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What are the features of a smart city?

A smart city is a city that uses technology to provide services and solve city problems. As urban migration continues, with the United Nations predicting that 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities and urban areas by 2050, cities will increase in size by roughly 2.5 billion people over the next thirty years.

For many current cities, that scale of growth is unsustainable under their current infrastructure. The sheer volume of people living in cities and urban areas is placing an incredible strain on city resources and without change, the future will be challenging for many of these cities.

Smart city initiatives are helping cities to overcome issues including environmental, social, and economic, by providing a framework and an infrastructure for a sustainable future.

What are smart cities?

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.” 

Smart cities use digital technology to improve public safety, energy efficiency, sustainability, and overall quality of life. 

Technological advances over the past ten years have helped to facilitate the growth of smart cities around the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) has enabled cities to collect vast amounts of data using sensors that can monitor and control every aspect of city operations and functionality.

Whether it’s reducing traffic congestion, measuring curbside emissions, or providing real-time travel updates across an entire public transport network, smart technology and big data analysis are helping to improve key quality of life indicators including the cost of living, safety, time, jobs, connectedness, environment, and health.

What are the features of a smart city?

Defining the features of a smart city is not that straightforward. Frost and Sullivan, with over 50 years of experience in research and consultancy, identify eight key features that define a smart city and suggest that cities need to have an active presence and plan in at least five of those areas to be defined as a smart city.

The features of a smart city include:

  • Smart Governance
  • Smart Energy
  • Smart Building
  • Smart Mobility
  • Smart Infrastructure
  • Smart Technology
  • Smart Healthcare
  • Smart Citizen
Frost and Sullivan Smart City Concept

Below, we look at each of these smart city features in more detail and outline some of the key elements that make these such important features of smart cities.

Smart Governance

Smart cities that have an active presence and plan for smart governance are those that have improved public participation through the use of e-government tools and initiatives.

Improved communication with citizens has come through the use of mobile smartphones and apps, as well as other digital services that allow for much more streamlined communication.

e-Education and disaster management solutions are also part of smart governance, with citizens taking an active role in the governance of their city.

As well as making services more accessible through the use of e-government tools, it also makes public services more affordable, accountable and transparent.

Smart Energy

Smart energy relates to the digital management of energy in cities and includes the use of smart grids, smart meters, and intelligent energy storage.

Typically, this means that smart cities are no longer powered in conventional ways. Naturally, smart cities are starting to embrace electric vehicles and the benefits they bring, and infrastructure is put in place to help power the surge in demand for electric vehicles.

Smarter energy infrastructure is one that is more efficient, has new revenue potential and leads to a cleaner, greener environment.

Smart energy leads to massive cost savings to run public and private infrastructure. Smart energy applications allow cities to understand their energy demand profile. Officials can understand dominant loads, and daily fluctuations and prioritise reduced consumption.

Pollution is one of the biggest downsides of rapid urbanisation and smart energy is one of the best ways for smart cities to reduce their carbon footprint and decarbonise their energy consumption.

Smart Building

As the name suggests, smart buildings are automated and intelligent buildings that also include renewable energy integration.

Smart buildings are designed to maximise productivity and efficiency, utilising new technologies to provide safe, secure, and most importantly, connected environments for people working within the building.

Safety and security are at the heart of smart buildings, and this starts with access and authentication technology. Increasingly, smart buildings are using biometric technology to manage access to buildings, authenticating that people are who they say they are and managing the areas in the building to which they have access.

Today, smart buildings must also support bring your own device (BYOD) environments and collaborative communications.

IoT technology is at the heart of smart buildings and helps to improve the overall connectivity of the building, whilst also helping to power various features including smart lighting and heating systems to improve the overall efficiency of the building.

Smart Mobility

Smart mobility could also be called smart transportation and relates to the way people travel around a smart city.

Currently, smart transport solutions are being rolled out around the world and these include ride-sharing and car sharing, along with more traditional methods of travel like buses, trains, trams, and bikes.

Smart mobility in the future will be more about autonomous vehicles (self-driving vehicles), electric cars and buses, e-bikes, ride-sharing and more. Some cities are already rolling out some of these solutions, however, no city yet has a formula where every mode of transport is truly connected.

The introduction of autonomous vehicles puts the transportation industry on the verge of massive disruption, and this will drive the need to create more robust smart transportation networks.

Smart mobility will also include integrated travel bookings and payments, using digital money and technology that connects the travel infrastructure to citizens.

Smart transportation also includes intelligent traffic management, smart parking, and integrated multi-modal transport, all helping to improve urban mobility.

Smart Infrastructure

Smart infrastructure allows for the digital management of a city’s infrastructure. This is often done through the use of IoT sensors and includes key areas like digital water and waste management.

Smart buildings are an integral part of smart infrastructure. The ecosystem of cities and urban areas is changing rapidly, and it is important that the infrastructure of the city can grow and adapt at the same pace.

Smart buildings, as well as being energy consumers, are also energy producers and the infrastructure of the city needs to adapt to this changing landscape.

Smart cities aim to improve infrastructure and service delivery by leveraging technology, information, and data. This spans every aspect of a city’s infrastructure from water to waste, electricity to education, healthcare to IT connectivity.

Smart infrastructure will dynamically respond to the needs of the citizens, utilising data to help people to use the resources more sustainably, creating a more sustainable, smarter city for everyone.

Smart Technology

Smart technology, for obvious reasons, sits across all features of a smart city, however, Frost and Sullivan highlight seamless connectivity as the key to smart technology. Without connectivity, and the ability to link technologies together, the smart city ecosystem falls down.

Frost and Sullivan suggest that smart cities need a broadband penetration rate of at least 80%, with 50% of households having a smart home which includes the use of smart personal devices.

Smart cities use smart technology at scale to tackle the problems caused by growing urbanisation, with the goal of improving the overall quality of life for all citizens.

Smart technology can be deployed across nearly every sector in a city, from generating energy, to utilising the city waste to create a fertiliser to managing water resources more sustainably.

Of course, smart technology is powered by data. Without the ability to collect data, it would be impossible to measure the impact of the changes being made and big data analytics is a crucial part of smart technology adoption.

Smart Healthcare

One of the biggest sectors to embrace smart technology is the healthcare sector. IoT in healthcare has helped to create an ecosystem where patients can be tracked and monitored remotely, reducing the strain on hospitals and other medical providers by limiting the amount of time people spend commuting to appointments and waiting to see a medical professional.

Whilst the healthcare sector is embracing the power of IoT-connected technology to create a smarter healthcare system, the sector is still only scratching at the surface in terms of what is possible.

From telemedicine to automated home help for the elderly and disabled, smart wearables, sensors and connected devices will continue to change the way healthcare is delivered. It will also be used to minimise unnecessary contact in situations where the risk of viral contamination is particularly high; for example, in care homes and infectious disease wards within hospitals.

Strong growth has also been seen in the market for devices that will allow the elderly to remain independent in their own homes for longer. This will include tools utilising AI to detect falls or changes to regular daily routines that could alert relatives or healthcare providers that intervention may be required.

IoT will make healthcare facilities smart buildings, drive revenue, and help healthcare providers save on costs.

Smart Citizens

The final feature of Frost and Sullivan’s smart city is the citizens themselves. Smart citizens make smart cities, and they are essential to the overall success of a smart city.

It makes no sense to provide people with access to smart technology if they have no idea how to use it or how it can benefit them. The adoption of smart technology relies on clear communication (which comes back to smart governance). If you don’t know how to use an intelligent scheduling system for the entire public transport network, you are probably going to keep doing things the way you have already done them.

Smart citizens must want to be part of the smart city revolution and whilst you will never get 100% buy-in, it is crucial that citizens can understand the benefits, not only to themselves but to the wider community.

Smart citizens are empowered to learn, develop, and grow with the city around them, and this helps to drive a cycle of continuous improvement.


Within each of the eight areas identified by Frost and Sullivan, you will find many features that define a smart city. We have touched on a handful of these features and you can see the potential benefits they bring.

We have written widely about smart cities and smart transportation in particular – an area in which NEC is a global leader. You can find more information about smart cities in the articles below.

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