Building a Future-Ready City

As cities around the world continue to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and other disruptions, their highest priority has become to ensure a safe, resilient, and economically stable future for their residents. This has heightened the urgency for cities to become future-ready —smart, sustainable, secure, and fully aligned with changing citizen and business needs.  

ThoughtLab’s fourth urban research program, Building a Future-Ready City, is now being launched, and will provide urban leaders with a complete action plan for meeting the challenges ahead. ThoughtLab asked sponsors and advisors of our program to share their views on how cities can become future-ready. Here is how some of them responded. 


1. What are the key characteristics of a future-ready city? How will it need to differ from most cities today?  

Dr. Peter Pirnejad, City Manager, Los Altos Hills, California: Future-ready cities need to be progressive, proactive, and dynamic. They must respond to today’s problems but prepare to solve tomorrow’s as well. Most cities are only focused on yesterday’s problems using yesterday’s methods. 

Prof. Joan E. Ricart, Professor of Strategic Management, IESE, Spain: A future-ready city is characterized by being citizen-centric, with a clear vision and strategy, innovative and digitally transformed, connected and highly collaborative, and investing in adequate infrastructure enabled by data, and in attracting talent. 

Peter Nou, IT Strategist, Smart City Infrastructure & Innovation, Uppsala, Sweden: The future-ready city needs to be open to change. “A city” is an overlapping system of systems, and those need to be understood and analyzed in terms of investment horizons and stakeholders. Most cities today are managed inside multiple verticals, with their own resources, problems, and communities of interests. The future requires more wholistic approaches that build engagement and trust over the long term. This is a difficult journey that cannot be micromanaged but needs to be nurtured, often beyond a normal political term. It is not a tech question per se, but much of the transparency can be mediated by technology and clear goal setting at different levels. 

Bayan Konirbayev, Chief Digital Officer, Almaty, Kazakhstan: A future-ready city has multiple components, including a social layer, an infrastructure layer, and a data layer.  

The social layer is the ability of residents and the city administration to accept changes and experiment with new services and opportunities within the city.  

The infrastructure layer includes telecommunication and ICT infrastructure for the implementation of new IT projects, ready-made data centers, distributed FOCL infrastructure, carpeting with video surveillance cameras, and an Internet of Things platform integrated into housing and communal services. 

The data layer involves having a single standard methodology for managing all city data, including rules for managing data of state bodies and subordinate enterprises. Also needed is a structured public data library or database with differentiated access for private companies and state enterprises. 

If we will rate every city from 1-10 based on those three layers, we will see the differences among cities emerge. Because digitalization itself is not only about new technology implementation but also about preparing citizens (using a change management approach) and mature data governance rules, there should be a balance among the three layers. 

Gianluca Galletto, Managing Director, Technology and Innovation Partnerships, New York City Housing Authority: Accessibility is critical. People of all socio-economic statuses and races will need to access all parts of the city seamlessly without visible or invisible barriers. Other characteristics include lots of public space and green areas including on buildings; totally decarbonized; minimal inequality and zero inequality of opportunities; participatory when it comes to making decisions; empowered by their national or regional governments to do what is needed at a local level (many cities are heavily constrained by their national institutional framework); and in tune with the surrounding suburbs and rural areas.   

Kevin Taylor, Segment Development Manager, Smart Cities, Axis Communications: The primary characteristics of a future-ready city are collaboration, modern communications infrastructure, innovation, and an eagerness to embrace open-architecture solutions.

Collaboration is important because no one local government department or agency has all the skillsets, resources, and funding to go at their challenges alone. Through collaboration, municipalities can leverage force multipliers that will enable all stakeholders to accomplish their mission while avoiding redundant expenditures on overlapping technologies.

Modern communications infrastructure is important because data is the lifeblood of not only future-ready cities, but of Industry 4.0. To make informed decisions, large amounts of data need to be continually transported, archived, and analyzed. Municipalities will have to deploy infrastructure, or leverage cooperative partnerships with third-party owners of infrastructure, to accomplish this affordably.

Innovation is key to building future ready. While local governments should always be citizen-centric, therein avoiding the “technology for the sake of technology” euphemism, cities will have to discover new innovative platforms, solutions, procedures, and policies that most positively impact all members of the community. 

And finally, embracing open-architecture technology is critical in future-ready cities because solutions that serve an entire community will be expected to grow large in scale, and will be expected to assimilate within a city’s technology ecosystem which includes other sub-systems. Sensors will be expected to connect to multiple sub-systems, and data from those sub-systems will be expected to benefit multiple stakeholders. There is no place for proprietary or “closed” systems in the future-ready city. 


2. What did the pandemic teach us about the future of cities? What steps should cities be taking now to become future-ready?  

Dr. Peter Pirnejad, City Manager, Los Altos Hills, California: The pandemic taught cities how quickly they can adapt when their survival counts on it and how devastating things can get if they don’t. Cities should take the lessons learned from the pandemic and snap forward and embrace the new normal rather than snap back and settle for the old norms. 

Prof. Joan E. Ricart, Professor of Strategic Management, IESE, Spain: The recent pandemic accelerated the necessary transformation of cities to be more sustainable, resilient, inclusive, equitable, and prosperous, and the need to do things differently to reach this transformation. 

Peter Nou, IT-strategist, Smart City Infrastructure & Innovation, Uppsala, Sweden: The pandemic taught us that communications networks need to be pervasive, robust, and safe to allow for meetings and individual contributions to be made from wherever. We also learned that whatever policies are put into place to halt the spread of infectious agents, the public response and ultimately the effectiveness of the measures rely on community engagement, more than enforcement. Trust and communications cannot only be electronically mediated. In our city, we are studying going towards a fractal design, the 15-minute city with hubs for most functions. Meetings, recycling, package delivery, and more. Finding business models that are community focused and/or driven are a clear objective but not yet implemented. Becoming future-ready is a continuous process, not a fixed state at some point in space and time. 

Prof. Jian Liu, Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China: The pandemic reminds us that change is constant, and a future-ready city should be resilient and adaptable to constant change. For that, existing cities should be redesigned and renovated in view of constant change, of both nature and human society itself, rather than just following a “blueprint” that is conventionally imagined and designed.  

Bayan Konirbayev, Chief Digital Officer, Almaty, Kazakhstan: The pandemic showed us two things: 1) a city’s supply chain can be disrupted, so it is very important to have alternative supplies; 2) the isolation and vaccination process showed city administrations how hard it is to control their citizens, so for every step change management practices should be adopted. The government needs to understand how to work with people. The first and the most important step should be focused on preparing citizens for new changes, whether positive or negative.  

Gianluca Galletto, Managing Director, Technology and Innovation Partnerships, New York City Housing Authority: Public spaces are critical. Effective communication regarding security and health is critical and was neglected before. Although density will still be there because it’s a major asset to in terms of creativity, productivity, etc., we don’t need lots of office space as we needed before, and we should think of better ways to use the built environment and be able to prosper with a little less density and a better relationship with suburban and rural areas. Inequality is a bad beast. The pandemic disproportionately (and highly so) affected the excluded, the unprivileged, the invisible people who are usually essential to the functioning of a city (for example, if you deported all the 600,000 to 800,000 immigrants without legal status in New York City, the city would collapse.)   

Kevin Taylor, Segment Development Manager, Smart Cities, Axis Communications: The challenges of 2020 relating to the global pandemic and to social unrest revealed to us that the two most pressing issues universally relevant to members with a community are health and wellness and personal safety. Strategic initiatives that deal with long-term topics like environmental impact absolutely are relevant and important, but the biggest threat to not only livability, but to survivability, within cities are the immediate needs of today. 

The last two years taught us that when large segments of the community feel their immediate health and safety is either in jeopardy or is deemed to be of reduced value and importance, civility breaks down and cities get burned. For cities of today or cities of the future, the most important thing local governments can provide is peace of mind that individuals can live, work, learn, and play within their community because it is a healthy and safe environment. 


3. Which technologies will play a key role in the city of the future? How will these technologies transform urban environments?  

Dr. Peter Pirnejad, City Manager, Los Altos Hills, California: Hybrid and virtual government has proven to not only be effective but desired by elected officials, staff, and constituents alike. Access to services and government has never been so easy. Government buildings have become institutions that provide a venue to engage in work that is more effective in person rather than online. Government buildings will be transformed from being where work is done to where people can share and exchange ideas to improve our institutions. 

Prof. Joan E. Ricart, Professor of Strategic Management, IESE, Spain: All digital technologies need to play a role in the digital transformation of cities. The smart use of data allows the implementation of innovative ways to run future-ready cities. 

Peter Nou, IT-strategist, Smart City Infrastructure & Innovation, Uppsala, Sweden: IoT (sensing the environment and flows of people and materials) is the next technology that will inform us about the pulse of the city. Monitoring city processes will inform city leaders and organizations about constraints, risks, progress towards goals, and more. Sensing infrastructure requires access to pervasive digital infrastructure, and our city is in the process of taking a step forward, potentially owning our own black fiber network that we will lease to anyone at transparent rates or utilize ourselves if the need arises. 

Prof. Jian Liu, Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China: At least at this moment, digital technology is playing the most significant role in transforming urban environments and will play a key role in the city of the future, by changing the way of life of human beings in the four primary aspects of daily life:  residence, work, leisure, and transportation. Transportation technology will play a significant role in transforming urban environments by changing the mode of travel and the pattern of mobility.  

Gianluca Galletto, Managing Director, Technology and Innovation Partnerships, New York City Housing Authority: New forms of IT to create easier access and communication flows between city government and citizens. Internet of Things for sure. At the same time, better privacy technology and policies to prevent the digitalization of everything becomes a new “big brother” and creates all sorts of other problems – including new forms of backlash and social and political tensions. Retrofit technology for building decarbonization and new infrastructure to provide clean energy and clean mobility. 

Kevin Taylor, Segment Development Manager, Smart Cities, Axis Communications: No single technology, product, or vendor can provide everything a city needs. An “ecosystem” approach is required. Because cities increasingly are relying on data and analytics to make informed decisions, it is reasonable to assume some technologies most critical to the future-ready city are IoT edge sensors like deep-learning enabled cameras, and emerging communications networks like 5G millimeter wave wireless. 

These are foundational technology categories for future-ready cities that enable other platforms like digital twins and visualization dashboards. Additionally, because these foundational technologies also offer real-time benefits, they can be used by traffic management stakeholders as well as within the police/fire/ambulatory emergency response workflow. 


4. Which cities today offer good examples of future-ready thinking and solutions? What lessons can be learned from them?  

Dr. Peter Pirnejad, City Manager, Los Altos Hills, California: Rather than looking at cities that offer good examples, we need to look at case studies that offer insights to the future. Take, for example, the town of Los Altos Hills, which saw a major increase in crime. Rather than hire more deputies to patrol its  streets, the town partnered with a vendor that could use AI and automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to track stolen cars coming into the town. As a result, we saw a significant decrease in crime rates. The lesson is that we cannot solve yesterday’s problems with yesterday’s approaches. We need to be progressive, proactive, and dynamic in our response to the urban problems of today. 

Prof. Jian Liu, Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China: In China, Hangzhou and Chengdu are two cities that can offer good examples of future-ready thinking and solutions. Hangzhou is particularly characterized by the popularization of digital technologies in the city’s social-economic development and city management, as well as its citizens’ daily life, with consideration to the interaction between the city and its surrounding nature. Chengdu is particularly characterized by the attitude of its citizens to life and nature, with good integration of the city into its surrounding environment, and the broad involvement of citizens in city development and city management through community building.  

Gianluca Galletto, Managing Director, Technology and Innovation Partnerships, New York City Housing Authority: Copenhagen for sure. They have a 13K km of heat networks, and heating uses only 3% of fossil energy. Paris with its increased green spaces, bike lanes, and a real push to become a 15-minute city. New York City with participatory budgeting, ranked choice voting for elections, public-private collaboration for a variety of economic and social programs, strong data-driven policymaking (including policing), extremely tough climate laws, and a series of public and private investment (massive) to become a net zero city. For example, local law 97 imposes strict emission limits on buildings with steep million-dollar fines if it’s not respected, and gas has been banned from all new construction from 2023. There are plans to retrofit buildings, programs to create jobs in the green economy, and massive investments in new renewable infrastructure.  

Kevin Taylor, Segment Development Manager, Smart Cities, Axis Communications: The challenges faced by cities vary infinitely depending on factors such as, but not limited to, cultural, socio-economic, geographical, and geo-political circumstances. In recent years, we have witnessed cities employ innovative approaches using emerging technology in public safety, urban mobility management, and environmental sensing and monitoring. 

For more information, including cases studies, on cities that leverage Axis Communications products and technologies to address the challenges facing their communities, please visit


5. Why is a study on building a roadmap to becoming future ready so important to undertake now?  

Dr. Peter Pirnejad, City Manager, Los Altos Hills, California: There has never been a time when government has faced so many obstacles that challenge the very foundation of democracy and our ability to govern. Everything from the institutional knowledge being lost as baby boomers leave the workforce to the loss of qualified replacements due to the great resignation. Even the people we govern are engaging in ways that make it difficult to distinguish the vocal minority from the silent majority. Today, government is being challenged as opposing sides get rooted in their objections while taking aim at the institutions set up to foster a democratic resolve rather than the opposition that they wish to convert. We are seeing a loss in faith and trust in government institutions and their ability to govern while we are experiencing a rise in conspiracy theories and alternative facts. Government needs to understand the changes in the people they govern and adapt their systems to respond in more effective and productive ways. 

Peter Nou, IT-strategist, Smart City Infrastructure & Innovation, Uppsala, Sweden: In Europe, war in Ukraine demands our attention at present. At the same time, world leaders are losing focus on climate change, a bigger longer-term issue. Younger generations understand that the need to live a greener life. But only if you walk or bike, not if you are a single driver of a large SUV. There are so many conflicting goals. Pandemic response around the world varied and highlighted different shortcomings at different scales. Many simultaneous crises at different time scales make for so many potential conflicts. Between green and black. Between young and old. Between future and past. Between political class and regular folks. Pandemics, wars, climate tipping points. Cities are where most folks live and where most discussion needs to take place to agree on the path forward. No city’s path will be identical to that of other cities. But the clear story telling of what choices are made, and why, will inform us all.  

Prof. Jian Liu, Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China: Today, human society might be amid the most critical transition since the Industrial Revolution, except in period of wars, in view of the remarkable changes in the climate, environment, ecology, economy, society, demographics, politics, and technology, etc. It is important to take actions to actively respond to these changes to make cities more resilient and adaptable for the future. 

Bayan Konirbayev, Chief Digital Officer, Almaty, Kazakhstan: We need an understanding of the steps to take, the responsibility of various people, and the relevant KPIs. The roadmap is something we need to have, but together with that it is important to stay agile in order to change your plans according to the  geopolitical situation or technological developments. Big cities have 20, 30, or 40-year development plans, but the world is changing frequently. 

Gianluca Galletto, Managing Director, Technology and Innovation Partnerships, New York City Housing Authority: We are at a historical and dramatic inflection point in terms of how the entire planet can survive, and cities are the place where we need to lead the way. They are the main problem and the main solution to climate change, which is an existential threat for all the planet, no one excluded. The only super ubiquitous threat. They are the place where pragmatism is more important than political partisanship and they can provide examples of (more) effective governance. 

Kevin Taylor, Segment Development Manager, Smart Cities, Axis Communications: Cities are dynamic environments, and the speed of change they are facing has increased to unprecedented levels. A byproduct of this change is uncertainty. Municipal stakeholders are charged with the responsibility of doing what is best for their community while being good stewards of public funds. It is difficult for these stakeholders to perform these responsibilities in the face of so much uncertainty. 

Third-party independent research like this project conducted by ThoughtLab are important information sources local government stakeholders can look to for guidance, for best practices, for encouragement, and for inspiration.