What Is a Smart City?

Smart city defined

How do you shift from planning for a smart city to planning for smarter cities?

When you ask “what is a smart city,” you’ve already made an assumption: that a smart city is a single, defined entity—something you can pick up in whole and put into action as a complete, itemized list. To be a smart city, every bit of hardware has to have Internet of Things (IoT) connections, every bit of software needs to be interconnected, and every siloed element must be redefined and realigned at the exact same time.

But, that’s not really how any project works unless you’re starting with a blank slate. For most cities, a blank-slate build approach isn’t possible, because no two cities have the same framework, stats, history, infrastructure, or basic needs.

So, when thinking about how to craft a smart city, you need to shift urban strategies from that singular concept of one-and-done to a layered approach that customizes all the available technology to the breadth, depth, life, and personality of each existing city

In Amsterdam (pop. 821,000), for example, most commuters ride a bike or take public transit. In Tulsa (pop. 652,000), most commuters drive to work. That’s a major difference in how people use transport, roads, and bridges on a daily basis. But that’s not the only city service such a statistic affects: It creates massive divergence in energy use surges and even defines where to put (and what specialists are needed within) hospitals and health systems. Details such as those between Amsterdam and Tulsa commuters should impact hierarchy, budget allotment, and even timelines in your smarter city planning.

We need a customized, bespoke approach to the future of urban design, hence that shift from smart city thinking to smarter cities thinking—from “what is a smart city” to “how do we make our cities smarter?”

Smart grid: customizing utilities for a smarter city

When you ask “what do the utilities of a smart city look like,” you should begin with “what does a smart grid look like?”

You may know “the grid” as the nickname for all the bits of disparate power infrastructure across the globe. Although not truly a singular, seamless grid of connections, it is singular in its function: to provide electricity. A smart grid, therefore, is a brighter, more brilliant version of that electric infrastructure—one with a lot of energy efficiency already folded in.

The smart grid is already at work in your city. Whether your electric utility is installing smart meters or planning two-way connections for solar cells or EV charging, the urban planning required for many IoT-enabled elements (from synchrophasors to AI-enabled thermostats) is an ongoing part of the power company’s daily life.

But the much smarter utilities of a much smarter city aren’t restricted to the power grid. They also encompass smart water and wastewater initiatives.

5G: customizing communications for a smarter city

When you ask “what do the communications of a smart city look like,” you should begin with the future of 5G.

You may know 5G from a whole lot of cell phone commercials these days, but what it means is relatively simple: it’s the latest generation of updated tech standards for cellular broadband networks. So, at its heart, 5G defines the smartest of smartphone networks. And 5G is redefining the communications connections of a smarter city.

The faster speeds, better reliability, and more robust security that comes along with 5G investments enables the growing IoT-connected urban landscape—from the power plant to the construction site to the home kitchen.

But, if any part of the smarter city requires a layered, detailed, and bespoke approach, it’s the shift from 4G to 5G—a mix of moments where sometimes one is built atop another and sometimes they are expanded out together in a bigger, bolder approach.

Digital government: customizing the public sector for a smarter city

When you ask “what does the public sector of a smart city look like,” you should begin with “what does digital government look like?”

You may not think of your interactions with government as digital, but advances in technology have unlocked the doors to state houses and city halls in ways that were unimaginable 10 years ago. Government agencies are fast becoming digital and interconnected: constituents are interacting in real time with city and state employees, and devices—sensors, smartphones, wearables, and cams—are providing a constant stream of digital data to help agencies transform the way they interact with citizens and employees alike.

The cloud has been the driver for innovation across government, allowing agencies to reduce costs and increase citizen response time across all sectors of public sector, from finance and HR systems to transportation, public safety, education, and health and human services. Analytics has been the fuel for creating new insights about what a smart city is.

Project management: customizing construction and engineering for a smarter city

When you ask “what does the construction of a smart city look like,” you should begin with project management.

You may not think of project management as a high-tech element of a smarter city, but whatever you might be planning to physically build—from smart buildings to smart transportation to the latest in clean energy—will require precise planning of every step in the construction process.

As design-build projects grow in number while you build smarter cities with smarter infrastructure, managing those disparate and disconnected teams, schedules, budgets, and planning changes will only grow more complex, requiring an ability to track each project from anywhere on any device.

Tracking and controlling the data involved in a smart build remains the major difference between the traditional view of construction project management and the modern smarter version essential to the crafting of a truly smart city.

Show me cool lab stuff

A lot of the smart technology required for a smart city is being built right now at the Oracle Industries Innovation Lab. See how 5G intersects construction management and power networks in one spot.

Featured smart city association: Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative

Various agencies and associations have arisen to help guide the smart cities movement, and we’re pleased to feature the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative. Excerpt from the Collaborative's website:

Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission to serve as a trusted source of information on consumers’ views of grid modernization, energy delivery, and usage, and to help consumers understand the benefits of smart energy.

The collaborative’s threefold agenda is to

  • Listen to consumers via primary consumer research
  • Collaborate with stakeholders via hosted events and shared best practices
  • Educate consumers via outreach and messaging toolkits

Exactly what is a smart city and why should you care?

If you’re among the nearly 80 percent of Americans that live in a city, you may have noticed the urban landscape around you changing.

As urban areas worldwide cope with an increasing number of residents, cities are turning to smart, internet-connected technologies to update infrastructure, improve livability and meet head-on many of the challenges of the 21st century.

Collectively, these technologies comprise the vision of the smart city.

Featured smart city: Amsterdam

Amsterdam Smart City is working on the smart, green, and healthy future of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. By using a values-first approach, the organization ensures innovations actually contribute to cleaner, greener, and happier cities. With the cities’ residents and users as its primary focus, Amsterdam Smart City uses data and technology to increase the quality of life.

Smart cities and the pandemic response

Although the world’s struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic has made visible many gaps in urban planning, it’s also catalyzed support for investment in the technology required for smarter cities, according to a new report from ESI ThoughtLab. The tech leading the way in that survey data? Cloud and AI.

  • Nearly 90 percent tagged cloud platforms as the most urgent need to make their cities work better and smarter right now.
  • More than 80 percent said they are already spending on AI or will do so in the very near future, with a focus on digital assistants and chatbots.

Within this report and with most smart city planning these days, sustainability folds in more often and at more connection points than ever before, from citizen health initiatives to clean energy investments, but each city varies in its approach and investment in sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The future of smarter cities, at the moment, has more green elements than ever before.