What makes cities smart?

1.     What is smart city?

In 2016, over 40 sensors were installed around Chicago to collect temperature, light, noise, greenhouse gases, vehicle traffic… Data collected would be aggregated in central servers, available to public access to help governors, scientists, engineers work together and make Chicago a better place to live. This network of sensor (called Array of Things) was extended to 500 in 2018. The mayor expected to make the city the most data-driven in the world. In New Delhi, the largest commercial center of northern India inhabited a population of 18.6 million in 2016. The government is under enormous pressure about urbanization problem like lack of affordable housing, traffic congestion, clean water… In 2010, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation partnered with Google to provide schedule and route information via Google Maps on mobile devices. Passengers hence have access to real-time information regarding train location, approach, and destination, and navigate between different lines. These are two of thousands smart city initiatives around the world. So how to be called a smart city?

There is no universal definition for smart city. According to International Standard Organization (ISO), smart city is “a new concept and a new model, which applies the new generation of information technologies, such as the internet of things, cloud computing, big data and space/geographical information integration, to facilitate the planning, construction, management and smart services of cities.” For National League of Cities, Smart city initiatives involve three components: information and communication technologies (ICTs) that generate and aggregate data; analytical tools which convert that data into usable information; and organizational structures that encourage collaboration, innovation, and the application of that information to solve public problems. For Smart City Council, smart cities are based on the use of advanced information and communications technologies (ICT) to make infra- structure smarter and more sustainable. By design, ICT-enabled cities – or smart cities – are more resilient during times of distress due to effective resource allocation and infrastructure management. So, in brief a smart city can be defined as “an urban space that is surrounded by or is embedded with “smart systems” or a city with ideas and people that provide clever insights.” But the term “smart” should not be limited to ICT infrastructure but rather the application of advanced technology in order to effectively utilize current resources, minimize impacts on environment and solve modern urban problems.

2.     Why bother making cities smart?

Nowadays cities have to accommodate more and more people. By 2050 more than 3/4 of population live in urbans, dramatically up from current 53%, which mean another 2.3 billion of people will come to live in cities. This huge number puts tremendous stress on existing infrastructure and urge government to find a solution. Natural resources are limited while cities population continues to grow. For that reason, we need to find a way to manage them effectively. Cities consume a large amount of raw materials and energy worldwide. If there is no change in their consumption, the current living standard cannot be maintained in the next couple of decades. We need a sustainable solution to decrease environmental impacts. As cities are charged for being the most important greenhouse gases producers, which accounts for 3/4 of total emission, they cannot stay indifferent.

In addition, cities are participating in a global competition. In a globalized world, multinational firms can easily relocate their productions to different areas at national and international level, followed by job creation and human migration. Cities are aware of this pressure to create new comparative advantages, boost their competitiveness to attract more investments, more economic activities so that each of their existing and future citizens can have a job earn a decent living. Songdo International Business District, built from scratch on 600 hectares in southwest of Seoul, is funded as Public Private Partnership in 2003. With its budget exceeded $30 billion, Songdo smart city now hosts 300,000 citizens and created 30,000 jobs.

3.     What makes a city smart?

a.       Smart infrastructure

A reliable network infrastructure is essential for success of a smart city. This system forms the backbone on which other systems communicate, transport data and implement their smart solutions. In a smart city, citizens need high speed internet connection to get updates of traffic congestion, find parking possibility, track public transportation schedule or so forth. Data collected from sensors embedded in water, waste disposal, power, energy have to be analyzed in real-time to identify patterns and then respond with fast and cost-effective solutions. The abundance of data in digital era enables scientists, engineers to optimize their systems and produce better decisions in service of citizens, from reducing energy used for public lighting to save time to find a parking lot. All these decisions contribute to ease the pressure on existing infrastructure.

Smart infrastructure consists of 3 layers. The first is physical infrastructure to mention water and energy system, waste management, transport CCTV sensor-integrated to track data and the massive use of smartphone and other internet of things devices interconnected via a broadband internet connection. Data generated are centralized in a data portal open to public access to analyze and study. This will enable engineers, agencies, policy makers and even citizens to have informed decision to wisely allocate resources.

The second layer is logical, or we might call applications. Enormous data collected must be categorized, securely stored to be available when needed. Public and private agents get real-time data to central portal to analyze and build predictive models while citizen then communicate to their customer to help them make decision.

The third layer is human or users. A smart system should to be run by smart operators and used by smart users. When people are aware of all benefits they can get from smart city, they are more confident and motivated to get involved, by reporting about false data or errors of system or even by suggesting innovative ideas to improve existing solutions.

b.      Smart government

When society organization change, government must change too. All starts with a good plan in which all urban problems are properly addressed. Each city has its own identity and different conditions. These should be combined to produce a coherent framework to get the most out of system. Choose the most suitable technologies, providers based on prioritize issues. Digital society demands government to be more susceptible to modern solutions to innovate the way they operate and tackle problems. Identify long term vision rather than chasing short term benefit to make sure that systems are up to date and gradually improve existing infrastructure to meet the new requirements of  society.

On the other hand, governments should involve companies in this market. They should actively call for initiatives from private sector, make room for innovations and competitions. The more players join, the better problems will be examined. Governments have more scenario to choose from in order to build their cities of future. Being responsible for a huge evolving database, governments have to implemented state of art technologies to protect their data. It is compulsory to assure business owners and citizens to participate in the system.

Cities develop to better serve their citizen. A smart city should put human in the center of their evolution. Applying technologies to serve people and improve quality of life and make cities more livable. Governments are responsible for disseminating information, enhancing people’s technology awareness and absorbing capacity so that they can benefit from technological advances. Transparency in development direction gives businesses and people a solid basis to build their development strategies to harmonize interests of all parties involved. Meanwhile governments must prepare themselves to protect people’s data from hackers and cyber terrorists. Securing database, strengthening system security, and preventing cyber-attacks are the top priorities in the information age.

c.       Smart citizen

In the days of smart cities, citizens should be able to tame digital tools. Proper understanding of the system mechanism and transparency give people confidence to believe in the system and actively participate to co-create more value. In an interconnected society, data computing and manipulating among other skills become indispensable to integrate in labor market. Qualification in these domains not only increase competitiveness but also get the most out the smart city infrastructure. On other hand, a rising data population will enlarge this market to make it more attractive to investors.

Par Hoan Nguyen, promotion 2020-2021 du M2 IESCI


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Smart cities: digital solutions for a more livable future, 2018, McKinsey Global Institute

Smart cities financing guide, 2015, Smart Cities Council

Smart cities of today and tomorrow, 2019, Joseph N. Pelton,  Indu B. Singh

Trends in smart city development, 2016, National League of Cities

Understanding smart cities: a tool for smart government or an industrial trick? 2017, Leonidas G. Anthopoulos

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