Developing Smart Cities: The 8 Stages Explained

Published Categorized as Innovative Technology
Smart City Development

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and this number is projected to grow exponentially in the coming years. Urban spaces, now more than ever, are under pressure to become “smarter” to improve the quality of life of their inhabitants. Transitioning an existing space to a Smart City or building one from the ground up requires careful planning, seamless coordination between the stakeholders, meticulous execution, and stringent monitoring.

These are the eight different stages of developing smart cities:

  1. Determine a start point.
  2. Identify the objectives.
  3. Define the relevant projects.
  4. Evaluate the feasibility of each project.
  5. Evaluate the impact of each project.
  6. Choose the most promising projects.
  7. Develop and implement pilot projects.
  8. Collect and measure data.

IBM defines a Smart City as one that makes maximum use of available interconnected information to understand, monitor, and regulate its operations and promote optimal use of scarce resources to improve the lives of the residents. In this article, I’ll explain the eight stages of planning for and developing a Smart City.

Determine a Start Point

When developing a smart city, the first question to consider is whether to build it from the ground up. Alternatively, are there existing initiatives and best practices that can be capitalized on?

Are there other cities around the world that have implemented initiatives that can be emulated, or does the planned city require its own separate blueprint?

Smart cities use a plethora of software, communication protocols, user interfaces, and varying degrees of the Internet of Things (IoT) to deliver sustainable, relevant, and connected solutions to the masses. So, what’s the current level of digitization in each department?

The answers to the questions stated above will provide a starting point, which will guide the process of developing a Smart City.

Determining a starting point ensures:

  • Everybody can have a say in defining what their Smart City will look like.
  • Determining the immediate needs of the community.
  • Identifying the assets and systems already possessed and deploying them immediately to meet the objectives.
  • Performing a gap analysis to determine what data needs to be collected and what technologies are needed to collect and process the data.
  • Outlining financing and budgetary requirements.
  • Identifying key groups of future stakeholders.
  • All stakeholders are on the same page.
  • Tracking the progress and measuring the efficacy of the developmental efforts.

Determining a starting point ensures stakeholders can frame realistic goals and create a compelling vision and mission statement.

Identify the Objectives

When a city knows how “smart” it is and has a vision of where it wants to be on the Smart City maturity scale, it can formulate clear and realistic goals and objectives to serve as a guiding light.

Formulating clear objectives with the end goal in mind ensures the priorities of the decision-makers are aligned with what the workers are doing on the ground.

The following are the critical drivers of formulating Smart City development objectives:

Existing City or Departmental Strategy

Smart City objectives can be formulated based on specific pre-existing city or departmental strategies. Looking at other Smart Cities can be helpful in developing new ones.

For instance, transportation departments in many cities worldwide have policies and regulations to reduce emissions and traffic congestion. In some cities, vehicular traffic is restricted in certain parts to encourage people to walk or cycle more and reduce emissions. In other cities, vehicular traffic is diverted to prevent congestion in specific neighborhoods.

These departmental goals can be aligned with Smart City goals like implementing AI-powered automation to monitor and regulate traffic flow and facilitating cellular connectivity between vehicles and smart traffic infrastructure to reduce time and fuel wasted by traffic congestion.

Present Challenges of the City

Smart City objectives can be formulated to address existing challenges and problems a city faces.

For instance, Singapore has to grapple with the dual problems of a growing population and limited land. The authorities can’t build more roads to accommodate the increasing vehicular load. So, the authorities plan to use Big Data to monitor road traffic and respond by tweaking traffic light timings or giving public transport priority at traffic lights.

Needs of the Administration, Citizens, or the Business Community

Feedback from city administrators, citizens, and the business community provides valuable insights to identify and formulate Smart City objectives.

The following are some ways in which the planners and decision-makers can reach out to these people and gather their input:

  • Virtual or in-person workshops
  • Questionnaires
  • Interviews with eminent citizens like community leaders
  • Interviews with businesses
  • Social media

Finally, it’s important to pinpoint sub-objectives for each overarching objective. Sub-objectives allow quantifying what is needed to achieve and thus identify specific micro-level actions that have to be taken.

For instance, Vienna’s “Smart City Vienna Framework Strategy” has identified the following as an overarching objective to be achieved by 2050:

“Radical Resource Preservation”

Under this objective, the planners have listed the following sub-objectives:

  • Reduce per-capita primary energy input from 3,000 watts to 2,000 watts.
  • Increase energy efficiency and reduce final energy consumption per capita by 40%.
  • Renewable resources will meet 50% of the city’s gross energy consumption needs in 2050.

Define the Relevant Projects

After identifying a set of Smart City objectives, planners have to figure out the tasks they have to perform or the technologies they have to deploy to achieve their goals. These tasks or the deployment of technologies are the projects that the city has to undertake.

For instance, one of the Smart City objectives of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is to eliminate the use of private cars. To achieve this goal, they’ve deployed cutting-edge technology solutions like personal rapid transport (PRT) systems, where driverless vehicles carry four passengers.

One of the Smart City objectives of Amsterdam is to reduce the use of fossil fuels in heating and cooling buildings. To achieve this objective, the city planners and decision-makers have identified the following projects:

  • Retrofit homes with new and renewable energy systems.
  • Develop a Virtual Power Plant to store and trade surplus wind and solar energy.

However, in this context, it’s worth noting that not all projects suitable for fulfilling a specific objective will be “smart”.

For instance, a common Smart City objective is to reduce road congestion. In some regions, the most feasible and impactful way to achieve this goal is to build more roads. In this case, this is a “non-smart” project.

The city of Dijon is considered the first Smart City in France. Instead of investing in and deploying high-tech “smart” solutions, Dijon’s city planners and decision-makers concentrated on re-engineering and improving public services.

For instance, they focused on repairing, upgrading, and managing urban equipment like streetlights, enhancing coordination in services like waste collection, and improving public safety with centralized solutions for crisis management.

Evaluate the Feasibility of Each Project

Not all projects that fulfill one or more Smart City objectives can be implemented in a region. The feasibility of each depends on the following factors:

  • Is the right technology or infrastructure available, or do they have to be built from the ground up?
  • Will you build, own, and manage the project, or will a full public-private partnership be more practical?
  • Does the city have the finances available to execute the project?
  • Is there the political will to back the project?
  • Will the governance style support the execution of the project?
  • Does the project comply with existing regulations?
  • Do you have the skills available to execute a technical project?
  • Will the project be sensitive to the cultural and ethical concerns of the citizens?
  • Is the project profitable enough to attract private investment?

The best way to evaluate the feasibility of a project is to assign a score to each of the factors mentioned above. The aggregate of the scores can be used as a yardstick to assess feasibility.

Evaluate the Impact of Each Project

Although many projects are feasible and can be implemented, you should choose only those with the most significant impact.

Evaluating the impact of a project is a two-step process:

  1. Prioritize the Smart City objectives. Allocate a weight to each objective you have identified based on how important or relevant it is for the city.
  2. Evaluate the impact of a project on each objective.

When assessing the feasibility and impact of a project, ensure that you seek inputs from all key stakeholders. Consult with local universities, research institutions working on Smart City projects, and companies already working in the field.

Investigate how peer cities are running their Smart City projects. If there are examples of cities that started with similar objectives and problems as yours, you can gauge the impact of your projects from the results of their initiatives.

Choose the Most Promising Projects

Smart City projects can fall under one of the following four categories:

  1. Maximum Feasibility and Greatest Impact: These are the most promising projects to achieve Smart City goals. Identify these and implement them right away.
  2. High Feasibility and Low Impact: Identify among these projects those that have the most impact and figure out if any of these are worth implementing.
  3. Low Feasibility and High Impact: It may be tempting to implement these projects because they have a high impact on the Smart City goals. However, it’s best not to execute them until you are sure they have become feasible, say when new technology becomes available.
  4. Minimum Feasibility and Lowest Impact: It’s probably best not to implement these projects.

7. Develop and Implement Pilot Projects

Implementing pilot projects before rolling out new systems helps:

  • Optimize learning opportunities.
  • Identify early successes.
  • Spot and rectify glitches before they burgeon into serious issues later.
  • Review the Smart City objectives against the data collected.
  • Create momentum for other projects.
  • Create a buzz in the community and elicit support.

The Global Smart City Ranking drawn up by Juniper Research in 2016 and the Smart City Index by Ernst & Young in 2017 rank Amsterdam and Barcelona high among the many smart cities around the world. These two cities are also regarded as pioneers that develop and implement different types of Smart City applications.

Amsterdam and Barcelona test their smart urban solutions in real-life situations in Living Labs. These labs are used to test technology, application, and impact.

For instance, Barcelona’s 22@ innovation district lets technology companies move here and run pilot programs to test new technologies. Located on 200 hectares of former industrial land, 22@ Barcelona aims to transform a stagnant and impoverished region into a bustling urban, financial, and social hub centered on technology.

Sejong City and Busan Metropolitan City in South Korea are pilot Smart Cities where regulations have been eased in certain districts to enable players to test their cutting-edge technological solutions. This has attracted private players who no longer have to go through the hoops of obtaining governmental authorization to experiment with new solutions and business models.

Collect and Measure Data

Collecting and measuring data is crucial to ensure that your projects align with your Smart City objectives.

Measuring data ensures:

  • You can evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of the Smart City efforts.
  • You can adjust policy and project guidelines to align with ground realities and evolving scenarios.
  • You can publish positive evidence of the efforts to attract investment and garner community support.
  • You can enhance the accountability of the different players.

Measuring the performance of Smart City solutions can be as simple as comparing before and after results. You can collect and measure the data at a neighborhood or district level. Or, you can assess how the city as a whole has performed against a particular objective or how much a project is contributing to the city’s performance against a goal.

You must ensure that the assessment rubric can measure outcomes over time and track future innovation. Besides aligning with the Smart City objectives, the measurement framework should also be able to assess the impact of projects on the social lives and well-being of the citizens.

Finally, the measurement rubric must be transparent enough to inspire trust among the users and easy-to-understand.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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