Managing the Challenges of a Post-Pandemic World: Cities 4.0

During the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring a healthy, safe, and prosperous future for citizens has been a burning imperative for city leaders around the world. At the same time, the health crisis has raised the importance of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which many cities have adopted as a framework for achieving their social, environmental, and economic objectives. In a new survey of 167 cities conducted by ESI ThoughtLab for its study Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World, over a quarter of city leaders said that the pandemic had made the SDGs a higher priority. A third said the crisis had stimulated new thinking about their social priorities overall.

The pandemic also is accelerating the need for cities to adopt smart innovation and digital solutions, as it transforms citizen behaviors and expectations, and redefines how people work and live: for 63% of cities, the biggest lesson learned during the pandemic was just how crucial smart city programs were for their future. And it is underscoring the role of collaboration among business, government, and academia to address long-term urban challenges and to build resilience. Those cities that make the most progress on the SDGs while also leading in smart city innovation will be the most successful as we enter the post-pandemic world.

How Innovation Can Drive Sustainable Development Goal’s

A prime objective of this ongoing research is to assess how smart urban solutions can help cities achieve the SDGs. To measure the progress that cities have made in driving the SDGs, ESI ThoughtLab developed an SDG progress framework. Our framework categorizes cities into three groups: implementers, which are in an early stage of SDG adoption; advancers, which are making progress on a range of SDGs; and sprinters, which are making fast progress on most areas of sustainable development. Twenty-two percent are classified as implementers, 57% as advancers, and 21% as sprinters.

According to the research, nearly 8 in 10 cities have adopted the SDGs as part of their plans and around 60% have made considerable progress across all the 17 goals. Small cities with less than a million people are much farther along than larger cities in embracing the SDG framework. By region, North American and European cities are ahead, while those in Africa and Asia trail behind.

Our economists have also created a smart city maturity framework to assess which cities are ahead in using smart city solutions and technologies to achieve their social, environmental, and economic goals. A smart city leader was defined based on its maturity in the use of technology across the urban domains, its use of data, and the steps that it takes to ensure citizen and stakeholder engagement. Thirty percent of cities are classified as beginners, 49% as intermediates, and 21% as smart city leaders.

The Rise of Cities 4.0

To analyze the impact of smart city solutions on sustainability, we identified a subset of SDG champions that also lead in smart technology. These cities, which we call “Cities 4.0”, serve as models for the cities of the future. They continue the evolution of smart cities from Smart Cities 1.0 to Smart Cities 3.0 and go beyond, by showing how to effectively use technology, data, and citizen engagement to drive the SDGs. They are in step with new ways of working and excel at using an agile ecosystem of partners to spur change. They demonstrate how, with the expectations of citizens rising, and businesses gearing up for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the most successful cities will be digitally transformed, fully sustainable, and skilled in entirely new ways.

What sets Cities 4.0 apart?

Cities 4.0 are well ahead in all aspects of data management. They are masters at collecting, integrating, protecting, and making data accessible to citizens. Most of them have policies, resources, and budgets in place to manage and analyze data at a high level of excellence. They also tend to be more open in their use of data and integrate it across city departments.

Cities 4.0 also unlock greater value from their ecosystems. They are better at proactively managing their partnerships and they develop partnership skills across their city domains. They prioritize public-private partnerships more than others and are more open to new ideas. And they enjoy greater personnel, fiscal, functional, and regulatory independence from national, state, and provincial control.

Cities 4.0 also ensure that citizens are engaged and digitally connected. They use a combination of digital and traditional methods to communicate with citizens. They actively engage citizens and stakeholders when setting goals, demonstrate the value of projects, and ensure that disadvantaged populations, including the poor and handicapped, are involved in the decision-making process.


ESI ThoughtLab’s ongoing research program into sustainability and smart city solutions will serve as a roadmap for city actors across the world looking for best practices and to compare solutions. Our full findings will be available in March 2021, but readers can already visit our Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World program microsite for the latest articles, insights, program updates, and planned events.

Dr. Daniel Miles is the Chief Operating Officer for ESI ThoughtLab, Econsult Solutions’ thought leadership arm. As part of his work for ESI ThoughtLab, Dr. Miles specializes in assessing the impact of technologies on companies, cities, industries, and business performance. He has served as the research director on Smarter Cities 2025: Building a Sustainable Business and Financing Plan, Building a Hyperconnected City, and Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World, to name a few. He has also led studies on cashless cities, autonomous vehicle readiness, the economics of cybersecurity, the ROI of artificial intelligence, and digital transformation of small businesses.