Smart cities: The smart person's guide

Rapid urbanization is leading to smarter cities that improve the lives of citizens through technology. This comprehensive guide details the important aspects of a smart city.

As the world becomes increasingly more urban, with 60% of its population forecast to live in cities by 2050, cities are becoming more technologically advanced. This type of city is known as a smart city and the goal is to improve the quality of the lives of citizens through better communication and the services offered while reducing overall costs.

SEE: Check out all of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

Executive summary

  • What is a smart city? A smart city uses IoT sensors and technology to connect components across a city to derive data and improve the lives of citizens and visitors.
  • What does a smart city do? Oftentimes, a mobile app is provided to give immediate access to data, communication channels and more, so that people can do everything from avoiding traffic jams, to finding a parking spot, reporting a pot hole, or an overflowing dumpster.
  • Why do smart cities matter? The world is becoming more urbanized, and by 2050, more than 60% of the world's population is expected to live in cities. Making these cities better places to live is essential to quality of life by making them more sustainable and efficient with streamlined services.
  • Who do smart cities affect? It affects everyone on the planet.
  • When are smart cities happening? This is happening now.
  • Where are smart cities happening? Early adopters of smart city technology were European cities, but US cities have quickly picked up steam and are incorporating technology into municipal infrastructure.
  • Who is making smart cities happen? Public and private companies, as well as federal, state and city government are getting involved to make it easier for municipalities to adopt new technology.
  • How can my city become a smart city? Citizens can form a grassroots campaign to get support and ask government officials to incorporate more technology into their city.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the rise of smart cities (Tech Pro Research)

What is a smart city?

There is a range of definitions of a smart city, but the consensus is that smart cities utilize IoT sensors, actuators and technology to connect components across the city. This connects every layer of a city, from the air to the street to underground. It's when you can derive data from everything that is connected and utilize it to improve the lives of citizens and improve communication between citizens and the government that a city becomes a smart city, said Esmeralda Swartz, head of strategy and marketing of the software business unit for Ericsson.

Gartner analyst Bettina Tratz-Ryan said, "Our definition of smart cities is around how you become efficient at optimizing certain technologies or operations or infrastructures. How you can start to share outcome or best practices with each other and generate not just best practices but generate citizen outcome or context. The contextual services where you don't only look at a citizen but you look at a person with individual needs or business groups with very specific needs. That constitutes a smart city."

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What does a smart city do?

Image: iStock/Easyturn

Smart cities improve the quality of the lives of citizens. They often employ a mobile app to give fast access to traffic information, road conditions and more.

"The example I like to use is common services. If you think about one of the biggest drivers of traffic congestion, it is people, whether residents or visitors, driving around looking for an open parking spot. Now through a mobile app, through sensors that are deployed on parking spots, you know exactly where [to go] and you don't have to search around and try to find an open parking spot. It's those simple things we take for granted for improving interaction with common city services," Swartz said.

"Another thing that drives the point home is smart waste management. Think about sensor technology applied to a smart waste receptacle. It knows when the trash is basically hitting the middle of the container. It compresses it down and when it gets to the top and is full, it notifies the city sanitation department that it's time to collect the trash," she said.

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Why do smart cities matter?

The smart city industry is projected to be a $400 billion market by 2020, with 600 cities around the globe expected to generate 60% of the world's GDP by 2025, according to McKinsey research, as previously published in TechRepublic.

Urbanization is an issue that all cities have to deal with around the globe.

"When you have more population coming in, there's a mass migration from the country to the city. The impact is similar to the urbanization that occurred during the industrial revolution," Swartz said. "The best way to optimize that experience is digitally.

"The questions that urban engineers are dealing with include, How do you take the opportunity with people armed with smart phones to deal with urbanization? How do you combine technology and ubiquitous mobility and an increasing voracious appetite on the part of city dwellers to have efficiency and how do they get services now and how do they really interact in a more fluid way with common city services?"

Jarrett Wendt, vice president of strategic initiatives and business development for Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company, said, "You do it because you improve and impact people's lives. Period, end of story. This is about transforming people's lives into making them more efficient."

"Quality of life is not spending three hours in a car every day. If you're becoming smarter and more connected and utilizing those city services that are available then you're alleviating some of those pain points," Wendt said.

Mrinalini Ingram, who spent 16 years at Cisco Systems working with smart and connected communities before becoming the new head of the Smart City initiative at Verizon in March, said, "One of the most important reasons to have a smart city is that we can actually communicate with our environment in a way that we never have in the past."

"With the smart city capability we are just touching on that higher wave of transition of people being able to communicate and interact with the environment around them. That could be physical assets that are around them, services that are available around them and the ability to not only get information but provide a two-way dialogue between an individual and their environment and the services that enable activities around that space," Ingram said.

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Who do smart cities affect?

This affects everyone, whether directly or indirectly. People who live in smart cities or who are visiting smart cities have the immediate benefit of being connected to the governing body for information and services. The quality of their lives can be improved with better traffic management, waste removal, snow removal and more. Those who don't live or visit a smart city are affected simply because of the lack of connected services and communication available to them.

A smart city also benefits the environment. Water and energy usage are sustainability issues, and a common thread across all smart city projects is how a city reduces CO2 emissions.

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When are smart cities happening?

This is happening now.

"It's the now generation. People say, 'I want access now. I want to understand how I can make my life more efficient.' That's what's driving not just smart cities but the reason why internet of things and connectivity why it's impacting all of these different industries. It's efficiencies. More contextual interactions. A better experience overall is the goal," Swartz said.

As reported in TechRepublic, the Internet of Things was already at a tipping point last year, with future growth happening at an explosive rate. Smart cities are part of the world of IoT, with everything from streetlights and parking spots digitally connected.

"I think the evolution of this has been amazingly fast as far as a creation of an industry but people are still looking for that tangibility. Sometimes things are happening that are smart city activities but they're happening in pockets," Ingram said.

"We're seeing a lot more pilots happening, you're seeing individual solutions happening on a broader scale. Lighting solutions are taking off faster than most. Security solutions and traffic solutions are very big. It really kind of comes down to a tagline I use quite a bit. That it's 'think big, start small and scale.' That is the approach that a lot of cities are taking and a lot of companies are taking where you have to have that overarching architectural approach and what that future vision will look like ultimately. But they have to start small. Let's do one neighborhood, let's do one venue, let's do one downtown strip and test out that solution and make sure it makes sense," Ingram said.

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Where are smart cities happening?

Cities across the globe are becoming smarter. Early adopters were the European cities of Barcelona and Amsterdam, with Copenhagen, Dubai, Singapore, Hamburg, and Nice, France quickly following suit. In the US, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Miami, Kansas City, Columbus, Denver, Boston, Cincinnati, and Atlanta are among the cities adding smart city technologies and pilot programs, as reported in an in-depth TechRepublic article.

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Who is making smart cities happen?

At the end of the day we can make all the greatest plans in the world, but if resources aren't available to implement them, it doesn't really matter. Samir Saini

Companies such as Intel, Cisco Systems, IBM, Verizon, Silver Spring Networks,, GE Lighting, Ericsson and Siemens are among those providing smart city solutions. Associations such as TM Forum, which is a leadership collaboration of seven cities created earlier this year to push the creation of smart cities around the globe, are also spurring development, as reported in TechRepublic. Last year, the Obama administration announced a new smart cities initiative to invest $160 in federal grants to create software and IoT applications to help local communities improve city services.

"I'm looking forward to seeing a whole group of innovative new startups that you can already see being built up. The new wave of creativity that they are bringing to the table is enormously exciting," Ingram said.

"We want to encourage that small entrepreneur or that student in the university to build an application or to build a service that fits the need of what they see every single day. That's a whole other industry that is just now beginning. That combined with the personal interactions are probably the two biggest positives around why we really are excited about smart cities," Ingram said.

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How can my city become a smart city?

Many cities first embark on becoming connected through streetlights because they offer a quick revenue return for municipalities with the use of LED reduced energy lighting.

"We had a project in L.A. that was a partnership with Philips that was basically smart lighting. These light posts that could be used for both energy reduction and LED's and when you save costs on these common city services using technology, imagine the impact of applying that budget to schools or other services that are increasingly under budget constraints," Swartz said.

Utilities and renewable energy are an optional starting point, by offering alternative energy options. And public safety is another way to drive the use of technology by offering connected emergency response services.

TM Forum is hoping to unite more than 100 cities in the development of smart cities, including those without the resources to add smart innovation. The forum will work to develop recommendations on how those cities can work within urban incubators and learn things such as how to structure a partnership within the private sector to create opportunities for innovation.

Atlanta is one of the cities embarking on a smart city initiative. Atlanta CIO and commissioner Samir Saini said that he hopes the lessons learned in Atlanta will benefit other cities, especially those without the necessary resources readily available.

"At the end of the day we can make all the greatest plans in the world, but if resources aren't available to implement them, it doesn't really matter," Saini said.

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About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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