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Do we need smart cities?

We have written extensively about smart cities and the impact that smart technology is having on the world around us. From the use of big data to the impact of smart transportation solutions, smart cities are becoming more prevalent around the world thanks to emerging technologies and the need to tackle growing urbanisation.

In this post, we aim to answer the question of whether we really need smart cities, the potential benefits for citizens and the long-term sustainability of smart cities.

What is a smart city?

The definition of a smart city can vary depending on what you read and who you listen to.

According to TWI Global, “A smart city uses information and communication technology (ICT) to improve operational efficiency, share information with the public and provide a better quality of government service and citizen welfare. 

“The main goal of a smart city is to optimise city functions and promote economic growth while also improving the quality of life for citizens by using smart technologies and data analysis. The value lies in how this technology is used rather than simply how much technology is available.” 

This is a textbook definition of a smart city, however, another way of looking at smart cities is from a 2018 McKinsey Global Institute report titled “Smart cities: Digital solutions for a more livable future”:

Until recently, city leaders thought of smart technologies primarily as tools for becoming more efficient behind the scenes. Now technology is being injected more directly into the lives of residents. Smartphones have become the keys to the city, putting instant information about transit, traffic, health services, safety alerts, and community news into millions of hands.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is enabling the transition from city to smart city and as more and more people interact with IoT-connected devices, the data generated from those connections allows cities to get smarter.

Smart cities rely on citizens

A smart city is nothing without smart citizens. The technologies needed to create smart cities are already available. Many cities in the world are already utilising those technologies, however, without the citizens, those technologies mean nothing

Citizens and technology must work seamlessly for smart cities to evolve. It is down to city leaders to build digital communities that understand the benefits of the technology and the impact on their lives.

It is also the responsibility of city leaders to introduce new, smart technologies that help citizens and make their lives easier. Whether this is in the workplace, on the roads or in their communities, smart city solutions must enhance the lives of citizens if they are to be successfully adopted.

City leaders and governments need to understand the needs of the citizens before they move forward with the technology. Just because something works in one place doesn’t necessarily mean it will work everywhere.

A need for connectivity

If we think about the evolution of our major towns and cities, what started off as local farming “communities” developed into the mega-cities and sprawling suburbs that we see today. One thing that has not always carried forward from local communities to today’s cities and suburbs is a sense of connection. Often, there is a big divide in cities between the different areas within the city, and this can usually be put down to social, economic, and political factors.

As cities grow larger, they become increasingly disconnected. Roads get bigger and essential services to get further away from where people live, not to mention commute times get longer and people get less time to spend at home.

Population growth and urban migration are contributing to the issues we are seeing in cities, both here in New Zealand and globally. Australia, India, China, and the USA are all facing the same challenges and smart city technologies can offer solutions when citizens’ needs are taken into consideration.

Writing for Entrepreneur in October 2021, Isaac H. Sutton, CEO of VALO Smart City wrote:

In general, cities and habitats are posing a dire need to be more connected, more innovative, and more citizen-centric. Technology has played -and will continue to play- a significant role in designing solutions to address the problem statements that citizens and the authorities face. But when looking to develop or transform into a smart city, we need to not just address the current challenges the city is facing, but also scale it to its maximum potential.

He goes on to add, “Keeping the population growth smart transformations attract in mind, that will, in turn, result in infrastructure limitations, congestion, and insufficient power structures. Many governments have already started to gear cities towards being smarter, looking to implement solutions that add value, and modify the city for the collective good.

Connectivity will be the key to the successful implementation of smart city technology, creating smarter cities around the world and as Sutton points out, cities have got to plan ahead, implementing solutions that can be scaled to their maximum potential and not just thinking about the here and now.

What is powering smart cities?

We’ve talked about the importance of citizens and connectivity, however, what are the driving factors behind successful smart cities? There are many examples from around the world of cities that have successfully made the transformation from sprawling cities to smart, connected cities, but what is the secret to their success?

There really is no one-size-fits-all solution. As we mentioned earlier, what works for one city doesn’t necessarily work in another and that’s why it’s so important for city planners and leaders to consider the needs of their citizens. What do the people of that particular city need in order to improve their way of living? Only when cities consider their citizens will they make the successful transition to smart cities, using the technology that is most relevant.

There are, of course, some common technologies that bring smart cities together and at the heart of a smart city, these are the things powering the solutions that are tailored to the citizens. These include:

The Internet of Things (IoT)

Out of all the recent technological advances, IoT undoubtedly has the most substantial impact on the development of cities. As the name suggests, the IoT is a huge network of devices that communicate with each other and create data in real-time without human intervention. With the addition of sensors, almost anything can be turned into an IoT-connected device if there is data that can be collected from it.

Most typically, IoT is used in smart transportation solutions including traffic management, public transportation, and smart cars.

Read more in our recent article, “How can IoT turn cities into smart cities?

Big Data

The IoT enables cities to collect huge amounts of data, referred to as big data and the volume and speeds at which data today is generated, processed, and stored are unprecedented. Big data is already being used effectively by smart cities around the world to improve the standard of living for citizens – from public transport to waste management to congestion control.

For smart cities to be successful, however, they must be able to use this data effectively. There is no point in having access to huge amounts of data if it cannot be interpreted and used effectively and for this, smart city solutions often rely on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to help to interpret the data quickly and provide actionable insights in real-time.

Data is the key to the successful transformation from city to smart city. IoT gives us the tools to collect it and big data analytics gives us the power to interpret the data and provide actionable insights, helping to tailor the information available to citizens, helping to build better communities and improve the standard of living city-wide.

Other technologies at the heart of successful smart cities include robotics, connectivity, and general automation.

Do we need smart cities?

We set out to answer the question of whether smart cities are really necessary, and the overwhelming answer is yes. Smart cities are the latest evolution of what a community looks like. From agricultural villages, we now find ourselves with smart cities and as Danny Hayes, Co-Founder & CEO of TerraScale. Inc said when writing for Forbes:

Smart cities are the newest and best version of the evolution of our dwellings, prompted by revolutions in materials, digital technology, and environmental conscientiousness. Leaders in government and business now have a better-than-ever opportunity to put roofs over people’s heads in ways that connect us like never before.

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

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