One of the next big targets of the digital age is the city. The combination of technology paired with physical infrastructure and services can simplify the lives of residents. That’s the promise of the “smart city.”

The concept is the result of the ever-expanding Internet of Things (IoT), with transportation, utilities, and law enforcement among the many areas being impacted. This is the ideal time for such technology, since more than 60% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, according to a report from Cisco Systems.

Early adopters of smart city technologies include the European cities of Barcelona and Amsterdam. The concept has quickly spread into other countries, with Copenhagen, Dubai, Singapore, Hamburg, and Nice, France following suit, and U.S. cities are also getting smarter with San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Miami and San Antonio among those adding capabilities.

Companies such as Cisco, IBM, Intel, Silver Spring Networks,, GE Lighting and Siemens are among those providing smart city solutions worldwide.

Austin Ashe, manager of Intelligent Environment for Cities at GE Lighting, said, “Everyone has their own definition of an intelligent city. To us, an intelligent city is a city that can collect data efficiently and bring it in a way that is meaningful to them. It can enhance revenue, or ultimately offer citizens new services that they never before had.”

Anil Menon, Cisco’s deputy chief globalization officer, said, “A smart city is a city that uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies–connected via an intelligent network–to address challenges within city communities and across vertical industries. These challenges may include parking, traffic, transportation, street lighting, water and waste management, safety and security, even the delivery of education and healthcare. A smart city relies on technological solutions that enhance its existing process to better support and optimize the delivery of urban services, to reduce resource consumption and contain costs, and to provide the means and the opportunities to engage actively and effectively with its citizens, with its visitors and with its businesses.”

While the definitions may vary, one consistent reality is that the technology in smart cities varies immensely based on the needs of that particular city and the budget allocated for such technologies.

For instance, in San Antonio, streetlights are adjusted in stormy weather to improve visibility and reduce accidents. In Chicago, the city is controlling the rodent population by using predictive analytics to determine which trash dumpsters are most likely to be full and attract more rats. In San Francisco, an app allows smartphone users to find available parking spots in garages throughout the city. The city of Hamburg, Germany, has set a lofty goal of eliminating all cars within its city limits by 2034. Copenhagen has set a target of becoming the first carbon neutral major world capital by 2020.

Traffic, parking and streetlights

One of the most helpful aspects of a smart city is using technology to ease traffic and parking woes. Sensors in the street can be used to determine if a parking spot is empty, and anyone who accesses an app on a smartphone can find out in real time the location of the closest parking spot.

In San Francisco, this option is available within the city’s parking garages, and the city is hoping to expand it to monitor open spots on the streets as well, said Nishant Patel, founder and CTO of, and a member of the board of advisors for the city of San Francisco’s Connected City initiative. Patel advises the city as it explores IoT use cases defining the next generation of enabling technologies.

Helping drivers find a parking spot more quickly can have a significant impact on traffic patterns. In Barcelona, there are sensors embedded in the city’s streets to alert users on where to find open parking spots and traffic has been reduced because there are fewer people circling the block. This naturally helps the environment, because with fewer cars circling the city’s streets, there are lower carbon dioxide emissions and less fuel is wasted.

Data shows that 30% of all traffic congestion in cities is the result of drivers looking for a parking space, according to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

Cities can increase revenues by more closely monitoring parking, and there are several other conveniences stemming from HD cameras in smart streetlights and parking sensors, said Steve Durbin, managing director of the Information Security Forum in London.

“There are sensors in the roads so that you don’t need to worry about paying for your parking because the sensors will determine how long you’re parking there. Cities will also be able to clear away accidents much more quickly since they won’t need to wait for tape measurements. And they can link this information to insurance companies and claims so that they can be processed much more quickly. A lot of those things are seen and perceived as benefits in a smart city environment,” Durbin said.

To ease parking troubles by alerting drivers to open parking spots, cities can either embed sensors in the pavement for each individual parking spot, or they can do it via sensors in smart LED streetlights.

Streetlights are a cost-effective way for cities to become smarter, because every city has them and it’s inexpensive to add an HD camera to a smart LED streetlight. Data collected from the streetlight can be used for predictive analytics. “The city gets all the technology and sensors in one bundle,” GE’s Ashe said.

San Diego and Jacksonville, Florida, are two cities with smart LED streetlight pilot programs in place through GE Lighting. “Both pilots are in the downtown areas of the cities, so right in the heart. And there are approximately 50 intelligent LEDs installed in each city, which covers approximately 10 blocks,” Ashe said.

“Streetlights sit at a unique elevation in the city at 20-30 feet so it’s natural to install HD cameras. These pilots are testing the answer to the question of, ‘Instead of installing an LED, why don’t you install a smart LED that could do so much more?’ A smart LED has sensors embedded into it and connectivity to the industrial internet. With this we can start collecting data that cities never before had and with this data we can start to build applications. Much like you download an app on your Android device or iPhone, they can download an app that helps solve a citizen problem such as parking,” Ashe said.

Florida Power & Light–the energy utility in south Florida–is planning the world’s largest streetlight deployment of 500,000 smart LED streetlights, with 75,000 already completed, according to Brandon Davito, vice president of smart cities for Silver Spring Networks.

“We’ve seen the advancement in streetlight control and being able to deliver new types of applications and services is a big change. It’s a great launching point into a range of smart city applications,” Davito said. “Even for managing the streetlight network, adding cameras and motion detectors is a big step forward.”

“We’re at the convergence of a number of great trends. The cost of connectivity is dropping dramatically. The ability to put intelligence at the edge is dramatically increasing and citizens are expecting more. They have a tremendous amount of power and access to data [using] the mobile devices at their fingertips,” Davito said.

Silver Spring Networks works with San Antonio’s utility on a broad smart grid and smart infrastructure project that connects not just the electric meters but streetlights and gas and water meters.

Traffic was a concern in San Antonio, so the city connected its traffic lights together to build efficiency in traffic management and that has already saved hundreds of millions of dollars a year in energy consumption and lost time, said Hugh Miller, chief information and technology officer for the city of San Antonio.

The smart city features can even help in the rain. The first rain in San Antonio, after a long dry spell, can result in an increase of auto accidents because the rain activates oil and other chemicals that have been settling on the roadway. So the city has included a communication module within its LED street lights so that additional lights can be remotely turned on when such a rainstorm occurs, to help with visibility in an attempt to minimize accidents by helping drivers see the road more clearly, Miller said.

Overall, the ability to turn lights up and down as needed, in crime-ridden areas or for other purposes, is one of the benefits of having a smart city grid, he said.

Utilities and services in a smart city

There is also money to be saved with smart city technology.

In Barcelona, the city has experienced a $58 million annual savings using smart water meter technology, according to Cisco.

The city of Songdo, in Incheon, South Korea, is a $35 billion, 1,500-acre private real estate development that has been built from the ground up by Gale International with Cisco as a technology partner. The city has cut energy and water use by 30% compared to what a similarly sized city would use without smart features, and has reduced what operating costs would normally be by regulating electricity and water usage in buildings.

“There are no wires, it’s all underground. There are no garbage trucks. All garbage is sent underground through a pneumatic process. In homes, parents can connect to schools and talk to teachers through telepresence,” Menon said.

Chicago uses predictive analytics to determine where to place bait for rats, by listing which dumpsters are most likely to be overflowing. The city is now 20% more efficient in controlling rats, said Tom Schenk, chief data officer for the city of Chicago.

Predictive analytics are also being used to dispatch food inspectors to the city’s 15,000 restaurants by using variables to predict which businesses are most likely to have code violations. In an 8-week trial of the program, restaurants with code violations were found two weeks faster, on average, than they would have been without predictive analytics, Schenk said.

Chicago is also on the cusp of having 50 sensors in place to alert the proper departments when bridges freeze, and to report the water quality in Lake Michigan. Other city groups are focusing on noise pollution and traffic congestion, said Brenna Berman, Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) commissioner and CIO.

Security and public safety in a smart city

Security is also a component of Chicago’s smart city initiative. The city partners closely with the police department in order to bring technology into the field via a mobile command unit to manage large groups of people at outdoor events and intervene if an area becomes too crowded and a riot seems imminent. The mobile command unit is packed with TV monitors that display scenes from multiple angles, with live feeds from HD cameras embedded in the city’s LED streetlights. This is part of the city’s WindyGrid hub which houses information on many operational data sects into a single operating picture for city response teams to use when responding to an incident.

The court system is eased in San Antonio with its smart city technology. The city encompasses 460 square miles, which makes court-related issues a problem since some citizens have to drive a long distance just to get to the courthouse. Through smart city technology, residents can now use video court monitors at court kiosks throughout the area instead of actually appearing in court in person, said Miller.

Warrants can also be applied for online, which “radically shrinks the duration of time to deal with a public safety issue,” Miller said, acknowledging that that could be a plus or a minus depending on which side of the law a resident might be on.

Getting involved

Of course, the majority of cities around the world are not smart cities. Updating existing technologies to more advanced and more efficient ones will take time. But, in the meantime, individuals and organizations can do their part, by getting engaged and forming civic groups to focus on topics ranging from reviewing city data to gathering developers to create applications for the city.

Chicago wants to promote smart cities throughout the globe by giving them access to their code via open source. “Every city is facing tight budget times just like the city of Chicago and there’s no reason another city couldn’t take our restaurant code [for example] and implement it without making the investment that we did. We plan to adopt other open source codes from other cities. There’s a collaborative nature between municipalities and governments so we’re working on each other’s behalf,” Berman said.

“The entire code itself is online so other researchers can take a look at this code and take a look at this data,” Schenk said. Researchers can then work on the code and improve it, or even use it for their own smart city projects at no additional cost. Schenk said Chicago is also hoping to use open source code from other municipalities.

Journalists and programmers are the most likely candidates to use the data to spur a city to action, as well as entrepreneurs creating hack-a-thons to spur interesting applications for the municipality. And if they create this data and information, the city will likely listen, Schenk said.

No matter how appealing it is to offer new services, keep in mind that what citizens want is key.

“Smart cities are evolving cities, and smartness is relative–part of the requirement to be a smart city is to understand that change will always be necessary–but the intelligence comes in choosing the best tools that support that city’s people and keep its culture vibrant and sustainable,” Menon said.