From the Big Apple to the Little Red Dot: What We Can Learn From the World’s Smartest Cities

December 5, 2018


5 minutes

From New York to Singapore, the world’s smartest cities are demonstrating that effective smart city planning requires a commitment to comprehensive data integration.

In September 2015, then President Barack Obama announced over $160 million of federal funding for the Smart Cities Initiative, a program designed to help American cities “tackle key challenges such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of climate change, and improving the delivery of city services.” The following September, the administration promised an additional $80 million of funding, paving the way for the expansion of the program to over 70 American communities.

With the United Nations predicting that roughly two-thirds of the world’s 10 billion people will live in cities by 2050, it has never been more important for governments around the world to start investing in smart city Initiatives capable of generating near-term returns. It has become clear that without such solutions, most cities simply aren’t adequately prepared to handle the economic, environmental, and societal impacts of mass urbanization. Without such solutions, issues like energy inefficiency, traffic, and crime will only worsen as more and more people flock to urban environments.

And while retrofitting cities in accordance with the demands of the 21st century is no small task, a number of smart city pioneers are already illustrating the wide-ranging value that can be generated by bringing large swathes of infrastructure online. By integrating existing utilities, innovative Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and cutting-edge analytics and management tools, smart cities are cutting costs and delivering a better quality of life for all — even as their populations grow.

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Understanding Smart Cities

Despite tens of billions of dollars of global investment, there is still a great deal of confusion as to what, exactly, constitutes a “smart city.” This confusion has only been amplified by the fact that there isn’t a straightforward, definitive answer to the question.

To some, the concept of a smart city is grounded first and foremost in sustainability. To others, a city isn’t “smart” unless it includes things like advanced metering infrastructure for utility grids, or IoT-enabled — and, eventually, autonomous — transportation networks. And while these varied perspectives aren’t wrong, per se, each amounts to only a partial view of what a smart city can — and should — be.

In short, consistently introducing the latest, greatest technology into a cityscape as soon as it hits the market doesn’t automatically make the city “smart” — citywide intelligence isn’t achieved through an additive approach. A genuinely smart city must be more than the sum of its cutting-edge parts, something that’s only possible if each and every element of a city works together as a single, unified “organism.”

In addition to an uninterrupted stream of data drawn from sensors around the city, achieving this degree of infrastructural alignment requires a smart management platform powerful enough to enable both public and private stakeholders to make informed decisions about everything from the deployment of emergency services to the optimization of energy consumption to the expansion of available wireless bandwidth — all in near-real time.

America’s Smartest Cities

Unsurprisingly, the smart city vanguard is dominated by cities that have placed robust data integration — and the technological interoperability that underpins it — at the the center of their smart initiatives.

In addition to being the country’s most populous city, New York City is arguably America’s smartest city, as well. In early 2016, the Big Apple started rolling out a series of “communications hubs” — former payphone stations that have been upgraded to provide free gigabit-speed WiFi, smartphone charging ports, national calling, and more — as part of its innovative LinkNYC connectivity program. While New York isn’t the first city to provide residents with free citywide WiFi, LinkNYC is currently the only public WiFi network of its size to deliver one gigabit connections.

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sanitation Department have also incorporated smart elements into their operations, with the former deploying smart water meters to monitor usage and improve billing accuracy and the latter utilizing smart trash cans that notify sanitation workers when they’re ready to be emptied.

Perhaps most importantly, New York’s NYC Open Data initiative provides free and easy access to sprawling datasets generated by a variety of city agencies and organizations. The city has encouraged the public to use the data to “participate in and improve government by conducting research and analysis or creating applications.”

According to New York’s CTO Miguel Gamino, NYC Open Data is very much a sign of things to come. “We’re thinking right now about how we can create a platform…that offers a truly open access environment to technologists and startups and existing companies who have smart cities projects,” he told TechRepublic in March.

Just up the Atlantic coastline, Boston has taken a similarly integrative approach to its smart evolution. In addition to undertaking smart infrastructure projects like the installation of solar-powered benches designed to charge mobile devices and collect environmental data, Boston maintains an App Showcase that provides residents with digital tools that enable them to do everything from pay a parking ticket to report a pothole to track their child’s school bus.

The city has also released a Smart City Playbook outlining its vision for future progress. “We, the City of Boston, will not sit in City Hall and complain about the lack of solutions to our problems,” the Playbook reads. “We promise to get out into the City, find ways to help [residents] pilot new ideas, and be honest with our feedback. Our goal is to create a City-wide strategy for the use of sensor technologies that is people-centered, problem-driven, and responsible.”


The Smartest Cities in the World — Asia Leads the Way

As encouraging as New York’s and Boston’s progress is, the smartest cities in the world sit thousands of miles from America’s Eastern Seaboard. For instance, with its smart traffic routing and parking systems, extensive telemedicine infrastructure, and ever-expanding crop of energy-efficient buildings, Dubai is consistently ranked among the world’s smartest cities. That said, by most metrics, Singapore continues to be the global standard-bearer for smart city development.

The crux of the city-state’s intelligence is Virtual Singapore, a cutting-edge 3D city model, and rich data platform. The initiative integrates “data from government agencies, 3D models, information from the Internet, and real-time dynamic data from Internet of Things devices” to allow stakeholders to assess the coverage of mobile broadband networks, model emergency evacuation protocols, analyze public transportation and pedestrian movement patterns, and much more.

Among other things, Singapore has already leveraged this end-to-end data integration to conduct autonomous vehicle testing, support its senior citizenry through “elderly monitoring systems,” and help both companies and residents manage their energy and water usage more effectively.

Just Getting Started

Ultimately, though, as McKinsey points out, “Even the most advanced cities are only about two-thirds of the way toward achieving what constitutes a fully comprehensive technology base.”

As such, cities hoping to follow the examples set by the likes of New York, Boston, Dubai, and Singapore must recognize that achieving citywide intelligence is a long, complex process — one that even the world’s smartest cities have yet to complete. That said, by building their smart initiatives around technology solutions that are interoperable enough to slot into fully integrated decision-making platforms and feeding these platforms steady streams of real-time data, nearly every community has the opportunity to provide its residents with a quality of life befitting our digitally-driven world.

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