“Smart city” has become a buzzword in recent years as cities across the globe have started to integrate smart technologies with their infrastructure and policy decisions. But what exactly is a smart city? The term is nebulous at best, and different cities vary widely not only in the specific technologies and implementations they embrace, but in their very approach to the concept and what it means for their citizens.
In the broadest of terms, a smart city uses technology to improve quality of life by increasing the efficiency of municipal services and meeting the needs of residents. For instance, sensors allow city services to react to real situations in real time by dimming streetlights on unused streets, monitoring water pipes for leaks, or changing traffic lights along the route of emergency vehicles. The benefits of innovations like these are easy to quantify in terms of saved energy, saved money, even saved lives.
Applications aimed at the vaguer goal of improving quality of life include projects like minute-to-minute reports on air pollution for citizens with asthma, or using historical data to predict crime and direct police to where they are most likely to be needed. The market for smart cities has massive expansive potential — up to $1.5 trillion worldwide by one estimate.
Smart technology allows the workings of a city itself to adapt in real time to the reality its citizens are facing immediately, and to adjust as that reality changes. That means, however, that the true test of just how smart a smart city is will be whether it is able to evolve to keep pace as its citizen’s needs evolve.
Responsive change is unavoidable and desirable when dealing with cutting edge technologies like these. Already in its short lifespan, the smart city has seen three distinct generations. When the concept was first born, smart technologies were created and pushed by tech companies themselves, and cities were jumping on board without a proper understanding of how to implement the new technologies they were buying, nor the concrete implications for citizens. Urban strategist Boyd Cohen, who has been studying smart cities since 2011, calls this era Smart Cities 1.0.
In the Smart Cities 2.0 phase, smart technology projects are driven by city administrators themselves. These government-designed projects are typically geared towards improving quality of life and allow for grand, sweeping visions for the future of their cities.
Perhaps one of the most impressive examples of this can be found in Rio de Janeiro, where the mayor joined forces with IBM to create a sensor system that mitigated landslide damage to favelas in the surrounding hills. That project has since ballooned into a large-scale operations center which IBM is confident will have an impressive 80% success rate at predicting dangerous floods and downpours 48 hours before they occur, allowing the city to be prepared and save lives with a critical early warning and evacuation plan. Furthermore, the system has the crucial capacity to become even smarter in the future by detecting crime via video streaming and integrating emergency services.
That brings us to the final phase — so far. Smart Cities 3.0 takes the infinite adaptability of such technologies to an unprecedented level. Cities that have embraced this phase of development rely on citizens to be active not only as consumers but as co-creators of projects. Vancouver, for instance, engaged more than 30,000 citizens in the development of their Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, and Vienna relied on citizens to participate as investors in local solar plants in order to meet their renewable energy goals. Barcelona solicited new smart projects directly from residents by launching contests for citizen innovators.
These phases are not teleological, and the sometimes chaotic democracy of Smart Cities 3.0 is not necessarily an end goal. The real advantage of a smart city is that the best designs will be able to respond to needs we haven’t even considered yet. We may begin to see Smart Cities branching further out from solely practical considerations into other need fulfillment, such as fun projects designed to make the city an attractive and exciting place to live and visit. Take, for instance, this UK public art installation which used infrared cameras to record the shadows of pedestrians and project them back at another time using the streetlights.
It seems likely that the future lies with an advantageous combination of 2.0 municipal planning and vision with 3.0 methods of engagement so that the city can learn from its own members on the ground, who are likely to experience unmet needs before a mayor. Administrators are still necessary to guide and support growth, but cities also need to tap into the creative capacity of citizens as participants. The changes we will require are, by their very nature, impossible to predict, and so it is crucial that smart cities are are designed to reevaluate and evolve as needed. After all, the smartest cities will always be the ones with the smarts to change with the times.