What Is A Smart City?

What Is A Smart City?

What happens when a town leverages today’s innovative technologies to increase efficiencies and improve the quality of services and life for its residents? You get a smart city. Metropolises around the world in countries as diverse as India to the United States and the UK to Japan are getting smarter every day. According to a survey by the National League of Cities, 66 per cent of cities have invested in smart city technology in some capacity.

What Is A Smart City?

How do you know if a city is smart?

Knowing whether or not your city is a smart city is a bit convoluted primarily because the term is poorly defined. However, the common denominator of the multitude of definitions of the term is that a smart city is one that has adopted the use of new technologies and data to help create efficiencies and solve environmental, economic and social challenges. Just like our homes and businesses, our cities can use the data collected and the processing power capable thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning to glean powerful insights on ways to save time, money and energy.

What are some smart city initiatives?

Smart city initiatives can be as simple as sensors on a parking metre that help drivers find open parking spots to more complex endeavours such as combining data from several utility companies to optimise the operations of the city’s infrastructure or Alibaba’s City Brain project, a cloud-based system where artificial intelligence algorithms process a large amount of data collected and then use it to operate systems around the city.

As brand new cities are being developed such as Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, smart technologies can be incorporated into the city as it is built. More common is retrofitting technology into existing cities in a bottom-up approach that uses new technology and data collected from interconnected devices. Here are a few examples of smart city initiatives:


Traffic flows can be monitored and analysed to improve congestion via intelligent traffic light systems. Another way smart cities improve transportation is to schedule public transportation routes based on actual demand. With constant data input, adjustments can be made in real time. In the Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) Initiative from the Kansas Department of Transportation, aerial drones will help manage traffic congestion and could also help in a disaster or emergency.  

Conservation and Environmental Concerns

Another way cities use smart systems is to help improve energy conservation and environmental concerns. Smart streetlamps can illuminate when sensors detect cars or pedestrians and dim when there is no traffic. Other efforts focus on environmental conservation and in the case of the East Coast Greenway Map, tourism. It’s an interactive map that crosses 15 states and more than 450 cities and towns to help hikers and bikers find the best routes. The Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) from MIT is focused on future food systems by networking partners in government, academia and industry. Denmark has already reduced greenhouse gas emissions in its energy sector, so now they are taking aim at the energy efficiency in buildings. Middelfart Municipality in partnership with Schneider electric is collecting data from the city’s properties about the indoor climate, energy usage and maintenance of the buildings and using it to make adjustments for better energy efficiency.

Technology Infrastructure

For some cities, the evolution to become a smart city includes building the new technology infrastructure such as fibre networks and 5G capabilities and ensuring world-class connectivity. In the UK, the smart programmes and initiatives are planned and overseen by entities such as Bristol is Open, Smarter London Together, Manchester Smart City and Smart Leeds. Cities need to have a clear vision and partnerships and participation with the city government, local businesses as well as citizens to move smart city initiatives forward.

What are some challenges to smart city initiatives?

Becoming a smart city requires the use of technology that is disruptive. In order for cities to adopt the technology, discussion and decisions need to be made regarding laws and regulations for the technology. For example, what is permissible regarding the monitoring of an individual with a sensor in a public place and what is considered an invasion of privacy? This, along with other regulations, need to be determined.  

Cities must also have the budget bandwidth to invest in the new technology. Funds for new technology and initiatives can be challenging for the cash-strapped public sector to secure when dollars are needed to update more immediate concerns such as repairing roads, funding education or improving safety and security.

In addition, the adoption of smart city initiatives requires the collaboration between government and the private sector. In order to be effective, silos will need to be broken down. At the moment, these entities aren't integrated into their operations, data isn't shared, and there are disparate systems being used. Some business owners might be resistant to commit to citywide initiatives if it doesn't serve their bottom line adequately. Citizens will also need to participate in and accept new technologies.

Full adoption of smart cities technologies requires an adequately trained workforce to develop systems and make decisions about how to effectively use those systems. Until the workforce catches up in their technological skill-set to address these challenging questions, the full implementation of smart initiatives will move slower than would be possible if there wasn’t a skills gap.

The potential for smart technology to alter our cities is significant. As technology improves, city governments will continue to improve knowledge and implementation to create smarter cities that use technology to help our cities be more efficient and to solve economic, social and environmental issues.



Written by

Bernard Marr

Bernard Marr is an internationally bestselling author, futurist, keynote speaker, and strategic advisor to companies and governments. He advises and coaches many of the world’s best-known organisations on strategy, digital transformation and business performance. LinkedIn has recently ranked Bernard as one of the top 5 business influencers in the world and the No 1 influencer in the UK. He has authored 16 best-selling books, is a frequent contributor to the World Economic Forum and writes a regular column for Forbes. Every day Bernard actively engages his almost 2 million social media followers and shares content that reaches millions of readers.

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