Smart City Festival 2021 - SMART RESTART

The Vision of Smart Cities in the Post-Pandemic World
SCF21 banner

Although the pandemic keeps the world in turmoil, the Smart City Festival (SCF) traditionally happens in October, celebrating knowledge, freedom, and progress. Unfortunately, the opportunity of living normally is still a distant reality for people across the world, but this still couldn’t stop the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Western Balkans and its partners once again bringing international experts from business, science, and politics as well as regional stakeholders and decision-makers together to discuss the new meaning of the concept of Smart Cities.

The pandemic hasn’t killed the vision of Smart Cities, but it has certainly changed their path and underlying meaning. As governments around the world slashed budgets to stay afloat amid a projected global recession, Smart Cities leaders were forced to recalibrate, changing magnificent megaprojects aimed at converting big cities into Next-Gen Hyperconnected Nerve Centres to smaller, more targeted, initiatives.

The term “smart” has changed slightly since the onset of the COVID pandemic – from the largely ICT-based data-driven conservative point of view, the concept has evolved as the world around us has changed. Wrapping up last year, SCF 2020, the event community expressed the hope that we would share the same physical space this year – but that didn’t happen. The new pandemic accelerated digital transformation and pushed all of us a step further away from an in-person event. In addition, since last year, the pandemic has revealed the dark side of globalisation: restrictions; supply-chains disrupted not only in the Suez Canal, but all over the world. After all these experiences, it wasn’t possible to keep the same location for the event or the term “smart.”

Repositioning the vision of Smart Cities was the starting point for the event intro in the Opening Ceremony’s address by Michael Roick, Project Director of the FNF WB, who represented the official host of the event – FNF. Disrupted globalisation and the lack of international cooperation coloured all goals and discussion of the Festival – pushing us to stop for a moment and redefine our vision of the New Normality requiring a fast and “smart restart.” This Restart doesn’t mean going back to the old normality – that is simply not possible; at the same time, however, it opens many questions about what “smart” and “restart” mean in the new real world context.

“SCF 2021 – Smart Restart becomes the platform for ideas for dealing with the vision of the post-pandemic world and sharing valuable knowledge and experience. The treasure of knowledge and experts’ networks have become an asset of the SCF and Smart Education Initiative now and forever.”

Michael Roick
SCF21 Studio
Hybrid event © FNF

An additional aim for all of us was presented by our second honorary speaker, H.E. Thomas Schieb, the Ambassador of Germany in Serbia, who drew our attention not only to this aim but also to what we must not forget. Concurrent with the pandemic Germany, for example, was facing another challenge this year – unexpected disastrous floods not typical for Europe. This became the top priority for German citizens in early 2021, even topping the pandemic, reminding us that old problems persist even in pandemic times.

“Just because we are living in the pandemic, we must not forget the many other challenges we are dealing with in today’s world, especially climate changes.”

H.E. Thomas Schieb

As a good model to share, Germany delivered a strong response based on a solid political consensus between all political interests in prioritising climate change as the top problem of this decade – differences remained only in the various methodologies, instruments, and approaches used as solutions. This broader unity on topics critical for society becomes a role model for other communities and countries around the world. He reminded us, too, that the framework and tools are already present in the EU Green Agenda, as are legislation, methodology, and many financial mechanisms; adding that the EU hasn’t forgotten the WB region, preparing a solid financial and capacity support package through the region-specific needs and challenges in the form of the WB Green Agenda.

The Mayor of the City of Belgrade, Mr. Zoran Radojičić, closed the introductory circle by focusing on Serbia and the potential of the Western Balkan region. He naturally agreed with the previous speakers, confirming that the City of Belgrade, along with Serbia as a whole, is strongly dedicated to joining the Smart Restart process and following good praxis from the EU.

These messages at the start of the SCF 2021 opened a set of questions and challenges, within which our experts, in their roles as keynote speakers and panellists, discussed all aspects of the Smart Restart and attempted to offer solutions or at least directions for action for our attendees and the broader global community. This Restart is enormous, profound, and sometimes requires painful deals, especially in defining priorities in situations where resources are limited. To support discussions, the SCF 2021 created the 5M framework for our discussion preferences and priorities: Mentality, Mobility, Market, Media, Medical, making the Smart and Digital Citizen a focus in every keynote and panel discussion at the SCF 2021, as a path to the Smart Society in the New/Smart Normality.

The framework of challenges, of which we are aware, is set, but the main goal is not to repeat well-known global states and problems but to find a proper and efficient response to the current situation. And step-by-step, speaker-by-speaker, the SCF has discovered and provided some potential responses and ideas which should be launched worldwide to move us from this uncertain situation to Smart Restart.

Panel setup in the studio © FNF


How to restart in an intelligent way? Where to (re)start?  That responsibility was given to SCF21 keynote speaker Greg Lindsay, globalist and futurist, novelist, and a man with a strong vision for future relations who started our journey in search of solutions in his keynote address on Globalisation Reimagined, giving us a retrospective on the new global reality and current state of play. The broader context of Smart Cities and Smart Restart for society worldwide helped to identify priorities on local and global scales to engage acute reactions.

The deglobalisation process caused by the pandemic tops the list of challenges. It becomes a critical point for further understanding the evolution of society in post-pandemic times. Humanity has suffered in many dimensions, including the Mental component of our framework – physical distancing has led to emotional distancing, too, uncovering the dark side of digitalisation. The loudest digital transformation agitators and optimists never imagined that our physical world would be replaced by a virtual-only digital platform keeping us far distant from the human side of existence – this wasn’t something they promoted. This forced social experiment has proved that we are not as yet ready to jump into the digital tech semi-existence without deeply considering the emotional, physiological, social, and ethical side of all the effects we expect in this kind of metaverse.

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“Distancing between individuals, even in families, led to distancing between groups and countries, pushing us towards deglobalisation, creating obstacles to meeting and understanding each other – and we remember this stage from history: unfamiliar things spark fears and rejections leading the global society to the conflict. Deglobalisation must be stopped now with even stronger Globalisation and Solidarity.”

Greg Lindsay

In the Medical domain, one of our framework priorities, it has become critically urgent to discuss an action plan to preserve concurrently our physical and mental health as individual human beings and the health of society and everything built in the world since the last global conflict. One of the leading priorities must be to improve the capacity and capability of global healthcare, which is under-capacitated and non-optimised for large-scale incidents such as this global pandemic, even in highly developed leading countries. If anything is clear, it is that this pandemic is not the worst that could have been, but it is also obvious that the world is not ready to face potential natural disasters in the requisite manner – neither pandemic, nor flood, nor earthquake, nor any other natural disaster – and all of these threats have been out of the spotlight for decades. Today, after learning the lessons and understanding the warnings, the global community no longer has the liberty to avoid creating a mechanism for a global response to future global threats.

Even though these are all complex challenges, the solutions are already here. We are finding ways to engage them – primarily, to use existing ICT and technologies in general to create more globalisation as the answer to deglobalisation and the dark side of globalisation: Artificial Intelligence, for solving multiple and complex problems, and Increasing Digitalisation, for time-efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

In avoiding the usual trap of discussing problems and challenges and becoming stuck in that point, Prof. Thomas Straubhaar’s expert guidance was invaluable in our taking a step closer to a set of solutions. There is a fundamental generational need to avoid extrapolating the past into the future, our previous pre-pandemic experience into our post-pandemic New Normality. This poses, without any shadow of doubt, the greatest threat to our values, society, and global economy – and it simply requires that we (re)define new priorities and a new paradigm for our Restarted World.

“We have three main questions to identify and answer for the Smart Restart – Challenges, Solutions, Management. In the 3-D model we find our response directions – Disruption, Decarbonisation, Digitalisation.”

Prof. Thomas Straubhaar

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At the same time, the global economy must be redefined before it can be restarted. Should we have to repeat this in the future, it would generally mean that it is too late, and the world is entering a global crisis. The post-pandemic world is a non-physical or hybrid world, so many societies in the industrialisation stage will find other ways to create added value besides physical goods. The way in which we harness the momentum of the global economy is changing, and this process should align with economic transformation to a green and sustainable economy, considering climate change constraints. Digitalisation is necessary, and ICT tools, including Artificial Intelligence, can now help global society fight many challenges successfully. In the future, it will help us transform our cities into Smart Cities. Still, there remain many risks and threats – with Big Data often comes Big Brother and many ethical questions on privacy, cybersecurity, and trust.


COVID-19 has magnified the urban butterfly effect – or how small changes in one system can have a massive impact on much larger outcomes. In our digital reality, chaos has ensued when those systems have been disconnected. Transportation, education, healthcare, supply chains and even overall governance is more and more influenced by a technical agenda.

Arundhati Roy has described the “Pandemic as a Portal” explaining that, “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” This uncertainty of the “new” is something that modern citizens except and enjoy. It directed the event – SCF 2021 – to focus our search for answers, response directions, and new ways to help the global community to imagine the new post-pandemic world restarted from the broken pieces on a clear vision of bright future.

The search for solutions in these complex relations requires that the situation be discussed in the broader community, and because of this, the SCF 2021 has once again brought together international experts from business, science, and politics and regional stakeholders and decision-makers to discuss the new meaning of the concept of Smart Cities, Smart Restart and the New/Smart Normality, to send a strong message together that the achievements of today’s civilization will be preserved and even improved upon.

The series of discussions started with Panel 1: The Great Rethinking, where a group of international experts shared their experience in redefining “smart” in the context not only of cities, but also of societies in general. The main question, set for the discussion moderated by Aleksandar Mastilović, was to find new paths and values for Smart Restart in an economic, scientific, and social perspective.

“We have to rather rethink instead of restart. Smart companies are the future in the post-pandemic world.”

Aleksandar Mastilović

The Great Rethinking brought together panellists from the cities of Brussels – Céline Vanderborght – and Vienna – Nikolaus Summer – who shared their experiences of a year of pandemic in two of the leading urban areas in the EU. They agreed that the exit from the current situation will be based on innovations, with the Smart City concept becoming a bundle of innovations for products, processes, and services, together with the process of the Digital Transformation of Public Administration and businesses, overcoming the obstacles of usual direct and physical contacts.

Nikolaus Summer and Céline Vanderborght in session
Nikolaus Summer and Céline Vanderborght in session © FNF

“The Smart City is a bundle of innovations for products, processes, and services. This could be a part of a new definition for Smart Cities in the post-pandemic world."

Nikolaus Summer

The “rethought” Cities become human-centric more than ever, especially in healthcare, and more resilient to future threats – new paths and values come when government, academic and business sectors start working together, something which today is just a phrase. This uniting of different pillars can quickly bring tech innovations to different areas, establishing the fundamentals for future economic growth, market breakthrough, and increased productivity. The Smart City will become the City-as-a-Platform based on Open Data, much less purely connected-urban areas as it was in the early-stage of Smart Cities evolution.

Our search for solutions continued with Panel 2: The Art of Turning Disaster into Prosperity, moderated by Dr. Ivana Kostić. The discussion’s very title already sent a message, because that is how the pandemic should be understood – not just as the challenge we know it to be, but also as the opportunity for the much easier change and transformation of some inefficient systems into prosperity platforms, focusing on the priority of Mobility, using such current tech discoveries as Artificial Intelligence.

“We will turn our disaster into prosperity when we learn how to innovate, how to create an impact, how to design disruptive ideas. When we learn how to do all of these, we will have much better world than we even had."

Natali Delić
Live session at SCF21
Live session at SCF21 © FNF

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And so we come to the simple topic of Panel 3: Smart Cities: Smart Re:Start. While the title is more than simple, the summarising of all the challenges and solutions, fitting them all together, optimising the process of taking our lives back is far from simple. Rather than agitating for a cutting-edge solution, we must unite around the idea of redesigning products and services to serve human wellbeing and health, our resilience and stability, preserving the certainty of our future. All 5M priorities were rediscussed, but there is one clear message: whatever the next version of normal looks like, many changes are here to stay …

Teamwork is everything
Teamwork is everything © FNF


The Smart Cities concept as presented at the first SCF five years ago was not the same as it is now, and indeed it couldn’t be. With the pandemic outbreak, the emptying of urban areas has started together with the loss of many jobs due to the lockdown and other restrictions. The urban exodus might be just a temporary strategy to avoid pandemics, but it looks more like an irreversible trend as time goes on. Urban citizens’ needs, experiences, and expectations are different, transforming our mentality and redefining our priorities: the common point having an impact on all the 5M components – Mentality, Mobility, Market, Media, Medical – regarding immediate wise action is education. The Smart Restart requires “smart”, well-educated, trained, and experienced individuals to act proactively for Smart Cities and Smart Society at the moment of a historic crossroad when the global community should choose the direction of evolution: stay closed and close the world even more or break these chains and globalise the world more than ever. These are very prudent decisions for the long term, and every year the SCF supplies answers to many doubts and questions not only for decision-makers but for regular people and communities. The 5M spaces are arenas where the battle between challenges and practical solutions has been and is being fought, and it is not yet won.

The SCF has provided the essential guide and directions for (re)thinking, encouraging all of us to a new review, innovative political strategies, and a renaissance of market-based competitions in the green and circular economic arena; but for real success, there must be more. Cities with solid digital foundations and capacities have responded better to the pandemic than their counterparts, reminding us that the world must not give up on technologies but also that a balance of physical and digital life is necessary. Technologies are impressive but still just tools in the hands of the leaders of Smart Restart. Leverage from innovation and technologies supports socio-economic goals and helps us maintain and advance inclusion, social cohesion, global cohesion, and solidarity as viewed in the globalised world. Smart Restart is an opportunity to build truly Smart Cities and a Smart Society engaging innovation strategies in communities’ priorities to build the equal, inclusive, sustainable post-pandemic world painted in the vision of Smart Cities – Communities in the 21st century.