Smartphones, smart homes, smart bulbs, smart security cameras, smart cars and smart cities. Is any of this really smart? 

Smart technology is a term that originated with the acronym Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology. Now, we call these inanimate objects smart because they can communicate by talking with each other, and to us, and even to help guide our behavior. 

The concept of smart cities dates to the 1970s when Los Angeles commissioned a report that used databases, aerial photography, and cluster analysis to collect data and direct resources in the city. Smart cities focused on increasing efficiency, reducing poverty and mitigating disasters.

As with so many things concerning people, workplaces and social settings, smart city initiatives may get a shot in the arm as we emerge from our pandemic lifestyles. 

People-Centric is the Smart Way to Go

When cities adopt smart city technologies, like the Internet of Things (IoT), it’s essential for them to dramatically change the way they do business. Smart cities contain infrastructure based around data-driven technology, moving a city from an analog world to a dynamic world based on real-time information. At its core, a smart city is a network of technological responses to the growing needs, demands and challenges of improving the quality of life for people living in urban centers across the world.

Although smart cities focus on technology, they must also meet the needs of people. According to a February 2022 article in Computer Science Review, developing human-centered smart cities that embrace data-driven artificial intelligence (AI) requires leaders who keep two issues in mind: 

  1. Technology can facilitate prosperity, well-being, urban livability or social justice, but only when it has the right analog complements (mature institutions, responsible governance).
  2. The ultimate objective of smart cities is to facilitate and enhance human welfare. 

Why Smart Cities Are Important

Progress in the development of smart cities has accelerated over the past several years. Many individuals feel that work and social life after the COVID-19 pandemic will require new ways of thinking about urban spaces. Today, some 55% of the world’s population – 4.2 billion inhabitants – live in cities, according to the World Bank. By 2050, the urban population will more than double its current size, and nearly 7 of 10 people in the world will live in cities.

Challenges arising as the world slowly adapts to the concept of smart cities include:

  • Accelerated demand for affordable housing.
  • Increasing mobility with well-connected transport systems and other infrastructure.
  • Pressure on basics including services and jobs. 

While many cities across the world have started implementing smart technologies, a few stand out above the rest. Top cities on the Smart Cities Index include:

  • Columbus, Ohio
  • Hong Kong, China
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • New York City, New York
  • San Diego, California
  • Singapore, Southeast Asia
  • Toronto, Canada

Meeting Citizen Needs with the Power of Technology

A successful smart city needs to be designed and managed by people who are engaged with their cities, focus on the success of their community and understand technology. 

City stakeholders need to address governance issues and make sure that technologies from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) are used responsibly and that the needs of people take precedent. A new report from the World Economic Forum came to this conclusion after, has tracking the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance efforts, which represents represent more than 200,000 cities and local governments, leading companies, start-ups and research institutions. 

2018 McKinsey report agreed. "Until recently, city leaders thought of smart technologies primarily as tools for becoming more efficient behind the scenes. Now technology is being injected more directly into the lives of residents.”

Smart Cities: Details in the Data 

Smart cities run on data. A solid and secure system of data collection and storage is essential. Smart city projects need to be transparent, and government officials must set the tone for widespread public participation. And the systems need to be designed and managed by tech experts who can guarantee the veracity of the data and make the most of an integrated system. 

One of the most significant challenges in a smart city is ensuring the connectivity of thousands or even millions of IoT devices that need to work in unison. 

The complexity behind a smart city network can be mindboggling. A study by Boston Consulting Group looked at 75 smart city applications that used data from a variety of sources, including cars, appliances, traffic lights, etc. In general, nearly 50% of the apps used data sourced from multiple industries or platforms. One example would be an application that uses several different types of data to calculate the cost of parking at a particular location. 

The complexity brings with it opportunity. Smart cities do much more than enhance existing municipal services. Using 4IR technology offers fresh opportunities for successful sustainability of cities, including: job creation, industries, innovation, environmental preservation, community involvement and accessibility.

Powered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Big data, a pillar of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, will be able to provide a city with information to mine, analyze and use for identifying previously unrecognized problems. Also, incentivizing innovation is one of the main recognized drivers of economic growth.

IoT can lead to industrial innovations that help economies thrive. Augmented reality can create simulations that help municipalities foresee and adapt to problems. Smart city policies also incentivize innovation, which increases a city’s stock of knowledge, a proven driver of economic growth.

Today’s smart solutions are often sponsored by individual municipalities, meaning many IoT-enabled applications rely on limited, siloed data. But there is potential value in the data gathered and used by applications aggregated across several sources. As a result, many cities are partnering with others to develop platforms that integrate data from multiple sources.

What Makes a City Smart? 

One of the top smart cities, the city-state of Singapore, with a population of 5.5 million people, uses sensors and IoT-enabled cameras to monitor, among other things, the cleanliness of public spaces, crowd density, and the movement of locally registered vehicles. Singapore’s smart technologies help companies and residents monitor energy use, waste production and water use in real-time. Singapore is also testing autonomous vehicles, including full-size robotic buses, as well as an elderly monitoring system to ensure the health and well-being of its senior citizens.

Other examples of successful smart cities:

  • Kansas City, Mo., has smart streetlights, interactive kiosks and a data visualization app shares information about parking spaces, traffic flow and pedestrian hotspots. 
  • San Diego installed 3,200 smart sensors to optimize traffic and parking and enhance public safety, environmental awareness and overall livability. 
  • Dubai, United Arab Emirates, uses smart city technology for traffic routing, parking, telemedicine,  smart buildings, smart utilities, smart education and smart tourism.
  • Barcelona, Spain’s smart transportation bus systems include connected bus stops with free Wi-Fi, USB charging stations, a bike-sharing program and smart parking app with online payment options. Integrated sensors monitor weather, pollution and noise.

Sustainability: Are Smart Cities the Answer?

Smart urbanization can contribute to sustainable growth, with more than 80% of global GDP generated in cities. And the federal government can also play a role.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working with communities of all sizes across the country to identify creative strategies to develop in ways that preserve natural lands and critical environmental areas, protect water and air quality and reuse already-developed land.

The EPA is a founding partner of the Smart Growth Network, a partnership of government, business and civic organizations that support smart growth. Smart growth strategies espoused by the network are similar to other smart cities' goals, including: 

  • Mix land uses.
  • Create a range of housing opportunities and choices.
  • Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place.
  • Provide a variety of transportation choices.
  • Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective.
  • Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.

COVID-19 and Reevaluating the City 

For decades, cities were thought to be the engines of our economies. The exchange of cultures and ideas were integral to the success of cities. And a global pandemic has proved that technology makes working from anywhere feasible.

People may continue to work in a city, but it may not always be the same city, and it may not be where their company or colleagues are.

As we consider our post-COVID-19 future, there is a strong argument that the smart city technologies that have been vital in tackling the pandemic may also be critical in ensuring that cities retain a vibrant future. No matter what city individuals end up in, it will be important for the city to be sustainable, safe and secure, welcoming to all its citizens, and smart.  

Smart Cities, 4IR, and Thunderbird

Want to learn more about smart cities and the opportunities to guide their future? Interested in framing the smart city concept within a larger context of sociological perspectives, technology trends, and differing agendas? The Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University is ready to assist you.

Thunderbird’s Executive Education program offers leaders in both public and private sectors, as well as practitioners, academics, and civic innovators, the opportunity to register for its Smart Cities and Urban Innovation Certificate. The certificate consists of three modules, offered on-demand, including: Smart Communities: Definitions, Myths, History, and Future; The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the City; and 
Smart Community Strategies: Lesson from the Past, Building Blocks for Success

Pro. Each module will take about one week to complete making this certificate accessible to all working professionals.

Each module is $199 USD and provide an in-depth multidisciplinary orientation on the topic of Smart and Resilient Communities. They explore the history, present and future of the ‘smart city’ concept, frame the future of our cities within the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, provide a platform to share insights and best practices by experienced leaders from across the globe, and introduce the building blocks for successful digitalization and innovation strategies for communities, cities and regions.

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