Is There Only One Type of Smart City?

Stephen DeAngelis

January 15, 2021

A number of articles have been written about what makes a city smart. In one such article, Freda Miklin (@famiklin) wrote, “A ‘smart city’ is one in which advanced technology is leveraged to strategically meet the needs of its citizens. It is an environment in which government and business come together to create solutions to current and future challenges using high level analysis and applying cutting-edge technological tools.”[1] Although I don’t disagree with Miklin’s definition, smart cities also involve subtleties and nuances that a straight-forward definition like hers fails to capture. For example, by stressing “advanced technology,” Miklin leaves the impression that smart cities can be engineered. Joe Cortright argues, “Cities are organisms, not machines; so a smart city has to learn and not be engineered.”[2]


The staff at GCN magazine suggests there are four different models that can reasonably be used to identify a smart city. Those models are: The essential services model; the smart transportation model; the broad spectrum model; and the business ecosystem model.[3] They note that researchers came up with these four models after analyzing plans from 60 municipal smart-cities across the globe. One of those researchers, Krishna Jayakar, a professor of telecommunications at Penn State University, told the GCN staff, “The term ‘smart city’ remains more of a buzzword than a clearly articulated program of action. Smart cities are those that use new information and communication technologies to solve pressing problems — such as housing, transportation, and energy — in urban planning and governance.” Each of the four models is described in more detail below.


The essential services model


According the GCN staff, “The essential services model characterizes cities by their use of mobile networks in emergency management and health-care services. Cities like Tokyo and Copenhagen already have mature communication infrastructures and have invested in a few, well-chosen programs.” This model begs the question: What is an essential service? W. Jarrett Campbell, Global Industry Marketing Director at AVEVA, asserts, “In order to stay competitive, every nation must move people, goods and data efficiently while delivering energy and water resources in a safe, reliable and sustainable manner. … With increasing urbanization, mounting cost pressures and demand for improved quality of life, there is now a global move towards infrastructure consolidation, upgrade and continuous improvement.”[4] From his comments, it’s clear Campbell believes logistics, transportation, water, and energy are essential services. How about real estate transactions, licensing of all types, tax collection, education, and other types of people-related services?


Regardless of what you consider an essential service, Campbell notes, “Infrastructure provides a critical connection to businesses, communities, people and quality of life on a global scale. It drives economies across the world.” Infrastructure, especially broadband, also drives cities. Adie Tomer (@AdieTomer), a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Rob Puentes (@rpuentes), President & CEO of EnoTrans, bluntly state, “No industry or household in the world, will reach their future potential without access to broadband, it is the electricity of the 21st century.”[5] It’s a truism that holds true for cities as well. The most recent challenge for city planners is how to implement 5G telecommunications to facilitate advanced connectivity options.


The smart transportation model


The GCN staff writes, “The smart transportation model refers to cities that aim to control urban congestion by leveraging technologies, such as IT and communications as well as public transportation, car sharing and/or self-driving cars. Singapore and Dubai are included in this group.” Smart transportation also includes things like smart streetlights and smart parking structures. Some smart cities are trying to increase the number of walkable streets closed to traffic; however, logistics considerations must be taken into account to ensure urban residents still have access to goods at a reasonable price. The rise of ride-sharing and e-commerce home delivery have increased city congestion and are just two of the challenges this model must address. Some cities have opted to let companies offering rentable e-scooters and bicycles operate within their urban centers hoping to reduce car traffic; however, these options also have their challenges. A variety of futuristic air taxis are also going to add to urban complexity in the not to distant future.


The broad spectrum model


“Cities using the broad spectrum model, the GCN staff explains, “tend to have a high level of civic participation and emphasize management of urban services, such as water, sewage and waste as well as pollution control.” This model comes closest to what many people perceive as a true smart city. Some pundits refer to this as a system-of-systems model. IBM believes cities are based on six core systems that should be optimized both individually and holistically. Those “systems” are: people; business; transport; communication; water; and energy. I would add a seventh system — waste management (which would include both trash and sanitation). Making those systems smart means implementing some type of cognitive technology that monitors and analyzes them as well as provides actionable insights to make them better (i.e., obtain the maximum benefit from the systems using the least amount of resources).


Campbell believes most cities desiring to become smarter will eventually adopt a system-of-systems approach. He explains, “A transformative integration approach is required to span across various applications, including facilities management, utilities, telecommunication, transportation, health and e-governance. The most effective approach, then, is to not just connect all these disparate functions but to collect, analyze and then act on unified and holistic intelligence with the help of real-time data. With smart cities, the objective is to enable city leaders to better serve citizens and businesses. A command and control center based on an integrated, ‘system of systems’ approach can be used to leverage information from various data sources to anticipate and resolve problems even before they are presented, coordinate various resources and processes to operate seamlessly, and generally make more strategic decisions.”


The business ecosystem model


According to the GCN staff, “The business ecosystem model is the most common tactic. It uses technology development to jumpstart economic activity by investing in digital skills training and supports high-tech businesses.” Many pundits point out that “smart cities” are really “smart regions” or “smart ecosystems” that range beyond formal city boundaries. Any business ecosystem model needs to take into account how the suburbs play a role in helping energize economic activity. Bob Mazer, co-founder of Smart City Works, notes, “Smart Cities, and more and more Smart Regions, cannot succeed without rich and comprehensive ecosystems. … [An ecosystem should] include partners across higher ed, government agencies, non-profit and civic organizations, construction companies, architectural and engineering firms, cloud providers, data centers, communications service providers, cybersecurity experts and, of course, IoT and Industrial IoT companies. Smart Cities can be extremely complex and daunting to start, but over the last five years, we’ve seen orchestration and interoperability, standards and collaboration take the risk out of projects, and establish blueprints for future projects.”[6]


Concluding thoughts


Campbell concludes, “Due to rapid urbanization, many cities have old and ageing infrastructure with high replacement costs. Converting existing infrastructure to smart infrastructure is the key to improving city operations, and it is directly correlated to quality of life improvements.” Mazer adds, “While technology is a critical enabler, it is just one of the many capabilities that every smart city must-have. Large scale projects include services for residents and visitors, mobile enablement with those services working with smart devices and smart homes, innovation layers for ongoing creation of value as community members lives become increasingly digitally-led, and governance, management, and operations layers.” The system-of-systems model is the one that provides the best, long-term chances of truly making cities smart; however, it must start with the most important system: people.


[1] Freda Miklin, “What does it mean to be a ‘Smart City’?” The Villager, 3 July 2019.
[2] Joe Cortright, “What does it mean to be a ‘Smart City’?” City Commentary, 27 April 2017.
[3] Staff, “4 models for smart cities,” GCN 7 October 2019.
[4] W. Jarrett Campbell, “A ‘system of systems’ approach to breaking down smart city silos,” Smart Cities World, 16 January 2020.
[5] Adie Tomer and Rob Puentes, “Here’s the Right Way to Build the Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams,” Wired, 23 April 2014.
[6] Shrey Fadia, “Smart Cities and Regions are the Largest IoT Ecosystems,” IoT Evolution, 17 August 2020.