What a Smart City Is… and Is Not

Between 2005 and 2008, either Cisco or IBM coined the term “Smart City”, kicking off more than a decade of confusion. It seems that no one can agree on who founded the movement, a singular definition, or even if people like the term at all.  To add to the mayhem, projects and programs are often mis-labeled “Smart City” without having all of the components required.

In efforts to clarify and unify, the following is a quick primer on the term “Smart City”. Included are popular definitions, the Three Essential Elements, related-but-different topics, additional challenges and a theory on how this will all come to some level of resolution.

What Is a Smart City?

Here are the Top 3 Search Results for “What is the definition of a Smart City?” followed by my definition, which focuses more on the benefits of the Smart City. There is no widely accepted standard for how to describe this quickly evolving sector.

Wikipedia: “A smart city is an urban area that uses different types of electronic Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to collect data and then use insights gained from that data to manage assets, resources and services efficiently. This includes data collected from citizens, devices, and assets that is processed and analyzed to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, utilities, water supply networks, waste management, crime detection,[1] information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services”

Techopedia: “A smart city is a designation given to a city that incorporates information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance the quality and performance of urban services such as energy, transportation and utilities in order to reduce resource consumption, wastage and overall costs. The overarching aim of a smart city is to enhance the quality of living for its citizens through smart technology.”

Internet of Things Agenda: “A smart city is a municipality that uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to increase operational efficiency, share information with the public and improve both the quality of government services and citizen welfare.”

My definition: Smart Cities use connected technology and data to (1) improve the efficiency of city service delivery (2) enhance quality of life for all (3) increase equity and prosperity for residents and businesses.

The Three Essential Elements of a Smart City

All of the definitions above incorporate three common elements:

1 – Connectivity:  A device (camera, sensor, mobile phone etc) must be enabled by some level of Internet connection. Without connectivity, devices cannot exchange information.

2 – Data: Without data generation, connected devices deliver limited value. A device on a pole means next to nothing unless it is exchanging and generating information (data, video, etc).

3 – Government involvement: Smart Cities without the public sector is simply the Internet of Things (IoT). While IoT is an exciting and growing market, becoming a true Smart CIty initiative requires government application.

To simplify and codify what is – and is not – Smart City activity, here is a quick decision tree based on the Three Essential Elements of a Smart City.

Figure 1.0 The Smart City Decision Tree

What a Smart City Is Not

Now that we’ve established the Three Essential Elements of a Smart City, it is easier to differentiate what is not a Smart City. While each of these items listed below may be components of a Smart City strategy, project or program, they are not Smart City initiatives in and of themselves.

  • Open Data Initiatives: Access to publicly-available data is an emerging and critical component to solving civic challenges, but just having an online Open Data Portal does not mean a city is smart. However, Open Data Portals can house information collected through connected devices. If that information is being collected and/or used by the public sector, that fulfills the three requirements for a Smart City. 
  • Government Modernization & Process Improvement: Many municipalities begin work to become a Smart City only to realize that the procedures and policies in place no longer support their new digital efforts. This begins a strategic process of internal realignment and modernization. This is a very important part of the journey, but in isolation, this does not make a Smart City.
  • Resident / Citizen Engagement Activities: The recent debacle with Sidewalk Labs in Toronto demonstrates the importance of transparency around data collection, management, sharing and use. As concerns about data privacy and ownership increase, two-way communication with residents/citizens about Smart City technology is essential. However, these activities alone are not enough to qualify as Smart City activity.
  • Non-Tech Related Transit Projects: Mobility is a driving force for Smart Cities. Autonomous vehicles, smart parking and connected traffic lights are all major components of Smart City programs; however without connectivity, data collection and government involvement, these are traditional transportation projects. 
  • Civic / Urban Improvement Initiatives; Green Initiatives; Utility (Energy/Water/Waste), etc. There is a long list of city-based initiatives that are often lumped into the chatter. And as long as there are connected devices and data collection, these qualify as Smart City initiatives. But without these two elements, they are simply governmental programs. 

Up For Debate

Items including 311, various mobile applications and payment modernization initiatives are in a grey area. 311 collects data by way of residents providing information to a municipality through their mobile devices (downed power lines, lost animals, missed garbage collection, etc). How city staff collect and manage this data may vary city to city. So technically this fits within the Three Essential Elements of a Smart City. However, human-entered data is very different than a traditional IoT application. This filter applies to other mobile applications and payment modernization efforts.

Coming to Terms with Technology

Beyond qualifying what is ‘smart’ or not, many people recoil from the industry-heavy jargon and technical application that surrounds the Smart City movement. One municipal leader stated recently, “I can’t say we are a Smart City yet, but I don’t want to say we’re a dumb city either.”

Appropriately, there is also great debate online, at conferences and in conversation about how when referring to Smart Cities, technology is often emphasized at the expense of people. The common phrase is “technology for technology’s sake doesn’t solve the challenges that people experience.” In efforts to bridge the gap, more design-based thinking has emerged, spurring efforts to make technology applications more ‘human focused.’

Adding human-centered (or a customer-centric approach) is all positive work in the right direction. But it cannot exist in isolation at the expense of the technical agenda. We live in a digital world. Simultaneously, cities are being asked to do more with less as their residents become more tech enabled.  There is room for a human-centered, tech-centric agenda to emerge. In fact it must for the sector to succeed.

All of this points to the idea that we are being framed by a phrase that simply doesn’t fit. Here are some interchangeable terms that are emerging on the Smart City scene:

  • Digital City
  • Connected City
  • Modern City
  • Future City
  • Future-Forward City
  • Community – it’s not just limited to cities!

Finally, all of this quibbling about definitions may not even matter. As the integration and application of Smart City technology becomes more embedded in our daily lives, there will be less need to define it so carefully. Much like when mobile technology became more mainstream, the experience became more intuitive and more seamless. It blended into the way things are. Smart City technology (or whatever it shall be referred to by then) will be the same. It will simply be.