What is a smart city? And how can we avoid getting the "Betamax version"?

October 18, 2018 Richard Baker

When planning for smart cities, the most important consideration is how new technologies can serve people


Over the last few years the idea of a smart city has become more mainstream, but the concept remains under debate. With mounting concern about climate change, rapid global urbanization and domestic urban sprawl, cities need to look at how to deploy technology to address these and other issues. No city official wants to lead a “dumb” city.  Leaders want innovative ways to resolve those issues. So, how do we do that? We need to use technology to create cities that are open, inviting, and equitable for citizens and business.

Although business and academia do agree on some basic points, they haven’t settled on a standard definition of a “smart city.” As a result, I’ve developed my own working understanding, even if it isn’t technically a “definition”:

Growing cities around the globe are looking to improve their residents’ quality of life. City officials see information and communication technologies (ICT) as a key tool for doing this. They want to use real-time data to solve problems in transportation, waste management, energy consumption, infrastructure, service delivery, and health care. To solve these problems, cities will need to unlock the full potential of their resources by employing technologies like IoT, cloud/edge, and artificial intelligence—all areas within ICT. Yet, just throwing technology at every problem won’t be enough. It will be imperative for designers and integrators to understand the needs of cities and their residents, as well as to understand the topologies, architectures and technologies used to deliver and analyze data.


The United Nations projects that nearly 70% of the world's population will live in urban centers by 2050. Author Richard Baker says "the first and most important consideration for the planning and management of smart cities is how new technologies can serve people."


A city operates as an ecosystem of networks, services, and people that often interact with and affect each other. The first and most important consideration for the planning and management of smart cities is how new technologies can serve people. As cities become more diverse, they need to focus on tools that serve all their residents, and particularly on technology that helps people shape city policy through new channels for expressing their opinions and suggestions for improving policies and service delivery.


Climate change, mobility, and smart cities

As recognition grows of the threat to society posed by climate change, cities will have to consider their own impacts on the environment more directly. Buildings account for 40% of all energy use and 40% of greenhouse gasses produced in the United States. The UN projects that nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in urban centers by 2050, when the global population is estimated to reach 9.8 billion. That would likely increase total urban demand for water by 50%, for food by 60%, and for energy by 30%. How can we use modelling of urban metabolism and other technology to reduce cities’ resource needs?

Mobility represents a major focus for smart cities. People can see how technology has disrupted the mobility market with transportation-network companies like Uber and Lyft and the prospect of autonomous vehicles arriving within the next decade. However, mobility for cities encompasses a lot more than what people may think of as “traditional” transportation—in particular, systems and infrastructure that promote walking and biking (and their multiple health benefits). What happens to health and wellbeing as more people walk—not only for leisure—but also for transportation?

US lawmakers recently launched the congressional Smart Cities Caucus, “a bipartisan group of Members (of Congress) dedicated to bringing American communities into the 21st Century through innovation and technological change.” The idea of pre-emptive governance organized around smart cities is interesting because regulation normally follows a movement, arising only after an issue emerges. How can cities use frameworks and flexible approaches as they move deeper into this field—rather than choosing individual systems and potentially getting stuck with the Betamax of smart city technologies?


Smart cities and the ‘fourth industrial revolution’

As people and technology become increasingly integrated in cities, new and unforeseen industries will emerge. This “fourth industrial revolution” has already begun as rapid digitalization has disrupted the way businesses have worked for decades, changing the very economy of entire cities. For example, think of the way Amazon has changed logistics, or the way ride-hailing has decimated the taxi industry in most cities. There’s no reason to think the pace of such _q_tweetable:Becoming a smart city requires more than just downloading a few apps and hooking up some sensors._q_changes will slow—and a lot of reason to expect them hit other industries while opening new opportunities that we’ve never known possible. Where else can cities expect technology to create disruption?

To bring this discussion full circle, we need to look at how to harness technology to help solve nontechnical problems in ways that make cities more livable and put people at the center of urban design. A major concern for many cities is the rising cost of housing. Even though we can predict how this plays out, we haven’t found effective ways to handle their impacts. Could we enlist smart-cities tech to help? Similarly, research has shown that assuring a supply of healthy food for low-income households can mitigate or even prevent a host of medical issues. Yet most doctors can’t write prescriptions for healthy foods. Can we use tech to give every urban resident equal access to healthy food options?

We need to use technology to enhance and enable programs, not replace them. That may sound simple, but smart cities can’t pursue every technology available. They’ll need to be “smart” in another way—making strategic choices about which technologies to apply to their needs. Residents, public officials, and tech developers will need to work to identify a city’s most pressing problems, then determine which digital tools or systems can best address them. Becoming a smart city requires more than just downloading a few apps and hooking up some sensors. Are we ready to ask the hard questions and do the work needed to make sure new technologies really benefit everyone?

About the Author

Richard Baker

Richard Baker is an information and communications technology designer in our Lynnwood, Washington, office. He focuses on the design, coordination, and implementation of the infrastructure for technology systems in buildings. In 2018, Richard received a Master of Engineering in “Sustainable Smart Cites.”

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