What Is a Smart City?

This article introduces IoT for All's Smart City Series. It argues that Smart Cities are urban developments that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to redesign them to serve changing needs.

Marc Bielas
Image of a city connected by IoT

Defining Smart Cities

Urbanism in World History

Before charging forward, we must remember first to look backward. The stories of human development and urbanization are deeply intertwined. As homo sapiens transitioned from loose populations of hunter-gatherers roaming across the natural world to massive communities densely packed in steel megalopolises, we’ve seen an increase in life expectancy, better access to knowledge, and the rise of global connectivity. Cities have been the epicenter of technological development. They’ve hosted large-scale efforts to cure the main ailments of human life—from the temples at Ur and the terraced farms at Machu Picchu to the oncology centers in Houston, Texas to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

A picture of a drawing of Tenochtitlan
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our species has recognized the benefits of urban life. We’ve accelerated our migration out of the boundless rural terrains and into neatly stacked metal boxes reaching thousands of feet into the sky. The World Bank reports that in 2017, 54 percent of the world’s population was urban. That’s over four billion people! In “developed countries,” which lie at the center of our global economy, this number is much higher (North America’s average is 82 percent). At our current rate of over 1.3 million people moving to cities each week, the UN reports that the global percentage of humans living in urban areas will hit 68 percent or 6.3 Billion people by 2050.

A Straining World

It’s no secret that our transformation into highly urbanized technological societies has brought about a host of seemingly insurmountable problems. Despite the accumulation of a majority of global talent and economic activity into extremely connected geographical clusters of activity, we face more challenges than ever before.

The rapid rise in urban populations has put an exceptional strain on our global infrastructure. Modern cities predominantly run on technology networks that are once- or twice-removed from the natural world, and that require massive capital expenditures, such as electric power or internet communication.

Municipal leaders, e.g., transportation and water authorities, are running their legacy systems on overdrive. They’re allocating limited budgets to fighting fires when they could be making iterative advances toward complete structural overhauls. Those legacy systems need our problem-solving attention. Housing is becoming prohibitively expensive. Our electricity networks are outdated. They’re always at risk of seemingly uncontrollable and potentially catastrophic shutdowns—e.g., solar-flare-induced electromagnetic pulses.

Greenhouse-gas emissions and other environmental challenges resulting from our ever-increasing reliance on pollutive sources of energy have already begun creating a class of climate refugees. These refugees are in turn absorbed by large cities, increasing demand for electricity and creating more strain on both our ecological and urban systems in an endless feedback loop of displacement.

A picture of smog blanketing a city
Image Credit: EU Sciences Hub

The host of problems that modern urbanites face have given rise to a new mental framework for solutions; a system through which the built environment adapts to meet our needs in the most environmentally, economically, and socially conscientious way. That framework is the “Smart City.” This new class of approaches and technologies provides a much-needed lifeline for our cities and our world.

So What Is a “Smart City”?

The Smart Cities Council defines the smart city as “one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.” While easy to digest, this definition isn’t complete; technology is just one of the means through which we build smart cities, and it’s not their raison d’être. So then what is a smart city? What makes one actually “smart”?

The purpose of the smart city is sustainability—environmental, economic and cultural. Stealing my favorite description of sustainability (from a 1987 UN document known as the Brundtland Report), a new definition emerges: Smart Cities “are [urban] developments that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

[bctt tweet=”A #SmartCity is an urban development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, which may differ. ||@MarcBielas #IoT #UrbanDesign #AI #ML #IoTforAll” username=”iotforall”]

The Smart City as a Body

If the smart city were a human body, then technology would be its nervous system, taking in information and reacting to our current needs while modulating our long-term physical and intellectual resources. The smart city’s nervous system requires sensory inputs. IOT constitutes the eyes, nose, and ears of the city while its nerve fibers are composed of ICT (information and communications technology).

Following the corporeal metaphor, the smart city wouldn’t be able to function with just infrastructural systems like sensors and communication networks; it needs a source of nourishment that circulates through the body. That source of nourishment is data: the lifeblood of cities. Although blood and neurons are functionally important, what truly sets smart cities apart is their “mind”—the millions of engaged citizens who are empowered by technology to seek more fulfilling lives.

A photo of a co-design smart city planning process
Image Credit: AUDRC

While some of these processes already exist in cities, for the first time in history, leaders are calling for technology to permeate every layer of our urbanity. Soon we’ll have technologies at our disposal ranging from public WiFi and waste management to online voting and automatic traffic routing.

As sensors become ubiquitous and more data is collected and analyzed, elected officials will gain a radically granular understanding of the city’s needs. They’ll be able to collaborate with engaged citizens in designing social and physical interventions that better meet everyone’s needs. Moreover, administrators and technologists can design responsive systems that automatically adjust to the specific needs of citizens without constant oversight, cutting both costs and human error. As the city’s needs change over the hours, years, and generations, the city will begin to respond like an intelligent organism. It will adjust its modular infrastructure dynamically, providing exactly what we need without wasting resources.

While some worry that all this talk of technology, data, and automation means that we’re headed towards programmatic lifestyles, that isn’t the goal of a thoughtfully executed smart city. The objective is rather to analyze and respond seamlessly to the problems that affect our everyday lives to create better modes of existence for all citizens whether that means they are happier and healthier or more connected, active, creative, and aware.

The whole point is that the city can intelligently respond and adapt to changing needs, so the exact criteria that constitute “better” will remain flexible. Smart cities make room for more people to experience the serendipitous benefits of high-density living without getting bogged down by bad or uninformed design. Their goal is to make cities more livable for humans and leverage technology to do so.

The Smart Cities Series—Looking Forward

The Smart Cities Series will provide a comprehensive understanding of smart cities at different levels of detail. We will zoom in and out of topics to combine high-level learnings and detailed analyses across the smart city movement while sharing the stories of real-world projects and how they’ve succeeded and failed. Seasoned urban technologists can enjoy deep dives into technology while curious browsers can scan light overviews about general patterns in the industry.

This first post serves as both an introduction to smart cities and a living breathing representation of the Smart City Series, allowing interested readers to interact with a high-level view of smart city concepts and click through to topics of interest. Over time, we’ll go through pre-existing IoT for All posts and create a web of articles on relevant concepts such as smart parking. We’ll also invite experts in different fields to share their insights with you.

Not unlike the way a smart city synthesizes and adapts to changing opinions, this series will provide access to a range of opinions that give readers an educated view of both the benefits and the drawbacks of making our cities smarter.

Topics Covered

Smart Cities in Practice: What do Existing Smart Cities Look Like?

Topics will include: historical plans for smart cities, currently built projects, and future projects that are already in development.

Transportation and Mobility: How Will We Move in the Future?

Topics will include: autonomous vehicles, parking, traffic control, public transportation, and road design.

Smart Infrastructure: How Will We Design our Communities?

Topics will include: water supply, waste management, urban agriculture, and smart planning.

Smart Energy: How Will We Power our Lives?

Topics will include: clean energy sources, decentralized distribution, microgrids, and energy efficient technology.

Governance: What Does Citizenship Mean in a Smart City?

Topics will include: education, open data, policing, smart contracts, and the future of voting.

Smart Living: How Will our Daily Lives Change?

Topics will include: the future of healthcare, smart buildings, consumer technology, and smart entertainment.

If there are topics that you think we should cover in this series, please suggest them in the comments below. Like smart cities, this series is meant to be a dialogue.

Marc Bielas
Marc Bielas
Marc Bielas is a Product Manager at Leverege. He focuses on deploying dynamic enterprise IoT solutions. He also writes about smart cities for IoT For All. He recently graduated from Yale University, majoring in Computing and the Arts (CS & Arc...
Marc Bielas is a Product Manager at Leverege. He focuses on deploying dynamic enterprise IoT solutions. He also writes about smart cities for IoT For All. He recently graduated from Yale University, majoring in Computing and the Arts (CS & Arc...