What is a Smart City?

Stephen DeAngelis

August 9, 2019

I’ve read numerous articles asking the question (or a something similar to the question) “What is a smart city?” Freda Miklin (@famiklin) provides a succinct answer. She writes, “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 such a straight forward definition 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] He adds, “It seems each observer defines ‘city’ in the image of their own profession. CEOs of IT firms say that cities are ‘a system of systems’ and visualize the city as an increasing and dense flow of information to be optimized. Physicists have modeled cities and observed relationships between city scale and activity, treating city residents as atoms and describing cities as conforming to ‘laws.’ In part, these metaphors reflect reality. In their function, cities have information flows and physical systems. However, it is something more than its information flows and physical systems, and its citizens need to be viewed as something other than mindless atoms.” This led Jenny McGrath (@JennyMcGeez) to answer the question “What is a smart city?” this way: “Not even the people building them seem to know yet.”[3]


There is no smart city blueprint to follow


Because a smart city is often viewed from specific system perspectives, trying to define it holistically is a challenge. Bas Boorsma (@BasBoorsma), a Digitization Executive and Smart City Leader, writes, “The notion of the ‘Smart City’ has always been a vague one. Both words represent a problem: ‘smart’ remains hard to define, and objections to the term tend to grow if one is to contemplate what exactly constitutes the opposite of being ‘smart’. … The second word, ‘city’, limits the scope substantially. There is no reason why a digitalization strategy that typically may apply to a city would not apply to a smaller town, a region, a campus or, in fact, and entire country.”[4] Two things, however, lie at heart of most smart city definitions or concepts: technology and systems. Why? Because cities need to use resources more judiciously and intelligently.

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 provide actionable insights to make them better (i.e., obtain the maximum benefit from the systems using the least amount of resources). As Boorsma noted above, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a smart city because cities and their surroundings are unique. Andrew Soergel (@ASoergel) asserts, “Without question, however, experts agree that what a smart city truly needs to thrive are smart citizens — or local businesses and educational institutions to generate public dollars, contribute to technological advancement and draw more talent and more companies to the area.”[5] Since there is no blueprint to follow to create a smart city, city leaders must decide which technologies can help them make the lives of their citizens better at an affordable cost.


Elements of a smart city


Before jumping into the technological details of a smart city, Aaron Hurst (@AaronPeterHurst) believes city planners should take a macro-view of the elements required as a foundation of a smart city.[6] Those elements are: funding, leadership, infrastructure, sustainable development, and big data.


Funding. Implementing new technologies is not a cheap proposition. Cities need to find new ways to fund technology upgrades as well as understand what the return on investment will be from implementing those technologies. Hurst points out that things like smart street lighting, which is capable of monitoring traffic, providing connectivity, hosting security cameras, and monitoring air pollution as well as provide smart lighting solutions, should be implemented with funds drawn from the numerous city departments which stand to benefit from the data collected. Smart city connectivity will involve many stakeholders, all of whom should share in the costs of implementing that connectivity.


Leadership. Too many leaders are relinquishing their decision-making role to vendors. Hurst notes, “The responsibility of leading the development of a smart city falls onto the shoulders of city policymakers, who collaborate with multinational electronics corporations to implement the relevant technologies that a smart city requires.” Citizens’ groups also need to be part of the leadership team.


Infrastructure. There are too many smart systems to list; however, these systems all rely on sensors, connectivity (i.e., the Internet of Things), and advanced analytics (i.e., cognitive computing). Hurst writes, “With the threat of climate change ever looming, it is crucial that smart city infrastructure is sustainable and eco-friendly. … The development of ICT and IoT within a smart city also cuts costs, which further enhances the sustainability factor. Sensors that monitor pollution, traffic and parking spaces are also an important aspect of a smart city’s infrastructure.”


Sustainable development. Urban areas are now home to more of the world’s population than rural ones and urbanization is predicted to remain a trend. Urbanization makes it an imperative that cities develop in sustainable manner. Smart lighting, smart electrical grids, and other “smart” systems are critical in this effort.


Big data. Data is essential to making cities smarter; however, it’s the analysis of the data that matters most. The staff at Gov CIO Outlook explains, “Artificial intelligence plays a crucial role in building a smart city with digital transformation helping the team understand behavior and act accordingly. It helps geospatial analysts to automate information processing and expand understanding. … Location intelligence helps by providing information about what is happening everywhere at the moment it is occurring. … Cities are starting to leverage geospatial technology and design to create a more sustainable environment. … AI technologies drive a massive transformation by supporting governments in a the way of advancing cities.”[7]


Concluding thoughts


Sarah Wray writes, “Perhaps ‘smart cities’ is perceived as having too much of a focus on the technology rather than benefits.”[8] She has heard suggestions to change the moniker to things like intelligent city, wise city, enlightened city and lovable city. She observes, “These better demonstrate the human aspect and the fact that cities are not machines; they are diverse, living organisms that are always changing. … While most of these terms have merit, none of them are perfect, or as pervasive as ‘smart cities’.” We probably shouldn’t anguish over the name or definition of a smart city; rather, we should focus on beneficial outcomes that make cities more livable and resource wise. The staff at Knowledge@Wharton writes, “The global smart-city movement, which has been around for more than two decades, has gone through three phases of evolution. It initially focused on technology-led solutions to challenges. Then came a citizen-centric, collaborative approach in the second phase. Now, the features of smart cities have expanded further to include safety, happiness and well-being.” Maybe the lovable city will someday catch on.


[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] Jenny McGrath, “Becoming a smart city takes more than sensors and buzzwords,” Digital Trends, 24 July 2018.
[4] Bas Boorsma, “So what exactly is a ‘smart city’?City Metric, 7 November 2017.
[5] Andrew Soergel, “What Makes a City Smart?U.S. News & World Report, 12 January 2018.
[6] Aaron Hurst, “What are the elements of a smart city?Information Age, 2 August 2018.
[7] Staff, “Essentials to Build a Smart City,” Gov CIO Outlook, 8 January 2019.
[8] Sarah Wray, “Smart cities: What’s in a name?SmartCitiesWorld, 11 July 2018.
[9] Knowledge@Wharton, “Want to Build a Smart City?Fair Observer, 27 April 2019.