There may actually be no such thing as a smart city. Wait — what? That’s certainly an odd comment coming from an article about smart cities. Okay, let’s explain. There’s no such thing as a completed smart city. It would be difficult to find an example where all the work has been finished and the designers and implementers have, after completing their tasks, washed their hands and said, “We’re done. Voilà! Here’s your smart city.”

Nope. Doesn’t exist. After all, is a city ever completed?

smart city ©Shutterstock/metamorworks

With a few rare exceptions, cities are in a constant state of change. Whether they’re being updated and improved or expanding upward, downward, and outward (or all of these); our cities are living, evolving entities. Cities are a work in progress. They are shaped by (among many factors) community needs, by societal trends, by crisis, and by better ideas. They shrink and expand, they decline and are reborn, and they are destroyed and rebuilt. They are never finished.

And so it’s a logical return to the idea that there’s no such thing as a smart city. Instead, there are compelling and urgent needs, and a necessary response to demands, for cities that function with greater “smartness” to be smarter in all areas and in every way.

A smart city isn’t a city that has merely achieved some level of satisfactory smartness. A smart city is one that identifies with the need to be smarter and then bakes that knowledge into its functioning, action-oriented DNA. It doesn’t continue to use obsolete 20th century solutions. A smart city implements 21st century solutions for 21st century problems.

If there’s one aspect of smart cities that can be chastised for continuing to cause confusion and excessive debate, it’s the absence of agreement on the definition of the term smart city. Here you get a brief breakdown of what constitutes a smart city and what does not.

What a smart city is

As Sicinius, the bearded protector of the Roman people’s interests, states in Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, “What is the city but the people?”

Indeed, what is the city but the people?

This is the right place to start when discussing the future of cities. After all, cities are defined by the human experience. They exist in support of people, are the invention of people, and deeply reflect a people's culture. In Bangkok and Tokyo, the city landscapes are replete with temples, like Budapest is with hot baths, Amsterdam is with coffee shops, and Vegas is with casinos.

The feel, the look, the behavior, the heartbeat of the city — these are all a reflection of people. Cities communicate the history and life of those who live there. (Some like to say that architecture is the language of the city, which is a fitting way to look at things.)

Across the planet, cities have emerged for different reasons, and their design has been shaped by various influences. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to cities. Though they share some common needs, such as energy, transportation, communications, and sanitation, they have as many differences as similarities.

Sure, a city can be defined and categorized by such characteristics as its geography, governance, population, and infrastructure, but its purpose, needs, and culture cannot be so easily abstracted and normalized such that you can generalize about their nature. The uniqueness of each city must be viewed through this lens.

Many cities suffer the same challenges. Finding a parking space, for example, is a universal pain. But the way problems are solved is often specific to each community. For every challenge that is similar, others are often unique.

It’s this backdrop that is essential for an understanding of how to think about smart cities. To be able to confidently say that Barcelona and Dublin are smart cities (or are becoming smarter) means that there would need to be a globally agreed-on definition and an agreed-on set of extensive standards and measurements.

These don’t exist, and they may never exist.

Okay, to be fair, there are a small number of proposed and voluntary standards for smart cities. Two strong examples are:

The term smart city is much less important than the purpose of the work and the outcomes. In fact, to clear up confusion, many other terms are used that are all simply synonyms. They include connected city, hyperconnected city, intelligent city, digital city, smart community, and others. Smart city (or smart cities) is the term that has stuck.

A smart city is defined by its people, not by some outside arbiter. If Helsinki believes that it’s creating a better quality of life for its people in its innovative use of technology, it has the right to call itself a smart city.

John Harlow, a smart city research specialist at the Emerson College Engagement Lab, states that “smartness in cities comes from people understanding what's important to them and what problems they are experiencing.”

The most basic definition of a smart city is one that responds to its citizens' needs in new and improved ways.

You’ll learn more regarding this definition shortly, but first, some additional contextual basics.

The future of humanity is firmly rooted in cities. For better or worse, as rural communities rapidly decline, immigration to cities is booming. By the end of the 21st century, all things being equal, most humans will live in urban settings. This remarkable shift will define the future more than just about anything else humans do (other than perhaps populating other planets).

Despite our many misgivings, on balance, cities are largely a success story. More than anything else, they have lifted billions of people out of poverty, providing jobs, shelter, accessible healthcare, and other support systems and regulations to assist in life’s needs. Edward Glaeser, the American economist and author of Triumph of the City, makes a compelling case that cities are humanity’s greatest invention.

But it’s been a tough, ugly journey. The world’s early cities weren’t pleasant places for most people, and suffering was common. Fortunately, cities are now in much better shape, and an urban migrant should find options and opportunities to at least have the choice of a better life.

However, though conditions in general are better than they’ve ever been, the challenges presented by cities today are more complex in many ways and are vastly more difficult and expensive to solve.

Here’s a list of just a few of the smart city challenges awaiting solutions:

  • Overburdened and inefficient social support systems
  • Transportation congestion and poor public-transport options
  • Inequality
  • Poverty
  • Crime
  • Homelessness
  • Environmental damage
  • Poor air quality
  • Aging and broken infrastructure
  • Lack of jobs
  • Weak civic engagement
  • Food insecurity
  • Inclusiveness

This list is only a small reflection of the massive number of unique challenges that cities on every continent have to address. But it should be suggestive to you of the type of work that lies ahead.

An obvious question right now is this: Why haven’t humans solved these types of problems?

Some of the answer lies in leadership priorities and insufficient budgets as well as in the scale and complexity of the problems involved. Clearly, if these problems were cheaply and easily solved, they’d have been addressed by now. They are neither.

However, the history of innovation is a reminder that humans have the capacity to solve big, intractable issues. Improved sanitation changed the trajectory of healthcare, for example, and fertilizer made food abundant. Might innovation also help with the current challenges of the world’s cities? Many would argue yes, and technology powered innovation might offer some of the best opportunities.

This kind of thinking may draw you closer to a definition of what a smart city is.

The Smart Cities Council, a network of companies advised by universities, laboratories, and standards bodies, maintains that smart cities embody three core values: livability, workability, and sustainability. Specifically, the council states that using technology to achieve improvements in these three areas is the definition of what a smart city needs to be.

So, considering everything you’ve learned so far, including researching the literature on the topic, what might a definition look like? Here’s a proposal:

A smart city is an approach to urbanization that uses innovative technologies to enhance community services and economic opportunities, improves city infrastructure, reduces costs and resource consumption, and increases civic engagement.

Fair?

Many smart city definitions include references to specific technologies — often this is a mistake. The definition should be about outcomes, and it should outlive technologies that come and go. There will always be better tools in the future. Limiting a definition to tools that exist now will make any definition quickly outdated.

Finally, don’t lose sight of these two important qualities that are essential for smart cities:
  • Technology use: There are many ways to address city issues, but when technologies are used as the primary tools, this helps to make the city smarter. A smart city is a system of systems that optimizes for humans.
  • People first: Don’t become too enamored by the use of technology. When deployed correctly, technology is largely invisible, or at least non-intrusive. What matters are the outcomes for people. A smart city is ultimately a human-centric endeavor.
After all, what is the city but the people?

What a smart city is not

Establishing the definition of a smart city is vital because it helps you comprehend the scope of the topic. But recognizing what a smart city is not also has value.

Here are five things that a smart city is not:

  • An upgrade from a dumb city: There are many smart cities events each year, and inevitably a speaker or panelist makes a joke about cities being dumb before they were smart. The joke usually draws a chuckle. Fair enough — the notion of “smart” isn’t precise enough for what it is, but it’s the title that has stuck. All cities are complex, amazing feats of human creativity. They aren’t dumb and have never been — quite the opposite. Becoming a smart city is more about becoming smarter in the use of technology to make what the city does better and to provide solutions to problems that traditionally have been difficult to solve.

One last, related point on this topic. One point of view is that a smart city can exist only with smart people. This perspective is far from fair or inclusive. Communities are made up of all types of people, and everyone, if they choose, has something to contribute.

When building smart cities, ensure that all your efforts and experiences embrace the majesty of all people. You should, in fact, add this as a goal in your strategy.

  • A surveillance city: Implementing a smart city should not mean the end of privacy for its residents, businesses, and visitors. It’s true that smart cities deploy sensors in support of their efforts — possibly for monitoring air and water quality, improved traffic management, noise detection, energy management, and much more. It’s important to acknowledge privacy concerns where they arise, and city leaders need to listen carefully and respond with assurances. However, you should recognize that these efforts are made to improve services, not to impinge on privacy or create a surveillance city where everyone is being monitored. In developing and executing on a smart city strategy, stakeholders must ensure that privacy is upheld, data is anonymized, and the community is engaged in the process to provide transparency and build confidence.

    Deploying smart city technology that includes sensors should be specifically and carefully regulated by rules — even legislation — in order to protect the community. Make that a priority.

  • A strategy about gadgets and apps: Yes, technology is definitely at the center of developing a smart city, but if you look at many of the vendors in this emerging space, you can easily believe that the subject is really all about cool new toys and apps. Sure, plenty of those are available. However, transforming a city, solving complex challenges, and creating a higher quality of life for the greatest number of people are goals that require comprehensive changes in processes, rules, technologies, and the talent and skills to plan and implement it. Don’t be distracted by novel, piecemeal solutions. Sure, consider those factors in the mix, but recognize that creating a smart city is an undertaking that requires a significant focus on technology strategy, extensive solutions architecture, and systems integration.

    Remind yourself (and others) often that smart cities are about people, not technology.

  • A temporary technology trend: You might believe that the smart city movement is a recent development, perhaps just two or three years old. In reality, applying technology to make cities operate better has been under way for several decades. It isn’t possible to determine the first-ever use of the term smart city, but it certainly has references at least to the early 1990s. Even with a reasonably long history already, the real action of smart cities is happening now, and the most significant results will be seen in the years ahead. More than some sort of temporary trend, for cities to function well and bring a high quality of life to as many people as necessary, the smart city movement will last for multiple decades. Though the smart city concept may change over time, the goal doesn’t really have an expiration date. For many skeptical city leaders, it’s time to shrug off the belief that it’s a passing fad and get on board to embrace the benefits of urban innovation.
  • A concept that matters only to big cities: If you review the literature on smart cities, it certainly would appear that only big cities can be smart cities. The same names pop up all the time: London, Paris, Moscow, Melbourne, Dublin, Vienna, Barcelona, San Francisco, and others. Sure, these incredible cities have impressive smart city initiatives, but any city can pursue the goal of becoming smarter. After all, most cities in the world today are small. The big ones are the outliers.
Interested in learning more? Check out our Smart Cities Cheat Sheet.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Dr. Jonathan Reichental is a multiple-award-winning technology and business leader whose career has spanned both the private and public sectors. He's been a senior software engineering manager, a director of technology innovation, and has served as chief information officer at both O'Reilly Media and the city of Palo Alto, California. He also creates online education for LinkedIn Learning and others.

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