Bas Boorsma, Professor of Practice, Thunderbird School of Global Management
Dr. Diana Bowman, Professor and Associate Dean, Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law
Dr. Sanjeev Khagram, Foundation Professor of Global Leadership, 
Director-General and Dean, Thunderbird School of Global Management
Arizona State University

March 2021

Abstract: COVID-19 has dramatically impacted our cities worldwide. Cities are comprised of a dense concentration of people, infrastructure, organizations and enterprises, and most often depend on a complex mobility landscape. Urban environments typically take center-stage when it comes to entertainment and night-life, the trillions of physical interactions at schools, businesses, civic/public spaces, and other physical points of people gathering. As such, cities will always be impacted first and will be impacted more when a pandemic strikes. In both good and bad ways, cities represent ‘critical mass.’ Cities are also the places where innovations tend to originate and scale faster: urban innovation agendas have been with us for thousands of years – from Rome’s aquaducts to England’s steam engines ushering in the first industrial revolution. And now again, as we enter the 4th industrial revolution, urban environments typically serve as the canvass for system-wide innovations triggered by new ideas, designs and technologies. This time the game-changing technologies are predominantly digital in nature. And it is digitalization that has helped cities respond to the crisis in novel and often effective ways. What can be learned from that response? How has it helped accelerate urban innovation agendas, and how do we pave the way from a governance and policy framework perspective? How can digitalization help leapfrog us beyond the old normal, preparing our communities to maximize the potential of the 4th industrial revolution and minimize its risks?

The Game Changing Tango of COVID-19 and Digitalization

Digitalization has helped us address COVID-19 systematically. If the pandemic had struck in the year 2000, the collective global response would have been months, if not years, slower, amplifying the virus’s grim consequences. Think of the global collaboration within the medical research and public health communities, relying on high-end broadband and the vast computing capabilities that simply weren’t available a decade ago. Think of the remote work options that were created for knowledge and administrative workers, enabling enterprises and employees to remain productive and sometimes even increase efficiencies (not just the innovative few). Think video communications in general. Think community communications, contact-tracing and health screening apps or the dramatic shift to online shopping for even the most basic of needs. Think of our contemporary ability to sense the ‘busy-ness’ of cities, neighborhoods or high streets. COVID-19 has forced us to accelerate a shift which had already started but the impact of which is only recently getting felt and understood. 

The pandemic has forced all of us to appreciate how much we rely on 21st-century technologies—artificial intelligence, the internet of things, social media, digital learning platforms, augmented and virtual reality, drones, 3D printing and so much more—to keep us healthy and to transform economies. The unprecedented context is simultaneously driving us to become far more reliant on breakthrough digital, biological and physical technologies and far more inventive about how we can use these emerging technologies to create value in new ways. 

The impact has been reciprocal: digitalization helped us address COVID-19, and COVID-19 accelerated digitalization and urban innovation. Those communities, those cities, those regions that came prepared best, generally stood to harvest that benefit by addressing COVID-19 better than others, but it also helped them propel digitalization agendas and digital innovations even further. Smart work practices now widely adopted serve as an illustration, yet also citizen services and municipal information platforms have moved from digitally supported to digitally preferred and, in some cases, digital only. For example, early indicators appear to demonstrate that European communities that have stood less in an embrace of an organizational culture of the digitalization paradigm, appear to have returned to the office faster and in larger numbers as COVID-19 infections subsided though the summer months of 2020. 1 The opposite also appears to be true: communities that already came prepared, appear to have seen an even firmer embrace of networked, digitalized patterns of organization and an inclusive usage of digital. The City of Reykjavik, Iceland, for example – known for its advanced fiber broadband networks, and digital-ready governance – pushed municipal practices into digital wholesale, with longer-term consequences. In the words of Oskar Sandholt, the city’s services and innovation director: “COVID-19 has pushed us at least six years into the future.”  

The biggest questions we face are: how to best harness the thrust of digitalization we have come to embrace into a permanent journey forward and how do we ensure that small and rural communities are similarly able to participate and embrace this digital acceleration? A journey within which we seek to ensure that networked, resilient conduct becomes part of our cultural, organizational and psychological DNA, with the digitalized patterns of communication and organization not limited to crisis response but embedded into the day to day fabric of government operations and across communities, cities and regions at large. The derived next question is how to direct governance policy agendas accordingly, building effective digitalization roadmaps across all domains and departments, while recognizing negatives outcomes for individuals and communities that may be associated with such accelerated digitalization. As such, as we push to further accelerate the digital 4th IR agenda we must ensure that the necessary tools and resources are widely available to mitigate and/or negative effects as they are identified. 2

12 Principles of imperative relevance to policy makers as we carve out our post-COVID-19 world

 1. It is a shift! Treat it as one.

Digitalization is only partially about technology. As with other technology-powered shifts (automobiles, steam engine, electricity…), digitalization may have specific technologies at its core but above all represents new organizational designs, new patterns of urban conduct, new ways of solving complex problems, indeed evolved if not entirely new mindsets. Digitalization represents a paradigm shift to distributed, networked patterns of organization undergirded by the data revolution. In this context, any forward-looking governance and policy framework must build on the insight that the next leap in digitalization is less about sensors, cloud computing, AI or machine learning (albeit important) and more about an embrace and adoption of the organization designs of networkedness and platforms undergirded by utilization of mass amounts of data. This push to digitalization is not about embracing of short-term solutions, gadgets, and a few apps. Rather, one must appreciate the scale of the paradigm shift that has, and is, taking place and translates it into policies towards resilience and sustainable change. The very notion of urban services, for instance, is in need of a reframing, with digitalization allowing for the creation, transaction and delivery of ‘urban services’ to become ever more place and time-independent (e.g. retail, logistics of food and entertainment). As such, any 4th Industrial Revolution definition of ‘things urban’ need to be framed beyond the traditional physical parameters of the city as we knew it. The notion of ‘the smart city’ has shifted also: from a technology-driven agenda in search of solutions, to a citizen and community-centric agenda seeking solutions to larger sets of often converging challenges, leveraging tomorrow’s technologies and designs, enhancing any given community’s level of resilience and well-being.

2. Agile Governance, Mandate

Lessons from the digitalization response to COVID-19 illustrate that a horizontal approach across municipal departments and local government organizations is fundamental to the success of a digitalization agenda. Digitalization is not the job of one department, nor the job of the Chief Technology or Innovation Officer or their IT team. It requires inclusive and agile governance and it must come with executive mandate. Amsterdam created the position of Chief Technology Officer with a team of over one hundred direct and indirect reports operating across most departments to steer its urban digitalization and innovation agenda. And the City of Reykjavik created a digital services department that is actually less a classic department, and more a central coordination node in the municipal organization that curates, authorizes, and finances digitalization efforts at large. The lessons that emerge from cities with such governance structures in place are: think systemically, but act locally. Mitigate hierarchy and traditional organizational boundaries and collaborate across departments and beyond your own organization where needed by default. Be transparent and engage with your local communities as you seek to advance your agenda.

3. Build Purposeful Public Private People Partnerships (PPPP) 

Municipalities, regional authorities, the private sector, academia and citizen groups need each other. Complex challenges demand innovative solutions that draw upon the expertise and real-world experience of all. Such partnership were forged, and forged quickly, in response to COVID-19 and similar partnerships will be needed to build robust and effective governance and policy frameworks and digitalization strategies for the future. 

The many information apps created throughout the months of the COVID-19 pandemic would not have emerged nor made such an impact without such partnerships. For example, the hackathons organized in the Baltic cities of Tallinn, Estonia, and Valmiera, Latvia would not have been possible without such partnerships; The same applies to the response in Paris where local start-ups stepping up proved essential, and the same applies to the economic activity sensing and dashboards forged in the cites of London or Rome. 3 Yet the 'people component' equally applies: without trust, without civic engagement and without transparency, tracing apps have little chance of success. Much of the required trust, much of the hyper-local communications and implementation relies on another components of PPPs:  local NGOs representing, understanding and working in neighborhoods and minorities proved the crucial pinnacle in any reach out (digital or not digital) becoming effective in Paris suburb Seine-Saint-Denis or the City of Oslo. 4 The multi-cultural and multi-linguistic efforts undertaken by such NGOs, the levels of trust they were able to operate with allowed them to arrive at levels of inclusion otherwise not attained. This truism must be applied to all community-centric digitalization agendas of the future. Successful adoption requires civic engagement becoming a fundament to digitalization agendas and the policies that enable them.  On the business-side, public private partnership will require a long-term perspective on all sides. It requires private sector to become ‘responsible citizens,’ operating within an expanded social, economic and ethical context.

4. Good Design: Design from Where-People-Are, and be clear on Purpose

Good Design is clear on purpose and aims at inclusion. Bad Design results in low adoption and has the potential to further digital divides. The Greatest Access for the Greatest Number and full inclusion typically applies as a central organizing design principle. It has proved to be fundamental at the height of the pandemic, as the underserved were those most at risk when not having equal access to crucial public health information. This lesson applies to our future policies.  Any innovation or policy framework furthering digital innovation should ask the following questions: what is the purpose of the exercise? What are our assumptions and have we validated those? And who or what are we excluding from our designs in our cities, our communities? Have we designed from the perspective of where-the city’s-Residents are, or are we merely taking a solution to the people and hope to validate our assumptions?

5. Mitigating Digital Divides; Full inclusion as the must-achieve Moonshot

Throughout the pandemic, cities across the globe have experienced mixed track-records at reaching all citizens, enabling all children to continue having access to education, and providing their residents with access to critical municipality information in a timely and user-friendly way. Local governments had to shift overnight in moving from traditional information and service delivery that was digitally augmented, to digital first or digital only. What had remained a mere pipe-dream of a given city’s chief digitalization officer in 2019, had become reality by the end of 2020. Yet not all communities moved at the same speed. Those communities that had forged ‘the greatest access for the greatest number’ prior to the crisis, such as the Stavanger, Norway and Seoul, Korea (if only for their close to 100% fiber the home broadband delivered across the cities) or Sacramento, California with its early 5G roll-out and public Wi-Fi deployment, were able to claim the highest level on inclusion from the first day of the pandemic. 5 The public Wi-Fi services had launched just prior to the pandemic in the City of Sacramento, California, and helped enable students in otherwise ‘under-connected’ households to continue to engage with their classmates and complete school activities.6 As already stated above, local NGOs representing minorities, or NGOs with a track record of operating at grassroots on a variety of missions over multiple years, have proved to be an additional yet crucial non-technological ingredient in achieving high levels of inclusion and building trust, as have multi-linguistic approaches to providing municipal web pages and digital information tools. 7

In short, as illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities no longer have the luxury to think of digital as a way of augmenting existing analogue services. Digital delivery of information and citizen services has become mission-critical. Governments can no longer create digital services and merely hope these will reach a happy percentage of the population. Full inclusion must now be the starting point for good design, recognizing that those who are underserved and most vulnerable are in need of help most, and must be prioritized as such.

6. Agile Regulatory Environments 

In response to COVID-19, The City of Rome amended rigid rules overseeing the mandatory nature on municipal employees operating from their office, by allowing for remote work practices. In doing so they were able to literally achieve what countless visionary technical leaders had not been able to achieve. Regulatory frameworks can and must become more agile if they are to moderate digitalized urban conduct. Regulators can be the innovator's best friend, when engaged early and systematically. Chris Vein, former CIO of the City of San Francisco, referring to the 2005 Tsunami triggering an avalanche of innovations: "we realized we needed to model the city, building an early digital twin, allowing all stakeholders, regulators included, to understand what would need to be done to acquire the type of city resilience if such a Tsunami type disaster were to hit the shores of California." 8  Digital twin modeling such as conducted in San Francisco, test-beds, living labs - such as Copenhagen’s street automation lab called DOLL – as well as innovation districts (or innovation sandboxes) may provide early learning environments that allow regulators to prepare and achieve the level of regulatory agility that is needed.9 In calling for these innovation zones, we are not suggesting that they should be absent of oversight. Rather, that innovation should be allowed to prosper, with all the necessary checks and balances, but within governance and regulatory frameworks that can actively evolve alongside the innovations themselves.  

7. Skills

Multiple local, regional and national governments around the world came to discover their shortcomings when trying to digitally respond to COVID-19. The crafts of design thinking, data analytics, cybersecurity – to name just a few – touch on skill sets, traits and know-how that can and must be trained for. The government of Singapore – both a city and a state, under the country's Smart Nation program, decided in 2017 to send close to 50% of its public sector workforce back to school to be trained in data strategies and data analytics so that they could return to their digitalized jobs and be effective and accountable. Educating a workforce for the next industrial revolution is, of course, an ongoing journey, with the need for such an educational journey recognized by many well before the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet in a time where ‘digital only’ became the core modus of operations for the first time in history, the need for the right skills became more apparent than ever. Any digitalization-focused policy framework needs to encompass workforce development as a priority as a key component of a responsible technological governance.

8. Understand Digital Technologies & Manage them Wisely

Technology is not the most important component of a digitalization strategy. Civic engagement, new business models, changing organizational patterns, new regulatory environments, ethics - all of these carry as much weight. But that is not to downplay technology. It is what fuels our access to information, it’s the engine that powers modern society. But new technologies always produce unintended consequences which need to be understood. Algorithms may discriminate. Data may leak. Solutions may infringe on privacy. Which leads us to a series of calls to action:

  • Articulate a data strategy that encompasses data and algorithm governance, digital rights, purpose, and the creation of a fair level-playing field for all stakeholders (both public and private) that wish to produce, access or process relevant data. Cities such as Tampere, Finland and Dortmund, Germany are preparing for ‘data utilities’ – and example worth studying.10  Amsterdam, Barcelona and New York have initiated the ‘Cities for Digital Rights’ coalition that provides useful charters and practices that can be adopted by others.11  A lot more remains to be done beyond digital rights, with policy frameworks needing to carve out measures sustaining ‘traditional’ civil and human rights within the digital realm.
  • Ensure interoperability to forge a fair and effective level-playing field for all stakeholders, architectures, data strategies and digital solutions to be effective. Without it, one app will not talk to the other, imperative data can possibly not be read by that one specific tool, and a given community may not be able to use an app or service that had already been built at a high expense by a neighboring city. Requests for Information (RFIs), Requests for Procurement (RFPs) and the conditions for Public Private Partnership agreements can and should be articulated accordingly and, where possible, avoid proprietary lock-ins. At the height of the pandemic, the City of Rome produced a number of city dashboards and data analytics schemes built on open source software. It was the city's way of producing an open and interoperable environment for the next set of solutions it sought to produce. 12 Another example open source solution built to respond to COVID-19 more effectively is the FIWARE-based bio surveillance system supporting public administrations and health institutions in cities and communities in Italy’s Veneto region - to have a ‘near’ real-time holistic view of contextualized information coming from different data sources, allowing for, among others, predictive maps of contagion.13 Working with open source software —cost effective, and interoperable for its open code DNA— is an important point of guidance for future policy frameworks.

9. Regional Collaboration

Regional collaboration bringing together a number of municipalities in articulating and delivering on urban innovation and digitalization agendas have proved to be a game-changer in, among others, greater Stavanger, Brescia province, Italy, and greater Phoenix, Arizona well before COVID-19 emerged. This approach not only allows for, but encourages, deployment of solutions at scale, joint procurements, shared data management constructs, interoperability and social inclusion schemes. And does so for the benefit of all. Regional collaboration also recognizes the continual movement of people across jurisdictional boundaries and the need for solutions that do not stop at any one city’s border. This truism has come to be accepted further as a result of the COVID-19 response. For instance, targeting the inclusion of an ethnic minority, immigrant and other historically excluded groups can be greatly facilitated by collaboration across municipalities, as shown in the Paris example quoted above.14 To act in unison, to seek collaboration in adjacent jurisdictions and localities ought to be an important item of guidance in any future policy framework on urban digitalization and innovation agendas.

10. A rethink of a city's built environment

Digitalization allows for a redesign of the distribution of resources and services. Human conduct (work, learning, shopping, commuting, cultural life to name just a few) has consequently become more distributed. Modern urban communities typically stand in embrace of a hybrid use of space: a physical, analogue reality that gets facilitated by digital. This illustrates the disruptive shift in (the use of) the built environments of our cities experience. Dynamic, hybrid, changeable use of physical space has helped to expand the degree of resilience of a given community, as has been demonstrated at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This shift enables what is labelled “the 15 minute neighborhood” in which access to healthcare, groceries, and green environment, among others, had to become available within a short walking distance for every citizen.15   As with the other principles laid out in the above, a vast repository of experience in pre-COVID digitalization efforts is a source of guidance: mixed-use innovation districts such as the quint-essential example of 22@Barcelona, which for decades has been bringing citizens, small business, large enterprise, education, infrastructure, technology and investment together effectively within one physical neighborhood environment. Cities can facilitate 15-minute districts by allowing for mixed and temporary use of vacated spaces by lowering, for instance, the threshold of obtaining temporary or permanent permits for a specific usage of space (think food delivery for instance). Longer term strategies will typically involve city spatial planners to embrace distributed designs of urban services tied to equally distributed built environment designs – and the insertion of green and urban agricultural components, further strengthening local community resilience.

11. Ethics and Integrity 

The more we digitalize, the more ethical considerations come into play. It applies to these considerations as much as it applies to cybersecurity: commence integrating such considerations per the beginning of any service design. A tendency exists to think of security, privacy and ethics ‘later’ - once a proof of concept has met its technological validations successfully, once scale is within reach. However, proof of concepts have a habit of living on a for a long time. The speed of the COVID-19 response required to meet the collective challenges may require to revisit some of the designs and policies during the pandemic, and such structural examination should become a systematic component weaved into future digitalization strategies.

12. The global urban innovative harvest may not remain by default

Our collective response to COVID-19 has triggered an avalanche of innovations and helped accelerate existing innovation and digitalization agendas. Yet that innovative harvest may not be here to stay by default. Avoiding a return to the “old normal” will require effort and it will also require a validation and deepening of innovative steps taken. For example, an all-out return to the old office (the old normal) may not be desirable but may occur unless policies, incentives and the matching regulatory frameworks aren’t proposed. At the same time, the practice of remote work so widely embraced during the pandemic does not equate a culture and practice of smart work, with the latter constituting a comprehensive array of tools, values, modes of collaboration and systems of measurement that represent a break with our working pasts. Moving forward with the smart community innovation and digitalization agendas beyond COVID will require a sustained, comprehensive effort.


The pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which high levels of collaboration are required for deeply interconnected societies to manage—and recover from—complex, exponential systemic crises. The fact that viruses are borderless is just another reason why humans need to invest in dramatically re-tooled principles and mechanisms for global co-operation. 

This crisis should spur us all to explore a new form of globalization for the 21st century, one that prioritizes collective investment in global public goods—including technological and ethical goods—to the benefit of all. Such global integration must enable diverse stakeholders from across the public, private and non-profit sectors worldwide to work more effectively and sustainably together.  

Digitalization is catapulting society into, what many now call, the Fourth Industrial Revolution. COVID-19 has demonstrated the clear need for an intelligent and timely adoption of modern digital means as to safeguard the resilience and well-being of our communities. Such adoption will have go hand-in-hand with the regulatory frameworks, the organizational designs, citizen engagement approaches and ethical considerations shared. These can all be regarded as critical ingredients in any approach preparing our communities for the next chapters of the shift we are living. 

Excerpts of the article were first published in an amended format by the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)




Boorsma, Bas – A New Digital Deal. Beyond Smart Cities. How to Best Leverage Digitalization for the Benefit of our Communities. Revised 2020 Edition (2020, Community Nova/ BoekXpress)

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Loucks, Jeff; Macaulay, James; Noronha, Andy; Wade, Michael – Digital Vortex. How today’s market leaders can beat disruptive competitors at their own game. (2016, IMD)

Castells, Manuel – The Rise of the Network Society (1996, 2000, Blackwell)

Mitchell, William; Casalegno, Federico – Connected Sustainable Cities (2008, MIT Mobile Experience Lab Publishing, Connected Urban Development)

Parker, Geoffrey; Van Alstyne, Marshall; Choudary, Sangeet – Platform Revolution. How Networked Markets Are Transforming The Economy And How To Make Them Work For You. (2016, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.) 

Ramo, Joshua – The Age of the Unthinkable. Why the new world disorder constantly surprises us and what to do about it(2009, Little, Brown)

Reichental, Jonathan – Smart Cities for dummies (2020, Wiley)

Rifkin, Jeremy – The Zero Marginal Cost Society. The Internet of Things, the collaborative commons and the eclipse of capitalism (2014, 2015, Palgrave, Macmillan)

Rifkin, Jeremy - The Green New Deal. Why the Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth (2019, St Martin’s Press)

Rose, Jonathan F.P. – The Well-Tempered City. What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life (2016, Harper)

Townsend, Anthony – Smart Cities. Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a new Utopia (2013, 2014, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc)

Zukin, Sharon – The Innovation Complex. Cities, Tech, and the New Economy (2020, Oxford University Press) 


Articles, Online Publications

Balducci, Alessandro -

Boorsma, Bas; Hock Yun, Khoong; Rantanen, Teppo;  and Slembrouck, Stefan - “Should cities turn to special utilities to manage data?”-

Khagram, Sanjeev – “Why Coronavirus will Accelerate the 4th Industrial Revolution” (The Economist)

Signé, Khagram and Goldstein – “Using the Fourth IR to fight COVID-19 Around the world” (The Brookings Institution) 


Online Sources

Greater Copenhagen’s DOLL Living Lab:

Cities for Digital Rights:



Raffaele Gareri, Chief Digitalization Officer, City of Rome, Interview conducted by Bas Boorsma, Thunderbird School of Global Management, September 2020

Oskar Sandholt, Technical Director, City of Reykjavik, Interview conducted by Bas Boorsma, Thunderbird School of Global Management, September 2020

Gunnar Crawford, Innovation Director, City of Stavanger, Interview conducted by Bas Boorsma, Thunderbird School of Global Management, October 2020

Maria MacGuinal, CIO, City of Sacramento, Calfornia, Interview conducted by Bas Boorsma, Thunderbird School of Global Management, September 2020

Chris Vein, former CIO of the City of San Francisco, former CIO of the World Bank Group, Interview conducted by Bas Boorsma, Thunderbird School of Global Management, October 2020

1 Financial Times, August 24, 2020 -
2 Interview Oskar Sandholt conducted by Bas Boorsma on behalf of Thunderbird School of Global Management for the purpose of the school’s online certified course on smart and resilient communities. Interview conducted in September 2020.
3 Input provided by Raffaele Gareri, Chief Digitalization Officer, City of Rome. Baltic examples: “Innovation in the face of crisis, Insights from European cities”, September 2020, Center for Public Impact
4 “Innovation in the face of crisis, Insights from European cities”, September 2020, Center for Public Impact
5 Reykjavik and Stavanger examples: Thunderbird School of Global Management interviews conducted by author with CTOs of Reykjavik and Stavanger, September and October 2020 respectively.
6 Sacramento: Thunderbird School of Global Management interview conducted with CIO of City of Sacramento, September 2020
7 Multi-liguistic information sources approaches: “Innovation in the face of crisis, Insights from European cities”, September 2020, Center for Public Impact
8 Interview with Chris Vein, former CIO of the City of San Francisco, former CIO of the World Bank Group, October 1, 2020
9 Denmark’s DOLL brings together municipalities, vertical street automation solution providers and academic institutes, allowing for a canvass for not just companies but also regulators to engage early -
10 “Should cities turn to special utilities to manage data?”-