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The A to Z of smart cities

From AI to mobility as a service, and blockchain to the circular economy, the concept of the smart city takes every single burning technological trend of today and brings them all together in one ridiculously convenient, highly efficient, single urban organism.

Sarah Wray, Editor, Smart Cities World
30 July 2018

From AI to mobility as a service, and blockchain to the circular economy, the concept of the smart city takes every single burning technological trend of today and brings them all together in one ridiculously convenient, highly efficient, single urban organism.

Well, that’s the theory. But in reality, there are still as many questions as answers. Here, Sarah Wray, editor of Smart Cities World, compiles an essential introductory A-Z for the bewildered… 

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) can crunch massive amounts of data and provide insights as well as automated responses. From chatbots to predictive policing and smart traffic lights, AI is already at work in our public services. As we move towards more advanced automation and algorithmic decision-making, there are growing concerns about AI ethics, such as inherent bias and liability in the case of harm.

Several groups, such as AI Now and OpenAI, are assembling around the issue. The UK is launching the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. Ensuring progress while protecting the public won’t be easy, says Geoff Mulgan, CEO of innovation non-profit Nesta: “This will become one of the liveliest fields for innovation in government.”


A blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that enables the authentication of transactions without them needing to be administered or guaranteed by a central authority.

Inward investment agency Smart Dubai estimates that blockchain technology will enable savings of £1.08bn in document processing alone, as well as cutting CO2 emissions by 114 tonnes.

Moscow’s citizen engagement platform, Active Citizen, uses blockchain to support secure citizen voting on issues such as naming metro lines, or whether they want their homes included in a housing relocation programme.

Circular economy

Moving from a linear to a circular economy means minimising waste and pollution by reducing, recycling and reusing. A 2017 report from the Ellen McArthur Foundation concluded that digital technology will be key to cities transforming to a circular economy, due to virtualisation, transparency in materials usage and data-driven decision-making.


Some say that citizen engagement platforms will encourage more people to participate in politics and, through the use of blockchain, for example, to trust that their vote will be counted and won’t be tampered with. Not everyone is convinced.

In 2014, Leo Hollis, urban historian and author of Cities Are Good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis, told the Guardian: “In the end, smart cities will destroy democracy.” So, how does he feel now?

“My views have got ever more pessimistic,” he admits. Hollis believes we risk reaching a point where “everything can be reduced to data. All data can be quantified and measured. And the sum total of these measurements can become the most important thing about you and influence all aspects in your individual and collective lives.”

For him, the intelligent city has become a threat to democracy: “And we need to do something about it now.”


With its focus on technology, the smart cities movement risks leaving some people behind. The “digital divide” is one issue: that is, inequalities based on who has access to communication technology and their ability to use it.

Business advisory company Gartner says that cities need to: “Be mindful … and pay equal attention to the issues of citizens with fewer IT skills. Incorporating technologies such as natural-language-powered virtual personal assistants is a step in this direction.”


Engineering consultant Black & Veatch found that only 11.4% of municipalities believed self-funding was the best approach to rolling out smart city initiatives. In its 2018 report, Smart Cities & Utilities, 60% of respondents said they consider public-private partnerships (PPPs) to be the most effective financing model, followed by government grants/subsidies, tax incentives and property taxes. Only 8.4% and 6.5% respectively thought purely municipal or private funds were the way to go.

One of the most ambitious examples of a PPP is Toronto’s collaboration with Sidewalk Labs, part of Google’s parent Alphabet, to revamp the city’s waterfront. Sidewalk Labs has committed $50m to an initial pilot phase of planning. But concerns have been raised about this encroachment of big tech firms. In the Guardian, Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, called Google’s plan “a takeover in all but name”.

Greenfield developments

While brownfield smart city projects adapt and update existing urban infrastructure, greenfield cities – such as Ordos Kangbashi in China and India’s Dholera – are built from the ground up. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has recently invested in land in the Arizona desert, where he plans to build a sustainable, high-tech smart city.


“Smart city” is one of the most hyped concepts around, but do they even exist?

In a November 2017 column for the Scientific American, Stanford University’s Kendra L Smith, said: “The current reality of smart cities is that there aren’t any. At the end of the day, most so-called smart cities are just cities with a few or several standout smart projects.”

In Black & Veatch’s 2018 Smart Cities & Utilities report, an increased number of technology companies and city representatives said smart cities are a passing fad, and if they happen at all, they are likely far off in the future. While 85% of respondents said smart city projects are transformational with long-lasting impacts on cities, the number of respondents who see
the trend as a fad more than doubled from the previous year.

The Black & Veatch report concludes: “Perhaps we should start by moving away from the hype when validating the real cost concerns for cities. We can then begin the dialogue to develop an understanding of the benefits that data and connected systems bring to citizens. From that understanding, visionary leaders will lead the way to make the benefits come to life.”

Internet of things

Estimates vary as to exactly how many sensors and devices will be connected in the future, but it’s a lot. From streetlights to bins, bikes and street furniture, everything is getting hooked up with sensors. This creates more opportunities to gather and combine data to develop and manage services in the city.

In an October 2017 forecast, business information provider IHS Markit predicted that the number of connected internet of things (IoT) devices worldwide will jump from 27 billion now, to 125 billion in 2030.


The smart city drive is changing job roles within City Hall – we are seeing the emergence of roles such as Atlanta’s chief bicycle officer and London’s night czar. More cities, including Chicago and New York, have hired chief data officers, and data company IDC expects the number of chief digital officers in 2018 to be five times what it was in 2014. Several cities, such as Melbourne and London, have already appointed CDOs.

Meanwhile, automation also threatens jobs. A 2017 report from PwC found that up to around 30% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation from robotics and artificial intelligence by the early 2030s, although in many cases the nature of jobs will change rather than disappear. This is lower than the US (38%) and Germany (35%), but higher than Japan’s 21%.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has put forward the idea of a “robot tax”, levied when automation takes over a job previously done by a human. San Francisco is among the cities said to be considering this.


Analysts at Gartner say key performance indicators (KPIs) for smart city projects are becoming more important. It predicts that by 2020, two-thirds will incorporate KPIs, particularly around the impact of mobility-related urban services, climate change, resilience and sustainability.

A number of new measurement tools are emerging, including Dubai’s Happiness Index, TM Forum’s Smart City Maturity & Benchmark Model, and IDC’s Smart City Maturity Model.


The streetlight has evolved and does a lot more than provide illumination. In some cities, streetlights form a sensor platform, detecting gunshots, monitoring the environment and more. Eindhoven in the Netherlands believes that light can influence behaviour and is trialling this through a “living lab” approach. It has experimented with using light, combined with noise, social media data and behaviour research, to reduce violence in a busy clubbing district, for example. The city has a lighting roadmap to 2030 when its public lighting will form a flexible and multifunctional smart grid.

Rik van Stiphout, programme adviser at Light & Culture, Eindhoven, says: “It’s about the lighting itself but it’s also connecting the lighting system with other activities people normally do and helping people to do these activities in a much better way. The possibilities are endless.”

Mobility as a service

Mobility as a service aims to guide citizens away from personal vehicle ownership towards transport on demand, usually managed through an app. This includes public transport, services such as Uber, and bike sharing. Many cities are pursuing this approach.

Finland’s capital, Helsinki, has a target to make its mobility system so good that by 2025, residents won’t need – or want – to own a private car, and public transport will be the preferred choice for travel.


Economist Richard Thaler’s “nudge theory” is a technique to encourage people to make positive decisions. To combat Cape Town’s worst drought in a century, the city is using nudging strategies alongside water restrictions to reduce usage, such as displaying the daily water levels in local dams on a dashboard, alongside the number of days left until the taps are turned off.

Open data

Some cities are not only sharing data as a way to increase transparency, but also using it to drive innovation and the economy. “A collaborative approach between the public and private sectors is now needed in the development of local data economies to create services that will improve lives,” says Carl Piva, vice-president of smart city business network TM Forum.

Transport for London recently reported that its open data is generating economic benefits and savings of up to £130m a year, through commercial opportunities for app developers, saved time, better use of transport capacity and improved operations. Smart Dubai has estimated that data will add £2bn in value to the emirate’s economy every year by 2021.

This expanding use of data throws up new challenges, too – and they’re not just technical. Andrew Collinge, assistant director, intelligence and analysis at the Greater London Authority, says: “Who owns this stuff and who has a right to trade it for a profit? When should companies pay for public data? And how do you balance this with an accepted price tag for public value?”

Cities are now trying to tackle these issues, from enabling citizens to approve their data to be used for specific purposes to best-practice codes. The EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) legislation came into force in May, with the purpose of increasing transparency around the use of personal information.


Smart cities are fundamentally about people but there can often be a disconnect. Research carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2016 found that just 15% of citizens believe they have an input into smart city projects. A separate report, published the same year by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, called for a public engagement campaign around the benefits of smart cities.

Megan Goodwin, joint managing director at the Interactive Rights Management digital innovation agency, says: “Most governments are focusing on the technological infrastructure of smart cities: sustainability, CO2 emissions, congestion, parking, driverless cars, city lights, energy, data integration, and so on. But what about the human psychological element of smart cities?

“Smart technology needs to give people a feeling of community. UN-Habitat is already making waves in this area through its Block by Block project with Minecraft, which uses the world-building computer game as a participation tool for local communities to design their own public spaces. After building the projects in Minecraft, presentations are put forward to local stakeholders for future urban design.”

Quality of life

Improving quality of life is the goal of almost all smart city initiatives, but it can be hard to track. In March this year Juniper Research looked at this through the lens of mobility, public safety, healthcare and productivity and concluded that smart cities have the potential to “give each city-dweller back three working weeks of time every year”, and that “connected communities, municipal services and processes have a powerful impact on a citizen’s quality of life”.

Ride sharing

Companies such as Uber, Lyft and China’s Didi have seen massive growth. Uber operates in 77 countries and 616 cities worldwide. It has 40 million customers and 2 million drivers. In 2015, Uber’s former CEO, Travis Kalanick, said he envisioned a 2020 where “there’s no more traffic in Boston” and for the cars that are there to be Ubers because “the transportation system would be more efficient”. Although many find the services affordable and convenient, whether they reduce congestion is open to question.

A 2017 study in the US by the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies revealed that, after rolling out Uber or Lyft in a city, public transport usage dropped by 6%. It also found that between 49% and 61% of journeys made using ride-sharing services would otherwise have been made on foot, on a bike, on public transport, or not made at all.

A further study by Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council was published in February this year. It surveyed 944 ride-hailing passengers in the city’s metro area, and found that if ride-hailing services were not available, 12% would have walked or cycled, and 42% would have used public transport.

Bike-sharing is also becoming more popular, through fast-growing companies like Ofo and Mobike.


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously said privacy is no longer a “social norm”. Tom Goodwin, head of innovation at London-based Zenith Media and writer and speaker, says: “Realistically I’ve never thought: ‘I wish companies knew less about me.’ I often think I wish they knew more. We worry far too much about losing privacy and never enough about what we can get in return for benign data.”

However, urban historian Leo Hollis notes the use of data can become “especially Orwellian” when we start to consider the use of “social credit”, for example, the Chinese government’s nationwide reputation scheme. It gathers large amounts of data about an individual and creates a scoring system based on what it calls honesty in government affairs, commercial integrity, societal integrity and judicial credibility.

“Eventually you will be given a three-digit sincerity score that can rise and fall, depending on your transactions, behaviour and social interactions,” says Hollis. “This number replaces all other forms of reputation and trust. Furthermore, it will have a strong influence on where you can rent, what kind of jobs or educational opportunities you’ll be eligible for, even what mode of travel you use to get around.”


Tourist hot spots such as ski resorts and cruise ships can act as a microcosm of the smart city. In February Wired noted that: “Cities wanting to get savvier about data collection” might want to pay more attention to ski resorts, while internet of things news service ReadWrite said that cruise operator Carnival’s push to personalise holidaymakers’ experiences was turning cruise ships into “smart cities at sea”.


By 2050, 66% of people globally will live in cities, up from 54% in 2014, according to the UN. Population growth and urbanisation could add 2.5 billion to the world’s city-dwelling population. This will place additional stresses on infrastructure and resources. Carl Piva, vice-president of smart city business network TM Forum, says: “Huge advances in technology mean we have more options than ever to tackle these issues. The combination of these things is the reason why smart cities are reaching a tipping point.”

Virtual reality

Virtual and augmented reality can help stakeholders visualise city scenarios more clearly and support decision-making.

In a first for any government in Australia, Wyndham City is using holographic mixed reality technology to present a 3D vision of the future city. It is also using the tech for data visualisation. For example, someone could put on a VR headset and analyse pedestrian and vehicle traffic flows. 

The tools are being used by urban planners and economists to understand planned developments, and to attract inward investment. Wyndham City digital lead, Dr Adam Mowlam, says: “Holographic visualisation
can change the way that government engages with its citizens. Young people are asking about our platforms, so they can understand what we’re trying to do.


As populations grow, cities are looking at smarter ways to manage increasing waste. At last year’s Smart City InFocus conference in Yinchuan, China, Antoine Kassis, managing partner at consultancy Kurrant, shared a compelling smart waste management case study.

Rennes in France uses sensors on bins to ensure they are emptied only when full. So far it has recorded 40% in savings on collection costs and 32% more waste collected per hour, among other benefits.

X marks the spot

Examples of location-based services include apps informing citizens to avoid congested areas, and crowdsourcing to locate potholes. Randy Frantz, telecoms industry strategy lead at mapping software company Esri, comments: “Location provides context and insight into the data that allows intelligent responses to issues before they occur. Moving from a descriptive to a predictive environment requires leveraging location.”

Young people

Barcelona City Council’s new (and Spain’s first) chief data officer, Màrius Boada, says: “We think that it’s increasingly necessary for people to learn about data from an early age.”  With this in mind, Barcelona is running an open data challenge with schools, to encourage pupils to engage with open data and to develop critical thinking around data’s usage.

Zzzzzzz … dream or nightmare?

Something of a backlash against smart cities has been building of late. In February Wired cautioned cities like Toronto to tread carefully in partnering with companies such as Sidewalk Labs, while the Atlantic warned of a future in which the “Gorgon Stare” – multiple surveillance cameras mounted on an aerial drone – records and remembers everything it sees.

Cities are realising they need to engage much more in the debate. The Greater London Authority is launching a survey on public attitudes around data. Its chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell, was quoted this March at London’s Share Digital conference as saying: “Some of the arguments around data have strayed quite far away from civic benefits. We’re being dominated by commentators who perhaps have a hypersensitivity around privacy. But if we can tell the story right and provide the right safeguards, data is a great benefit.”

Jane Ballantyne FRICS, course lead for the BSc Building Surveying at the University College of Estate Management in Reading, says: “We can never look to smart cities to create utopia. Conversely, they should not be seen as a dystopian horror. The technology is there to enhance living conditions and ensure a sustainable future.”

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