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What is a smart city?

Cities are no exception to the revolutionary effect of technology. Urban planning experts believe that smart cities will be the next step in urban evolution – but what is a smart city, and what are its benefits?

What is a smart city?

What is a smart city?

A smart city is a municipality that uses data collection and technology to improve every aspect of the city’s operations. This includes traffic light and utility regulation, social service allocation, maintenance tasks, and thousands of other everyday municipal responsibilities that can be improved by smart city technology. The technology involved incorporates everything in the smart city from user device data gathering and surveys to using artificial intelligence or algorithms to help make difficult governance decisions.

Many cities have some aspects of smart city planning already, and there’s a good chance your city has a few smart city projects or a smart city initiative in the works. The ideal smart city, however, has modern smart city technologies integrated into as many of its processes as possible to optimize and improve quality of life for its citizens.

How do smart cities work?

Experts note that because cities and technologies around the world are so different, it can be difficult to clearly delineate what a smart city is or how exactly one should work. However, smart city projects share some common elements.

What defines a smart city?

Here are a few factors that define a smart city, though there are many others.

  • Internet-enabled infrastructure.
  • Data sharing between areas and infrastructure elements.
  • High levels of automation, making life easier for inhabitants.

Smart city features

  • Data collection: One key aspect of smart cities is gathering data to inform decisions. Here are just a few examples of the many ways smart city data collection might work:
    • Traffic sensors to record the speed and volume of traffic at intersections throughout the city.
    • Sewer flow monitors to detect peak flow rates or identify clogs or maintenance issues as they arise.
    • Retail/grocery purchase data to identify neighborhood consumption habits.
  • Data processing and decision-making: The next step is using technology to help make smart city planning and operational decisions. This might be as simple as compiling data from a variety of sources, but it can also include AI, machine learning or algorithm assistance.
  • Implementation: Some of these processes might redirect old-fashioned services like street cleaning or maintenance crews. One smarter technological solution might be an AI smart traffic management system that changes traffic light times based on city traffic. This is how smart digital solutions can actually improve the quality of life for citizens.

Smart city technologies

So much goes into the management of a city that listing all smart city technologies would be impossible. However, smart city technology is headed in a few key directions:

  • Smart energy: Smart energy allocation and local renewable energy sources will allow for more efficient and stable energy grids.
  • IoT devices: Smart cities can use IoT parking meters, garbage cans, traffic lights and other connected smart city devices to collect data and monitor municipal operations.
  • Smart city transportation: From AI-powered public transportation to smart parking monitors, fully connected communication systems that interact with one another can make smart city transportation more efficient. Does your city have a smart parking app? Many do.
  • Smart city infrastructure: Smart infrastructure can monitor most of a city’s essential functions, like water flow, sewage, and road conditions.
  • Artificial intelligence and algorithms: AI can help make connections and move towards solutions that city officials may not have discovered on their own. In specific applications, algorithms can make faster and smarter decisions than human officials.

Smart cities and IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a key feature of smart cities. Without connected devices, it would be nearly impossible to collect the raw digital data required to make technologically informed decisions. The data gathered by these devices can fuel algorithmic and AI decisions, and in some cases, the devices can receive remote commands as well.

Why are smart cities important?

Why do we need smart cities? Well, smart cities have the potential to vastly improve city life and citizens’ quality of life. Smart city networks can allow smart city networks to improve municipal transportation and empower smart city services that some of us can only dream of. In addition to quality of life, smart city solutions can also vastly improve smart city efficiency. Each and every country is facing its own climate change and pollution struggles, and smart city solutions can help make cities far cleaner and energy-efficient.

The history of smart cities

The concept of a smart city was developed relatively recently and the technologies are quite new, but the real history of smart cities goes back several decades. Here’s a smart city history timeline:

  • 1970: Los Angeles begins the first known urban big data project.
  • 1994: Amsterdam creates a “virtual city” to promote internet usage and adoption.
  • 2005-2008: IBM and Cisco begin researching and investing in smart city technologies.
  • 2011: The first Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona attracts more than 6,000 visitors from over 50 countries around the world. It will go on to become an annual event.

Throughout that time, cities around the world have been gradually adopting smart technologies in greater numbers.

Are smart cities secure?

Smart cities offer lots of benefits, but they also pose significant risks. Much like with IoT devices, introducing data collection and remote access also introduces new vulnerabilities. Implemented on the scale of a city, however, these vulnerabilities can be even worse. Attacks against smart city infrastructure have happened in the past. Here are just a few potential examples:

  • Hack into a water treatment facility (like some hackers did in 2021).
  • Shut down traffic by hacking into traffic light control systems.
  • Steal troves of sensitive data to sell to scammers on the dark web.

The existence of risks doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t implement some of these technologies. However, it’s important that city governments take smart city security seriously.

Top smart cities in the world

What is the smartest city in the world? Most experts agree that Singapore is the world’s smartest city. Just by visiting, we’d be able to experience some examples of what our own cities might look like in the future. Here’s a look at some of the other top smart cities, as ranked by

  1. Singapore
  2. Helsinki
  3. Zurich
  4. Oslo
  5. Amsterdam
  6. New York
  7. Seoul

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