Just How Smart Will Our Smart Cities Be?

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The world is getting bigger, but technology has the potential to bring us closer together. Read any tech website these days and you’ll likely find a slew of references to ‘smart cities’. From Santiago to Seoul, Singapore to San Francisco, the rise of urban environments powered by the latest tech and innovative thinking is not one we can ignore.

So what do smart cities look like? Why do we need them? And just how smart will our smart cities be?

What is a smart city?

An attempt at a definition: A smart city fuses technology, people and government to improve quality of life for its inhabitants.

In more specific terms, smart cities are global cities that draw on digital technologies, infrastructure and creative thinking to better manage a wide range of public services and provisions, from transport to energy, healthcare to waste, law enforcement to libraries and more or less everything in between.

Why do we need them?

Put simply, because the world’s population is growing, more and better services are needed and our technology is developing so rapidly that we would be foolish to not try and put it all to some use. To create more efficient city services that make them fulfilling places to live.

With the world’s population expected to double by 2050 and continued migration from the rural to the city, cities will be the future base from where the majority of us live, work and play. More people means more pressure on infrastructure, on essential public services, on councils and administrations.

What do smart cities look like?

Sci-fi-esque cities with driverless cars, robots for police officers, smart power grids, councils driven by big data and IoT-connected homes? Well, you’re probably not far wrong. Smart cities have the potential to include a flabbergasting range of technologies, including, but, you won’t be surprised to hear, not limited to:

  • Intelligent street lighting

  • Driverless cars

  • Wireless charging points for vehicles

  • Solar panels

  • Fuel cells

And the list goes on....

Singapore: the smartest city?

Last year, market research group Juniper produced a ranking of the smartest cities in the world, naming Singapore as the leader, followed by:

2. Barcelona

3. London

4. San Francisco

5. Oslo

Juniper studied cities all over the world, ranking them against 40 metrics including technology, transport, energy, data and the economy. Singapore was described as a “world leader” in smart mobility policies and technology.

But smart city projects are happening everywhere. Here’s some more examples:

Smart city: Reykjavik

Reykjavik’s council set up the Better Reykjavik website, a platform which allows citizens to suggest ideas for city improvements. The council has pledged to discuss any ideas with enough political backing to implement them. According to Nesta, nearly 60 per cent of  Reykjavikians have used the platform, and - get this - the city has spent €1.9 million on developing more than 200 projects based on their ideas. One such idea was the brainchild of a Reykjavik schoolgirl, who wanted to organise more field trips for her school.

Smart city: Barcelona

Barcelona wants to cut its energy costs, so is attempting to transform its roads. Motion sensors have been deployed to implement smart street lights which dim or brighten depending on activity by pedestrians or cars. There are also systems that allow drivers to find free public parking spots.

Smart city: Istanbul

Istanbul recently announced it had partnered with Ericsson on a consultancy project to help the city’s metropolitan municipality to achieve its smart city vision and meet targets it has set for 2024. The agreement will see Ericsson do work to improve Istanbul’s city services and implement smart city management, focusing on urbanisation, population growth and resource utilisation.

Smart city challenges

Despite all the hype surrounding the potential that smart cities clearly have, there is still some way to go before we see fully-realised, living, breathing smart cities. Currently, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that cities have elements of their infrastructure that are ‘smart’, with the rest still reliant on traditional, well-worn methods. Here are a few challenges smart city developers currently face:

IT infrastructure

Street lights powered by sensors, smart energy systems and the rest clearly bring benefits. But do our cities have the IT muscle to implement them and keep them all running? With services becoming increasingly reliant on the internet, the challenge for smart cities is to have resilient IT infrastructure that can not only cope with normal demand but manage surges.


The development of a smart city will involve lots of people from lots of different places: government departments, investors, stakeholders, the citizens themselves. It’s fair to assume that the usual political battles will ensue. How to ensure governments, citizens and private organisations create smart cities harmoniously?


In the UK we are used to hearing the phrase ‘digital divide’ - meaning those people totally comfortable with new technology and those who aren’t. This is a problem all over the world and, in some countries, is not just about digital knowledge but also about having the money to invest in and implement the technological landscape needed.. Making cities truly smart is about making them more technological. For the digitally-savvy that’s all good, but we need to think about how to ensure those who are new to technology can also benefit. Here in the UK, the government has said that as part of its Digital Strategy it will work hard to upskill the ‘digitally poor’ so they can thrive in a flourishing digital economy. Agreement, education and co-operation from all sides will be the key to making smart cities truly smart.


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