So, what is a Smart City?

July 19, 2018

In the last decade, the word “smart” has been thrown around quite a bit. It’s made appearances beside most popular household items and soon might take its place alongside buzzwords like “influencer” or “sustainable”.

But really, what does “smart” even mean?!

Is it connected to the Internet? Is it able to communicate with nearby devices? Or is it intelligent and able to adapt it’s functionality on a case-by-case basis?

It’s vague — “smart” can mean any and all of those. Beyond that confusion, I think “smart” very broadly represents our society’s transition from an analog to digital world. By bringing otherwise dumb objects onto the network and building advanced analytics capabilities, we’re able to finally harness the virtually endless power and insights of software on various hardware platforms and infrastructure.

In the last few years, we’ve seen home automation devices flood the market. The smart home device market, including entertainment, automation, security, is poised to grow at a steady 20% every year. Cost-effectiveness, improved integration with other devices, and general increase in awareness and comfort seem to be main drivers of this trend. Home devices were a great place to start, but what’s the next frontier?


That’s right — your roads, water systems, libraries, factories, office buildings, train stations, parks, government, you name it.

For a minute, forget that a city is simply a physical location. Reimagine it as a dynamic place in both space and time. A living, breathing organism, full of life — with a past, present, and a future. Technology has enabled us to monitor the conditions of infrastructure, such as roads, subways, airports, water, power, etc. By doing so, we’re able to accomplish the impossible — capture the city’s essence in excruciating detail. We can use that information to learn from the past, implement in the present, and build towards a brighter future.

The city can better optimize its resources and plan its preventive maintenance while maximizing utility to its citizens. Emergency responses can be focused and effective. With the help of monitoring systems and sensors, elected officials can engage in intelligent data-based decision making.

By tapping into real-time data of the city’s inner workings, government, companies, and individuals can ease citizen’s transportation issues by planning local hubs, investing in public transit where it matters, promoting walkability, and hastening roadwork. Using mobile applications, cities can crowdsource their next biggest policy ideas and make it easier for citizens to bring attention to the problems they face on a daily basis. Utilities can even map out the hotspots for population movements and track how they change during the day to regulate energy consumption.

By using open-source platforms and backing enterprising ideas, governments can empower individuals and local businesses to pour life into their immediate surroundings. Cities can attract families and young children that bring a spark to their neighborhood by building green communities.

And the list goes on and on and on…

What led us here?

Building a smart city isn’t just a technology fantasy. It’s the social, economic, and political challenge of adapting our best and most advanced tools to the needs of the people in places where most of us live and work.

Three significant events in 2008 have led us to these crossroads. Firstly, the United Nations predicted that for the first time in history, the population of urban dwellers will equal the population of those living in rural areas. For centuries, humans have left their ancestral lands and migrated to the city in search of opportunity. Environmental factors like the high density of people and the intrinsic drive to succeed has fashioned cities into hubs of innovation, culture, and civilization. Currently, around 3.5 billion people dwell in cities. By 2050, the UN predicts that almost 2/3 of the world’s population will call a city their home.

Secondly, the number of Internet users who wirelessly accessed data exceeded those who used fixed lines. Armed with smartphones, it’s hardly a surprise that we’re reorganizing our lives around mobile communication and data access.

Lastly, inevitable advancements in hardware and software led us to the Internet of Things (IoT). It is estimated that by 2020, there will be ~30 billion networked devices in operation in our homes, cities, and factories. These smart learning devices and the data they collect will be the overarching force that pervades, sustains, and develops our urban communities.

We’re at a unique point in human history. The technological advances we make today will set the tone for generations to come.

How to make this a reality?

First, we need to ask: “What do we want a smart city to be?”. Different visionaries have different priorities. An engineer’s priority might be to develop innovative social interactions in public places. Meanwhile, an elected representative’s might be to encourage e-governance and civic engagement.

In practice, there are several tradeoffs that must be made between stakeholder’s competing goals. Cities need to be as efficient as possible, but maintain their charm and spontaneity. They need to be as secure as possible, but understand and mitigate the risks of surveillance. Above all, cities must be inclusive, in all senses of the word.

The sharing economy, social media, and countless other services have introduced never before found interconnectedness between people. We eagerly offer and use others’ unused rooms and cars. At the tap of a button, we can meet our closest friends or make new ones. From a place of chance encounters and meetings, the city is transforming into a familiar, navigable habitat.

Technology is only half the solution. While it has tremendous potential, it also has severe limitations. Executing on the vision of a smart city requires an all-hands-on approach from several different sectors. We need top-down change where elected officials enact responsible, progressive policies. Similarly, we need bottom-up movements to empower communities from a local level. We need engineers to build and deploy scalable solutions across large and diverse populations. We need public health experts that ensure changes doesn’t impair our long term societal health. We need determined entrepreneurs to implement innovative ideas and pour life into the city. Lastly, we need an engaged and informed citizenry who are aware of the waves of changes happening across the country, and most importantly, right around their corner.

Firms like Intel, Cisco, Qualcomm, AT&T, IBM, Google, GE, and McKinsey, to name a few, are working closely with governments, prominent think tanks, startups, and public utilities to manifest the dream of a smart city into reality.

This is an exciting time to be alive! To say the way we live has changed in the last decade is an understatement. Now is the time to pair technology with it’s more human-centric counterparts to solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems. Solutions that require a multidisciplinary approach. Solutions that don’t have a single “right” answer. Solutions that will ultimately have a significant impact on human life and progress.

Thanks for reading!

Socially responsible engineering in the context of our cities is something I’m extremely passionate about. As an engineering student, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how products and services could be used in conjunction with public policy to make inspiring societal progress. I want to use this blog as a forum to write about big topics pertaining to smart cities for two main reasons:

  • As I navigate my way through the plethora of resources on technology, urban development, and public policy, the act of publishing blog posts will help me better conceptualize what I learn.
  • Additionally, I hope to build this blog as a useful and concise resource to those interested in entering the smart city field in the future.

I hope to be releasing posts at least twice a month on topics like Mobility, Digital Infrastructure, Sustainability, Urban Planning, and Community Engagement. I plan on approaching these from both a high-level perspective and a deeper, implementation focused one.Some thematic questions that I hope to dive into throughout these posts are…

  • Do advancements in mobility translate to advancements in accessibility?
  • How do technologists and policymakers prioritize security?
  • How effective are government programs to fund startups and student innovation in the long term?
  • How are minorities and people of all socioeconomic classes going to be represented in these programs?
  • From a policy perspective, where do the respective jurisdictions of the city, state, and country lie?
  • How can companies remain agile while dealing with municipalities and the bureaucracy that comes with?
  • What ideas and lessons from the United States can be translated to other developed and developing countries?

I’m learning as I go along as well — so I’m always open to suggestions on content, improvements to the blog, and my writing!