Beyond The Hype: The Promise of Smart Cities

Smart cities have received a lot of press in the past year. But for smart cities to be of any use we need to get beyond the hype and begin to understand exactly what they are and, importantly, the promise smart cities hold for a brighter future.

What is a ‘Smart City’

According to industry analyst Jack Gold, the term is extremely broad and is often misused. Yet, his stab at a working definition is that a ‘smart city is about having sensor data that then gets used to create actions. You can define a smart city as a city with better-managed infrastructure that is variable, based on input of data and adjustments of the results to best utilize resources or improve safety.’1

This is one of the better working definitions out there, as it gets to the heart of how a smart city functions (i.e. through sensor) and the deliverables (i.e. better management and improved safety). As such we can see that a smart city is not just a collection of Internet of Things (IoT) doodads, but it also combines Big Data and Analytics, Artificial Intelligence and public services to transform our lives.

Given that the specific sets of technology can be deployed in almost every setting, the term ‘smart city’ is a bit of a misnomer. Instead, we should refer to the technologies as solutions as either smart communities or connected communities.

Smart cities are about the evolving nature of living in and working in our communities. While this entails services provided by the government, the role is changing. Dr. David A. Bray, CIO of the Federal Communications Commission, states that we are in a period of exponential change and this is putting stresses on the provision of services which were typically offered by the government.

As such, Dr. Bray is advocating for a paradigm shift whereby we move away from thinking about government services to public service. In Dr. Bray’s view, we need to empower change agents to create platforms for the delivery of services that benefit the community.

How Can Smart Cities Help Me?

It is likely that we have yet to unlock many of the potential applications for smart city technology. That being said, a number companies and public service agencies have been working on promoting applications which can benefit citizens. It’s not just in the U.S., as countries around the world are promoting technologies to develop smart cities.

Self-Driving Cars

One example of smart city technology is autonomous, or driverless cars. Did you know that most private vehicles are only used about 5% of the time? This means that the other 95% of the time they are sitting unused. This spare capacity creates a tremendous opportunity for technologies. It can help us more fully utilize one of the most expensive ‘assets’ most people own.

Imagine if self-driving cars were co-owned via a resource sharing scheme. Although this would blur the line between public and private, it would also reduce the number of vehicles on the road at any given time. Furthermore, it would allow the flexibility to choose from a fleet of mobility solutions depending on your need at the time. For example, using an ‘A-Class’ two-seater to get you around town and then a one-ton pickup when you need to move from an apartment to a house could be some of the available options.


An added benefit of this development would be that space which is primarily used for vehicles could be converted into public spaces, which would benefit the health and well-being of the entire community.

Self-driving vehicles is only one example of smart city technology at work. Another benefit would be the improvement of community engagement. For example, the Trash Track project in Seattle. This project was developed by a team from MIT’s Senseable Labs and allowed citizens to follow trash as it made its way through the city’s sanitation system.

Not only did the tracker increase visibility, but it also led to behavior change. This happened because people could see the enormity of the trash life cycle, and based on this information, they could make decisions to change their habits.2

Another plus of this project was that the partner was one of the largest waste management companies in the country – Waste Management. Better awareness of trash, including improved sorting, may lead to lower operating costs and better service. This will increase the efficiency of tax dollars on these programs.

smart cities

Smart Cities – Moving from the lab to the field2

Where Do We Go from Here?

To date, the Federal Government has allocated more than $160 million for the development of smart city initiatives across the country. Even though this is not a lot of money, companies such as Intel, IBM, GE, and Microsoft are all busy developing the technologies which will serve as the backbone for the smart cities of the not-too-distant future. While many of these technologies will be focused on mobility solutions, other applications include community engagement, planning, and sustainability. Taken together, these technologies will move us beyond the hype to a future where our cities are safer and more livable.

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1Hamblem, M. Computerworld. Just what IS a smart city? 1 October 2015. https://goo.gl/iiKa4i. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
2 Ratti, C; Biderman, A; Offenhuber, D; et. al. MIT Labs. Why Do We Know So Much About the Supply Chain and So Little About the Removal-Chain? No Date. https://goo.gl/M59lUk. Retrieved 13 December 2016.
3 U.S. Department of Transportation. New: Secretary Foxx Announces Additional Advanced Transportation Technology Grants at White House Frontiers Conference. 13 October 2016. https://goo.gl/BU1Hal. Retrieved 13 December 2016.


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