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Smart cities: what makes a city ‘smart’?


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It all starts with data.


Smart cities use data and digital technology to make better decisions and improve citizens’ quality of life. With access to real-time data, municipalities are able to analyse events as they unfold, identify emerging patterns and respond with faster, cheaper solutions.


At a base level, a smart city is essentially an ICT framework composed of intelligent networks of connected objects and machines that transmit data using wireless tech and the cloud. Cloud-based Internet of Things (IoT) applications receive, analyse and manage this data in real time to help municipalities, enterprises and ultimately citizens make better decisions.


The overarching objective of a smart city is to create a more efficient, responsive and sustainable urban environment. Pairing devices such as smartphones, connected cars and homes with a city’s physical infrastructure and services can improve energy distribution, streamline waste collection, decrease congestion (and commute times) and improve air quality. Applications of smart tech can help cities fight crime, reduce a city’s disease burden and even cut down on water use.



The essential tech for a smart city


Sensors, constant connectivity and open data platforms are some of the key elements that power a smart city’s capabilities. Yet one of the most important technological devices for a smart city is the one that the average consumer carries with them wherever they go – a smartphone.


In the hands (and pockets) of nearly every resident, a smartphone acts as a constant supplier of information to a smart city’s data infrastructure. Equipped with a host of sensors such as GPS, microphones, gyroscopes and barometers, smartphones are able to detect and emit masses of data. This data can then be used by smart cities in different applications, such as detecting crowd density and helping reduce overcrowded public transport.


Looking to the future, advanced and low-latency applications that leverage big data analytics and real-time video and information sharing – enabled by symmetrical fibre or 5G wireless networks – will take smart cities to the next level of connectivity and responsiveness.


Some of the main technologies being employed today to drive smart city applications include:


Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the expansive use of advanced sensors and wireless communication to connect all kinds of physical and digital devices. The wide-scale implementation of sensors generates huge volumes of data, which can then be used by smart applications that optimise the use of resources and decision-making.


Some key applications of the IoT in smart cities are:

  • Intelligent traffic management based on dynamic traffic modelling using sensors and cameras to prevent congestion.
  • Smart parking systems via continuous monitoring of parking availability and online parking payment services.
  • Smart health initiatives that use sensor-enabled screening to improve primary health diagnosis services.
  • Monitoring of waste containers and bin levels with sensors to optimise waste collection schedules and routes.
  • Smart meters that automate meter reading, sending water, electricity and gas consumption data to consumers and energy companies to remotely monitor and pay for use.
  • Automated smart lighting control and dimming in streets based on motion detectors and illuminance sensors to save electricity.


Cognitive computing

Cognitive systems combine machine learning with natural language processing to extract insights from massive data sets. The systems’ reasoning abilities allow them to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty to process these huge amounts of data, and is one of the key technologies powering data processing and IoT applications.


Self-driving vehicles

Driver assistance tools are already improving the way cars operate – from adaptive cruise control to automated parking. But self-driving cars go much further. Equipped with a range of sensors and intelligent software, the car is able to reduce driving-related accidents, eliminate congestion, shorten commuting time and better manage parking availability.


Real-world smart cities



Barcelona has become a smart city trailblazer, particularly when it comes to resource management. In 2011, the city hosted the first Smart City Expo and World Congress to promote ‘a self-sufficient city of productive neighbourhoods at human speed, inside a hyper-connected zero emissions metropolitan area’. Today, the city is saving billions of euros a year by installing smart energy systems such as smart grid pilot projects, smart meters and a comprehensive plan for reducing carbon emissions. The LED street lights host sensors, which are able to monitor traffic, air quality, footfall and noise. When streets are empty, lights automatically dim to conserve energy, and brighten when pedestrians are nearby. The lampposts are part of the city’s WiFi network, and can provide free internet access across the city.


In addition, smart bins suck waste into underground storage to reduce street odours and noise pollution from collection. This data is fed to city planners, who can analyse where waste is generated and use the information to improve collection times and reduce the resources needed for waste collection. What’s more, non-recyclable waste is incinerated as energy for heating systems.


Barcelona is also employing smart technology to great use with transport. The city has made extensive use of sensors to help monitor and manage traffic, while reducing congestion with real-time info for drivers seeking available parking spaces. Digital bus stops are also improving transport across Barcelona by turning stops into interactive digital experiences that feature free WiFi and USB charging stations, tourist tips, bus arrival times and maps via tablet screens.


After running out of water a few years ago, the city has implemented a city-wide sensor system for park irrigation, which consists of a series of interconnected sensors that analyse rainfall alongside forecasts to modify sprinklers accordingly. This has allowed the city to conserve water and better manage irrigation.



Singapore is another frontrunner in smart city initiatives. Launched in 2014 by then Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the Smart Nation Programme leads a range of smart city initiatives. An unspecified number of sensors and cameras are deployed across the nation to monitor everything from cleanliness to traffic. All collected data is fed into a centralised platform, giving the government access to real-time information.


For example, the city’s sensors can detect when people are smoking in prohibited places or littering from high-rise buildings, and can even monitor crowd density and the movement of registered cars. Furthermore, the Virtual Singapore dashboard – a dynamic 3D city model that enables city planners to run virtual tests – allows city leaders to simulate emergency neighbourhood evacuations.


Privacy and security are obviously chief concerns, yet the government has stressed that data is anonymised as much as possible. On the other hand, much of this data has been released to the public via an open data platform, which the government sees as an opportunity for citizens to engage in smart city initiatives.



Dubai is nearing the end of its seven-year Dubai 2021 plan to digitalise all government services, from transport and infrastructure to economic services and urban planning. Almost 90 government services have been digitalised and are now accessible via the DubaiNow app. According to the emirate, the digitalised services will save $245 million by eliminating paper transactions alone.


In addition, Dubai is pushing through a range of high-tech and high-profile projects to boost its smart city status. The city recently built a 31-foot-tall concrete building using a 3D printer, while the well-known Dubai-Abu Dhabi hyperloop is another sign of the emirate’s future ambitions.


Cities face increasing environmental pressures and infrastructure concerns, as well as growing demands from local residents who want a better quality of life. By investing in human and social capital and disruptive tech, smart cities can generate sustainable economic growth and a higher quality of life, while better managing depleting natural resources.


As new disruptive tech applications continue to emerge and smart cities get increasingly smarter, who knows what the future urban environment might hold.