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What Makes a Smart City Smart?

September 3, 2013


The staff at ITBusiness writes, “We hear the term ‘smart city’ a lot these days, and it can mean different things according to the context.” [“Five things that make a smart city smart,” 15 November 2012] Aaron M. Renn, an urbanist, agrees that each city has to decide what is “smart” for it. In making those decisions, he notes, there are some “tensions” with which decision makers need to deal. [“Regarding Smart Cities,” Urbanophile, 27 November 2012] They include:


  • Centralized vs. decentralized systems.
  • Proprietary vs. open technology.
  • Technology driven by government (e.g., efficiency) or society as a whole (e.g., environmental) goals versus value delivery or life enhancements for citizens and consumers.


He continues: “These are definitely items that should be thought about when trying to get a handle around all the things that go into what we think of as ‘smart cities.’ I think a lot of what we conceive of as smart cities today consists in vendor led automation/efficiency solutions. These are important, particularly in an era of fiscal constraints in which business as usual is no longer tenable.” Lauren Brousell agrees with Renn that working with vendors is a good idea if it makes operations more effective and cost efficient. “Smart technologies produce a flood of data,” she writes, “so cities should look for software as a service (SaaS) and other cloud offerings to save on workload and cost. For example, the city of South Bend, Ind., is the first in the world to manage its water systems in the cloud, according to IBM, the city’s SaaS vendor. The system has reduced wet weather overflows by 23 percent and avoided $120 million in infrastructure costs, IBM says in a statement.” [“Five Things You Need to Know About Smart Cities,” ComputerWorld, 15 November 2012] Nevertheless, she reminds us, “It’s not all cool technology.” She explains:

“Though the definition of the term ‘smart city’ is still fuzzy, it suggests using advances in transportation, technology, infrastructure, sustainability and governance to improve the quality of urban life. But smart cities don’t actually need the latest and greatest tech. ‘Being smart is about redefining processes and engaging citizens,’ says Jennifer Belissent, an analyst at Forrester Research. For example, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority created an app that citizens can use to pay electricity, water and sewer bills. Vancouver set up a website called Recollect.net where recycling schedules are posted and alerts are sent via tweet, text or phone call.”

Her next point is that communication is as important as technology. “Many steps to becoming a smart city fall on the shoulders of IT, but IT should share the workload and communicate with other departments.” Jesse Berst, chief analyst at Smart Grid News and chairman of the Smart Cities Council told Brousell, “If our departments never talk to each other, we will dig the same street up five times.” Perhaps Brousell’s most important point is that cities will never get smart if constituents don’t get involved. She believes that they not only need to get involved but, more importantly, that they want to get involved. She writes:

“Citizens expect to be able get government information on their PCs, smartphones and tablets whenever they want. Cities will need to be able to deliver that and communicate with the public using social media, Berst says. ‘You can’t just send out paper reports once a year.’ Forrester Research says 53 percent of local government organizations rank improving citizen access to government information and services as their top priority. Residents also want a way to weigh in. Rio de Janeiro asked citizens for input on open data and apps initiatives – and got 1,876 ideas.”

Renn agrees that getting all stakeholders involved is essential. “While the centralized model is important,” he writes, “we will only see an explosion in value to the extent that we are able to create platforms on which the public and entrepreneurs can themselves innovate.” It should be clear by now that, although other things do come into play, technology plays a central role in helping make a city smart. Renn believes that it’s time to create an open source, cloud-based platform to bring all the technology together. He explains:

“Today, we’ve reached a place where a very new paradigm exists. The emergence of two things – open source development frameworks and the cloud – has created an environment on which even lone developers can innovate. Everyone with a certain basic knowledge of development is now capable of creating and releasing applications, and even starting companies, with next to no money. You can literally do it from your bedroom. Yet, most apps may end up as junk, but so much amazing stuff is being created too. We now have an incredible environment for technical creativity out there. I think this is where cities should be aiming for: to build ‘the open source cloud’ for smart cities, whereby it isn’t up to only the city or high priced contractors to deliver value, but the marketplace and even citizens will have that ability to innovate on top of the platform such that they’ll generate value we never imagined possible – and at no cost to the public. And it will generate amazing positive side effects like improved urban resiliency. I won’t pretend to know what this will look like, just as I couldn’t have predicted our current environment even five years ago. But to me the future is in marketplace and citizen innovation, with vendors and cities providing a big part of the critical platform infrastructure to enable it.”

Lauren Drell bolsters Renn’s arguments by providing a list of “25 Technologies Every Smart City Should Have,” [Mashable, 27 December 2012] She writes:

“You think cities are crowded now? By 2030, more than 5 billion people will live in urban settings. But before we get to that kind of population density, we have to optimize our cities. We need to make them smarter and better; technology can help. Cities all around the world work with developers and contractors to make city living better, whether it’s improving the timing of traffic lights or creating a useful app, which becomes more powerful as smartphone penetration continues to increase. Apps and well-implemented technology can help cash-strapped governments save money and, be more efficient. We put together a list of the technology that we want to see in every major city.”

Her list includes:


  • Open-data initiatives
  • Parking apps
  • Apps that let citizens “adopt” city property to maintain
  • High-tech waste management systems
  • Parking payment systems
  • City guide apps
  • User-friendly touchscreens
  • Wi-fi in public transportation
  • Sustainable and energy efficient real estate
  • Dynamic informational kiosks
  • Social-media based crisis response systems
  • Police forces that use real-time data to monitor and prevent crime
  • More public transit
  • OLED lighting and surveillance in high-crime zones
  • Charging stations
  • Solar panels
  • Bike-sharing programs
  • Encouraging a “sharing economy” instead of a buying economy
  • Smart climate control systems
  • Traffic re-routing apps
  • Water-recycling systems
  • Crowdsourced urban planning
  • Broadband Internet access
  • Mobile payments
  • Ride sharing programs


Drell admits that her list is not exhaustive; but, it provides some understanding of the types of technologies currently available to help make cities smarter. Andrea Di Maio, a Gartner analyst, asserts that cities need to be astute as well as smart. “Being astute means to be able to make the best possible use of scarce (and declining) resources,” he writes. “It means to effectively leverage available funding. It means to reuse as much as possible of what exists. It means to realize that sustainability requires collaboration within and across traditional boundaries.” [“Smart Cities Are Not Intelligent: They Are Astute,” Gartner, 14 December 2012] I like Di Maio’s perspective because it doesn’t allow stakeholders to lay off all their decision making onto to technology. It will take great minds, sound policies, and good technology to make cities smart.

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