Smart cities are becoming part of the public conversation more and more each passing year. Once thought of as science fiction, they are now being considered by managers and politicians in established cities all over the world, including Barcelona and Singapore, as well as in completely new cities built from scratch, such as NEOM in Saudi Arabia.
Smart cities use data gathering and internet-enabled facilities to provide infrastructure and services to inhabitants. In contrast, normal cities use traditional staffing and bureaucratic management methods to deliver their services, such as transport and waste management.
In this article, I’ll dive further into what makes a city smart. I’ll also examine some of the benefits and concerns associated with smart cities.
Characteristics of a City
Before we look into what a smart city is, first, we should define what a city is in the simplest sense. It may seem redundant, but there are a few different definitions of what a city is depending on who is measuring it.
Namely, cities can be considered cities based on their population, economy, or political importance. These can also change depending on what country the definition is about.
The UN is looking for a more objective, universal definition of what a city is to help with its work in international development. Therefore, they consider it essential to keep in mind the more historical attributes applied to cities as well.
Population Is One of the Most Common Measuring Units of a City
Often, a city is measured by its population. A city is often defined as a very big town that has more people living in it, but this isn’t the whole story.
Different conditions have often been applied to the “city” status, but population was not always one of them. For example, as described in the Cities section of the Guardian, during the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom, many of the booming new centers of factories and mills were still classified as towns.
This was despite them being bigger than the smaller settlements, which had historic cathedrals and markets. This leads us to the next point that other important criteria have often defined cities.
Cities are Centers of Power
Cities are generally also considered places where power is concentrated, and decisions are made. For example, they will hold important government functions or political seats.
Where religious institutions are important, they also define cities as locations where religion holds an important power. In the United Kingdom, in the past, a town would need to have a cathedral before it could be considered a city.
Today, Vatican City, despite being very small in area and population, holds an incredible influence over the followers of Catholicism around the world. Of course, politicians and church leaders are not the only reasons a city exists.
Cities Are Important Places for Economic Activity
Cities are widely regarded as economic centers, places to set up a business, do trade, or generally make money. This is because many industries will move close to other industries or population centers, creating a feedback loop that keeps a city growing.
This idea is called agglomeration, and there is even a theory that this is the key driving force behind all cities, above simple measures of population or power. Generally, this is regarded as somewhat simplistic. Yes, agglomeration causes cities to grow, but research has suggested it’s not the only factor we should take into account.
Is There a More Objective Definition of Cities?
There is a more objective definition of cities being worked on by UN-Habitat, in order to advance its goal of fairer global development. This definition tries to map land that is built up enough to be considered a city.
This is essential, as it considers not just what the city is used for, i.e., industry or politics, or its definition by the local government, but a spatial definition of urbanization.
This means that it measures a city as a geographical area that is built up to a certain extent and therefore needs to be considered as ‘urbanized.’ It does not make distinctions between political boundaries, status, growing, shrinking, important, or unimportant cities; it’s a measure of what places in the world will have the problems and benefits of city life based on the concentration of population, buildings, and activities.
Characteristics of a Smart City
For over six thousand years, people have lived in cities in some way, and these areas always had to be managed. Water, services, and information need to be shared around to those who need it.
New inventions like the internet, electricity, and public transport networks have only made the work more complicated.
As defined by National Geographic, a smart city is a city that uses technology to manage these services better for residents by keeping track of residents and infrastructure in real-time electronically and often using the internet to keep track of where things need to go and when.
Data Collection Is a Key Characteristic of the Smart City
One of the most important facets of a smart city is that in order to organize daily life and infrastructure, it relies on a massive level of data collection. At every level, sensors, cameras, and other devices keep track of every part of life.
Sensors can locate how far away the next bus is from a stop, can detect when a bin is in need of emptying, or place streetlights into a power-saving mode until people are walking toward them.
Data Collected in the Smart City Is Used To Deliver Services
The data collected by the various systems in use in a smart city are then used to improve the way that services are delivered and managed.
One key component of this is the idea of the Internet of Things. As described by Microsoft, this is the activation of tools and infrastructure with internet tracking in order for managers to keep track of needs in real-time, which automated activities wherever possible.
One main benefit of this innovation is the potential for much more joined-up services for all citizens without relying on time-consuming bureaucracy and management.
What Is the Difference Between Smart City & Normal City?
The difference between a smart city and a normal city lies in how technology is used to help with city management and the provision of services. Smart cities use technology to keep track of infrastructure and those who use them, whereas normal cities use human staff and bureaucratic processes.
Smart cities are still cities in that they must still be residential, commercial, industrial, and political centers. However, they attempt to use their technological advancements to improve traditional cities in terms of their energy efficiency, economic abilities, and quality of life.
Benefits of a Smart City
Advocates for the smart city are keen to point out the many reasons to progress with this method of city management, particularly where entire smart cities are planned to be built from scratch, such as NEOM in Saudi Arabia.
These benefits include:
- Better quality of life.
- More agile economies.
- More environmentally friendly cities.
Next, we’ll look into these reported benefits in more detail.
Better Quality of Life
By using technology, smart cities can make cities cleaner, safer, and more pleasant places to live. Through automation, the usual processes of complaint and repair could be avoided in favor of a system where problems are detected as, or even just before they happen.
As a result, the quality of life in cities can be raised at a time when more people around the world are moving to them. With easy access to the internet now commonplace, more and more citizens can have easy access to city services through apps connected to smart city systems.
This allows people’s experience of their city to improve while making management and organization easier and significantly more efficient.
More Agile Economies
By collecting and managing a large amount of data on residents’ behavior and patterns of movement and consumption, there’s an opportunity for smart city technologies to enhance local economies by allowing businesses to connect directly with the needs of customers in real time.
In addition, cleaner, safer, and more efficient cities are seen as places with greater economic potential and the ability to attract skilled residents and companies, in line with the theory of agglomeration described above. This means that simply improving the quality of life in a city could also improve its economy.
More Environmentally Friendly Cities
As one of the key features of Smart Cities is efficiency, this also extends to energy efficiency. As cities around the world look for ways to lower their environmental impact in the face of climate change and pollution, the use of advanced sensors and state-of-the-art infrastructure on use will inevitably facilitate the process.
For example, by lowering public electricity use in areas where there’s little demand and by actively tracking where people are at all times, cities could reduce their carbon emissions linked to electricity use.
As autonomous cars become more common, smart city infrastructure can also take account of traffic flow and direct these cars in the most efficient path, minimizing the impact of traffic on cities and making them safer and cleaner.
Concerns of the Smart City
At the same time as recognizing the many benefits, we need to be conscious of the difficulties and dangers that come with creating smart cities. As with any new technology, there will always be downsides to the practice, and addressing them should be a priority.
These concerns revolve around the following:
- The capacity of networks and technology.
- Data security and privacy.
I’m going to break these down a little more below.
The Capacity of Networks and Technology
There’s an issue with reliance on thousands or millions of sensors and internet devices to organize our society, which is vulnerability. It’s frustrating when a single company or organization loses its functions; it would be even more so if a whole city were to stop its daily activities due to a power or network issue.
The provision of power to a smart city may be solved soon, as according to Forbes, there will soon be more widespread adoption of wireless power technologies. Still, there may also be problems with collecting more and more data.
As databases grow with more and more information collected from everyday life, there’s a risk that technical and official networks might not be set up to make proper use of this information, causing it to be wasted.
Data Security and Privacy
There’s also a key concern around the collection of all this data, though, and that is the anonymization and management of individuals’ data. Data protection is already a major security issue in day-to-day life, and this concern will only grow when people and their behaviors are constantly tracked by sensors.
Cybersecurity must be of the utmost importance in any smart city, as people are being tracked, which may put them at risk. As with all personal data management, there are some important factors to consider here.
Data needs to be anonymized and confidential to prevent people’s lives from being put at risk from theft or sabotage, but also freely available and democratically accessible to allow for scrutiny and fair use.
There might also be some threats from the outside, and a greater reliance on a system of internet-connected infrastructure is a greater risk of hacking and sabotage.
Smart cities may be the future of civilization, as more and more cities seek to make their operations more efficient and improve the lives of their growing populations.
Smart cities can transition from normal cities using new internet-enabled technologies. If this is done safely and securely with appropriate thought given to the protection of individual rights and privacy, then the lives of all can be improved massively in the world’s cities by fulfilling people’s needs quickly. Look around, as already many famous global cities have begun to adopt smart city technology.
- UN Habitat: What is a City
- The Guardian: What makes a city a city – and does it really matter anyway?
- Philadelphia Fed: Agglomeration Economies: The Spark That Ignites a City?
- National Geographic: Smart Cities
- Microsoft: What is a Smart City?
- US Department of Transportation: Smart City Challenge
- Smart Cities World: NEOM (Saudi Arabia)
- TWI Global: What Is a Smart City
- Forbes: The Problems With Smart Cities