perception of citizens in terms of the impact of technology on their quality of life.

Other rankings that measure the "intelligence" of cities are usually driven by a specific industry and focus on types of technology.

This is the second edition of the IMD-SUTD Smart Cities Index Report.

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