11 Experts Predict What Will Shape Smart Cities In 2021

From electrification to digital twins and the “15-minute city,” respondents shared a wide variety of trends to watch in the new year.

A key lesson learned throughout 2020 is that nobody can predict the future, but that won’t stop us from trying.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic upended countless municipal planning efforts, many trends that were expected to transform smart cities in 2020 still managed to take shape: the micromobility world saw consolidation, building electrification efforts took hold in California and car-free zones were certainly considered more widely — though not for reasons we had expected.

Still, the resilience shown by cities to pursue “smart city” efforts despite an unprecedented health crisis suggests even more growth will come in 2021. To gauge our readers’ thoughts on this, Smart Cities Dive put out a call for expert predictions on what the new year will hold for local governments.

From electrification to digital twins and the “15-minute city,” respondents shared a wide variety of trends to watch as we move into 2021.

The following responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Rob Harwood, global industry director at Ansys: Everything will be electrified

Everything – and I mean everything – is gradually being electrified in the mobility domain. From small scooters to SUVs, from planes to boats, all sectors and forms of transport will be affected by the electrification revolution.

However, it’s not just transport. California’s ambitious goal of using 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045 is driving considerable innovation. After all, it’s not just about generating this power, it’s about storing it. We’re all used to the model of getting electricity from a central power plant, but this will completely change if other states and countries emulate California’s objectives.

This will prompt a revitalization of the ‘smart city’, with urban authorities using digital technology to help explore better ways to produce, track and store clean power, helping to reduce climate change and mitigate its impact. With multiphysics simulation, for instance, energy engineers can build and analyze virtual models of new manufacturing and power generation products and processes, as well as investigate more design options and what-if scenarios than ever before — therefore moving us towards a greater level of sustainability and lower emissions and pollutants.


Jennifer Morrissey, counsel at Dentons: The ’15-minute city’ concept will grow

Right out of the box, I think you will see a couple of really exciting developments in terms of urban planning. One is the 15-minute city concept that the mayor of Paris [Anne Hidalgo] developed during her recent reelection campaign, where she talked about having neighborhoods in a city where you could live, work, play, walk, or bicycle to everything [in 15 minutes]. And I think that we see cities like Portland, OR and other cities in the United States beginning to take a hard look at that. 

I think that this past year is accelerating that 15-minute city concept, because we have all realized that for many of us, we don’t need to drive an hour or longer to get to where we work. Obviously, that’s not true for everyone. But for large parts of the economy, people have learned that they do not need to drive to office buildings. I think you’re going to see a lot of buildings in cities that are going to have to be repurposed, because office space is no longer needed the way it was.


Paul Scialla, CEO of Delos and founder of the International WELL Building Institute: Shared spaces will put increased emphasis on health

Although it’s taken a pandemic for many to realize this, COVID-19 has sparked a new awareness of our surroundings and placed greater emphasis on the health and safety of the places we gather – from office buildings to schools to stores, restaurants, sports venues and beyond. What surrounds us matters; the things we touch and the air we breathe all matter.

Fortunately, businesses and building owners are taking this to heart as they work to ensure the environments in which they operate are as safe and healthy as possible. As we move into 2021, we will see the standardization of building health fuel investments in safety enhancements and boost consumer confidence in returning to shared spaces. Furthermore, air quality will be top-of-mind as we continue to combat the spread of COVID and we will see more buildings upgrade air ventilation and filtration systems.


Frank Reig, CEO and co-founder of Revel: Shared mobility will see renewed ridership

Investment in the electric vehicle sector is soaring for both 2 and 4-wheels; we can definitely anticipate that this trend will continue on in 2021. Companies that succeed in this space will be investing in and developing their own electric vehicle infrastructure.

Following the Prop 22 decision in California, we are going to see companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash lobby to bring that model to other states, and continue their efforts to legalize the exploitation of workers for profit. At Revel, we reject the gig economy and urge other operators in the mobility market to provide benefits and the basic labor protections employees deserve.


Clint Vince, co-chair of the Dentons Smart Cities & Connected Communities Think Tank: The world will continue to get smaller

With immediate involvement in the Paris accord and leadership on climate, you’ll see opportunities even with some of our competitors or enemies. You’ll see some common ground on issues like climate, and I think you’ll see cities in different parts of the world teaming up with sister cities and sharing best practices, concepts and ideas, especially as travel restrictions are lifted.

In the future, we’ll be learning a lot from cities like Paris, Barcelona, Singapore and others that, say, develop much greater digitalization of essential services for the benefit of consumers. You’ll see residents of cities be able to do much more online. Especially a lot of cities now, by focusing hard on the digital divide and really building persuasion to some of the major telecom companies that have been slow in solving the digital divide, I think that they’re really pushing that along. 

As you have more members of the community able to use the internet, I [also] think you’re going to see more streamlined participation in everything from voting to central city services. 


Ben Haynie, VP of product at Transloc: Transit leaders will increasingly prioritize equity

2020 was a big year for transit. Agencies were challenged with navigating some of the steepest ridership declines on record and balancing availability for frontline workers – all without risking the health and safety of passengers and drivers. COVID-19 has also spotlighted the need for equity in the services offered across a city. People of all income levels use public transportation, but the pandemic showed how many essential and hourly-based riders depend on the bus or train for daily needs.

To best serve diverse communities, cities must account for the needs of every citizen. Transit agencies and city leaders are learning to collaborate and build integrated investments to support individualized needs and keep things running smoothly despite unexpected disruptions. The transportation industry will always be the glue holding us together, and 2021 is ripe for innovation to tackle emerging concerns around access to mobility. Instead of transit serving as a one-size-fits-all solution, new focuses will help enhance overall operations, equity, passenger experience, public health and safety.


Doug Guthrie, SVP of smart cities at Comcast: Partnerships will pave the way 

Even with the promising news of effective COVID vaccines, the long tail of 2020’s events will make the next few years challenging for municipalities. Cities are working with shrinking budgets and an uncertain economic landscape, and are tasked with reopening their cities safely. The good news is that cities are resilient and creative. The right partnerships with private sector allies who also have an interest in vibrant communities will pave the way for cities to continue to invest in technology that improve their cities in smart and cost-effective ways. In 2021, we predict the most popular use cases will revolve around using technology to help business districts reopen safety, with an eye on informing and protecting the privacy of citizens.


John D’Angelos, leader of U.S. real estate at Deloitte Consulting: The use of digital twins will rise

Expect to see much greater interest and investment in creating and using digital twins as a way to make building operations more efficient, improve occupant experience, help ensure a healthy building and understand at a much more granular and real-time level what is happening inside a given property.


Micah Kotch, managing director of URBAN-X, the MINI-backed startup accelerator: Climate tech investment will grow

While the incoming Biden Administration has made significant climate commitments, the real action in 2021 will continue to be at the city and state level, and in corporate boardrooms. The market (and millennial customer demands) will drive climate neutrality in the absence of unified federal policy. Municipalities, which have seen a 21% drop in revenue and a 17% increase in expenses related to COVID-19 response, will start actively experimenting with new ways to boost their coffers without directly raising taxes — entrepreneurs will play a significant role by bringing new solutions and business models to the table.  

As a result, urban tech and climate tech investment will continue to outpace the overall venture market, with electric mobility, proptech and housing, distributed energy and automation continuing to gain steam. But the public markets’ bubble can’t inflate indefinitely. The legion of EV and AV SPAC entities will yield at least one highly publicized flame-out which will cast a pall on the entire sector.


Danielle J. Harris, director of mobility innovation at Elemental Excelerator: Urban planning will be equity-focused

2020 was a pivotal year in rekindling conversations centered on equity and access for frontline communities as COVID-19 exacerbated pre-pandemic challenges around everything from access to transportation and quality medical treatment to wage instability, affordable housing, and more. To thrive in the coming mobility revolution, cities must integrate an equity-focused approach and act on systemic injustices rooted in the designs of our infrastructure and public transit, which have historically defined varying levels of freedom for different communities. 

Under a new administration, I’m eager to see more collaboration between startups, community organizations, and government at all levels to reimagine the way we move from place to place and accelerate the growth trajectory for electrification, digital platforms, and data-driven solutions.


Daniel Goldman, managing director of Clean Energy Ventures: Post-pandemic retrofits will be a “must-have”

As the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine allows the workforce to safely return to the workplace, automating building enhancements, such as improving air quality, optimizing energy usage for greater variability in the office place, and replacing old HVAC equipment with energy-efficient systems, will be “must-haves” for cities, especially where carbon reduction regulations have been instituted such as New York City (Local Law 97). Traditionally hard-to-decarbonize technologies, such as the electrification of all modes of mobility, will see strong VC investment with expected support from the Biden-Harris administration.