What Is A Smart City?

October 22, 2018


6 minutes

Learn what goes into a smart city, from technology, the impacts and the stakeholders in every smart city project.

“Smart Cities” are a popular topic for government officials and technology companies alike. That’s due in part to many major cities (like Boston, New York, Singapore, and London) rolling out new data-driven solutions meant to improve life and living environments for citizens.

These solutions, rather than just representing technological advances, actually show us how managers and decision-makers in the private and public sectors can come together to serve the public, and how the new metropolitan experience will revolve around participatory digital citizenship.

But what is a “Smart City”? What technology is involved in a smart city, and how does it actually benefit people? Here, we’ll talk about what a smart city is and how it addresses some of the basic issues facing cities today.


What is a Smart City?

Literally, a “Smart City” is a city that uses digital communication technologies and big data to improve operational efficiency and the quality of life for residents.definition of a smart city on a cityscape

As a big-picture definition, that sounds great. But the reality of a Smart City is much more complex than this because the technologies and benefits of a Smart City can touch almost any and every aspect of your life.

They key to a truly Smart City is the integration of existing city utilities and resources into a larger communication network. By connecting critical operations to a data-gathering network of recorders, sensors, and cloud servers, officials and engineers can gather raw data and convert it into actionable intelligence that allows these municipal resources to respond to the needs of the people who use them every day. This offers a few significant benefits, like

  • Allowing emergency responders and management to react to unfolding crises quicker, and with a better understanding of a given situation.
  • Providing utility companies and municipal services tied to public transportation and waste management better intelligence, which results in more efficient services.
  • Giving city officials the tools they need to make critical public services more responsive, efficient, and cost-effective.

    To realize this kind of integration, Smart City designers leverage innovative technologies and network tools gained from Big Data analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT). These technologies include:

    1. Advanced, wireless data recorders. Data recorders can literally be attached to anything where relevant data is recorded, whether that’s a fleet of buses, garbage trucks, electric and water meters, or traffic lights.
    2. Wireless radio and internet communication tools. A key aspect of the IoT, and thus a Smart City, is that information gathered from a data point can be transported quickly, securely, and reliably from its place of origin to a server (or servers) for processing and analysis.
    3. Integrated software platform. From the point of data interaction through transport, processing, and analysis, a Smart City system needs a central platform that handles integration across all aspects of the system, from data gathering to processing, security, and software interfaces for personnel.


    Infographic explaining 3 primary categories of technology: data recorders, wireless communication, integrated software platform


    This last aspect is perhaps the most important. No matter where a system gathers data from, and no matter what officials and engineers plan to do with it, there needs to be a unified platform that integrates the resources throughout the city with the communication network that transports that data, the software that processes and analyzes that data, and the people who will engage with the intelligence extracted from that data. Platforms ensure the interoperability of data, users, and systems.


    The Need for Smart Cities

    Smart cities are becoming more of a reality because they address key concerns about sustainability and efficiency across several verticals related to city management. As mentioned earlier, cities are living entities that evolve and change on a moment-by-moment basis. So having access to real-time data based on events as they happen and resources, as they are used, provides cities with the intelligence they need to be more efficient, sustainable, and responsive to the needs of residents.

    The benefits of a more efficient and more sustainable city are directly measurable in three categories:

    1. Economics: From smart meters to preventative maintenance, intelligent traffic management to increased opportunities for renewable energy development, smart cities leveraging the IoT can significantly reduce municipal costs. Smart cities give planners and city managers ways to minimize inefficiencies in utility usage and billing and coordinate waste management and other resources to make routes more efficient (reducing costs in gas and upkeep).
    2. Social Structure: A smart city provides residents with safer, more pleasurable living conditions and elevates the city’s profile on the world stage. An integrated security network, plugged into a comprehensive network of sensors, cameras, and responders, means safer streets. Efficient public transportation could encourage more people to ride public transportation. Smart parking meters can help residents find parking on crowded days. Crucial city resources, information, and real-time updates can be fed to citizen-utilized smartphone applications.
    3. Environment: Smart cities utilize data and technology to better manage municipal resources and utilities as well as manage traffic patterns and public transportation. When all of these are combined, you could see a clear reduction in energy usage, gas consumption, and pollution. What’s more, the enhancement of public transportation systems can reduce pollution even further by taking cars off the road.


    Stakeholders in a Smart City Project

    In a move towards more productive relationships between private and public institutions, smart cities require businesses and state organizations to work together to develop solutions for complex problems related to managing city resources. It also requires some participation on the part of citizens in order to provide real-time, actionable data.



    Government officials also have a major stake in the development of smart cities, for fairly obvious reasons. The kinds of intelligence and reflexive data available in a smart city are significant and promote the kinds of efficient management that most cities need. But, shifting to a smart city paradigm calls for different styles of management and innovative ways of thinking.

    That’s not even mentioning the major effects of Smart City planning and participation will have on local and regional politics. With this kind of integration, there will be new ways to poll, vote, and reach out to constituents, and more ways to develop political platforms based on actual intelligence related to the day-to-day activity of all citizens.

    This is great news for businesses in invested in IoT, data visualization, software platforms, and cloud computing solutions. More importantly, these businesses can get the best of both worlds, by putting their money and energy toward profitable operations that also serve the public in major and measurable, ways.

    Finally, the residents that benefit from smart cities play a huge role in its success. They obviously benefit from lower utility costs, better municipal resources, and overall improved quality of life. But as more digital tools become available that allow residents to control the information they give and receive in relation to city services, they can make their preferences known more easily. This then calls for citizens to develop an awareness of how their behaviors affect the larger system, including city planners and their neighbors.


    smart and safe cities


    Examples of Smart Cities

    While Smart Cities are seen as the wave of the “future”, there are already several cities implementing their own smart solutions to common problems:

    1. Boston Public Schools “Where’s My School Bus” App

      Boston has been encouraging smart development since 2010. Starting with the “App Showcase”, part of the Boston “smart masterplan”, residents in Boston can use their smartphones and a special app to report service outages and issues. Furthermore, other apps allow parents to track the location of a student’s school bus, while decentralized hubs provide public transit information, so residents can make decisions about how to get to and from work.

    2. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is deploying smart water meters to help monitor usage, and to provide accurate billing and information to residents in order to reduce waste. The New York Sanitation Department is also utilizing smart trash cans that alert sanitation workers when they are full, reducing unnecessary clean-up routes.
    3. Singapore started an initiative called “Virtual Singapore”, which serves as a mixture of VR and IoT to provide three-dimensional models of the city that can help planners and managers visualize issues as they emerge throughout Singapore.

      London DataStore Sample Report

    4. Among other smart initiatives, London has served as a hotbed of smart development due to the production of the London Datastore, an open and accessible collection of public data related to the city.



    Smart Cities are our present and our future. As challenges related to finances, the environment, and efficiency continue to get more difficult in the upcoming years, decision-makers in the private and public sectors are going to need to respond with new and innovative approaches. Luckily, the advancements in IoT, integrated software platforms and wireless communications are making such solutions a reality.

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