How Covid-19 is shifting 'smart city' priorities

Sidewalk Labs abandoned its Waterfront Toronto project in May. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

From the super-connected urban sprawl of Tokyo to the futuristic skyline of Dubai, digital acceleration had fast become an aspiration for many city authorities long before the Covid-19 crisis hit. The United Nations estimates that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. The pandemic has highlighted the need for accelerated digital city planning and greater communication with citizens for such population levels to be sustainable.

But Sidewalk Lab’s decision in May to abruptly end its Waterfront Toronto smart city project, citing economic pressures of the global pandemic, has prompted questions about whether other projects may follow suit – or whether city authorities will instead double down on digital investment to accommodate new ways of working and living as well as combating the post-pandemic economic fallout. 

City response strategies

The mayor of London’s chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell, acknowledges public sector budgets will need to be revaluated post-Covid-19. “Projects will need cast-iron business cases going forward. On the other hand, increased concern around public health and the way smart projects can help with gathering data becomes equally important; it remains to be seen how that is funded,” he says.

Instead of stalling projects in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, London repurposed existing projects including an air quality sensor network that pivoted mid-pandemic. Initially the data provided a picture of observance to lockdown rules using image processing algorithms to assess vehicle, cyclist and pedestrian numbers. “Understanding the economic impact on the high street will give decision-makers better insights into future funding decisions to assist in the recovery, whether we need to intervene in one part of London compared with another,” says Blackwell.

Public and private sector goodwill during the pandemic from partners Microsoft and the Turing Institute mean that the project constitutes a sizeable team, adds Blackwell. “This will be really important when we're talking about things such as localised lockdowns, especially in a city the size and complexity of London.”

In a talk given to the Public Sector Network in April, Leo de Sousa, Vancouver’s deputy chief information officer, said the crisis has forced city officials there to accelerate a smart city project with remote working highest on the digitalisation agenda. “Our geographic information system transformation and enterprise data and analytics programmes were leveraged to provide critical support,” he added.

Vancouver’s four-year technology plan, with programmes for major investment, will go forward focusing on small pilots for innovation, according to de Sousa. He stated in the talk that the investments will provide significant cost savings in the post-Covid-19 economic downturn, including a smart city LED lighting system and the shift to remote working, which de Sousa said has the potential to save significant sums on leased office spaces. 

Councillor Sean Fielding, who oversees digitisation for Oldham Council in the north-west of England, says the pandemic has moved city digitisation up the agenda. “Other leaders around the table at the Greater Manchester council have become more attuned to the economic benefits of accelerated digitisation,” he says.

With so much uncertainty around budgets, Fielding says it remains unclear where digitisation lies in the budgetary hierarchy. “I think we're going to have a really challenging time ahead if the government tries to recoup some of the finances spent on responding to Covid,” he adds. Nevertheless, Fielding says he will continue to make the case for digitisation projects, adding: “I think there's a stronger case now than ever, but I can’t say that everybody's going share that view.”

Evolving digitisation

Clare Wildfire, global practice lead for cities at engineering, management and development consultancy Mott MacDonald, has seen a deeper understanding of the benefits of city digitisation over the last five years which she says is particularly pertinent during a pandemic. “Covid offers proof of the benefits of smart cities because cities with a digital platform in place, able to collect and analyse data, can more rapidly understand where adjustments need applying,” says Wildfire.

So what lessons will be learned from the pandemic? Andy Moulds, Mott MacDonald’s head of information advisory for smart infrastructure, says small pilots leading to scalable solutions with an organic approach are preferable to sweeping policy changes. “Local authorities and other infrastructure owners ­­­- unless they have major investment programmes - are typically doing small pilots that provide a better understanding of what works,” he says.

Smart city development may see an investment shortfall in the near term, according to Gartner analyst Bettina Tratz-Ryan. “Everybody is hurting financially,” she says. “Some projects will be postponed or scaled down but will prevail and accelerate post-Covid. Smart cities are a way to dig ourselves out of the crisis by using data to look at operational efficiencies with data-driven solutions.”  

Gartner predicts that by 2022 digitisation, or the Internet of Things, will save consumers and businesses $1 trillion a year in maintenance, services and consumables on a global level. With such a compelling business case, the main risk to projects such as Waterfront Toronto, which faced a public backlash against a perceived lack of consultation around data privacy, is a digital citizen equity gap, according to Tratz-Ryan.

“Cities that have been elitist in terms of smart city technology, that have failed to address data literacy and equity, are now feeling the heat because on the one hand we have these apps, tracking devices, registrations and everything to open business and conduct our daily lives. But the failure of connecting the value of data solutions to the individual will hamper large-scale technology and data-driven deployments – equity and data privacy goes hand in hand in the aftermath of the pandemic,” says Tratz-Ryan.

This point is echoed by the secretary general of the smart city networking organisation Eurocities, Anna Lisa Boni. “The crisis has boosted the use and development of digital tools in cities, especially in public services,” she says. “At the same time it made clear that digital is not just about IT infrastructure, but also about organisational and civic maturity, transparent data usage and trust. And we have seen the discriminatory effects of the digital divide, in terms of access to the internet and skills. Stretched city budgets will now focus both on smart city investments and the fight for digital inclusion to make society more resilient.”

*This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the name of Vancouver’s deputy chief information officer, Leo de Sousa, as well as to clarify when and where his comments were first made.

Lara Williams is an investment reporter with New Statesman Media Group. 


Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.

As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City

New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.


In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.