What Is a Smart City and How Does It Work?

What Is a Smart City and How Does It Work?

Read Time: 5 minutes

In 2004, only sand lined the waterfront in Incheon — a South Korean city 19 miles southwest of the nation’s capital, Seoul. Today, more than 100,000 people live there in Songdo, a city built to be a city of the future. A system of pneumatic tubes removes trash from buildings. A video-chatting service allows residents to take English classes from home using their flatscreen televisions. Workers built the city with sustainability as its goal. Now, it accounts for more than 40% of all the LEED-certified space in South Korea. They’ve also dedicated nearly as much land to green space as residential high-rises. This city, built from scratch on reclaimed land, is one of the few “smart cities” in the world — a title it shares with municipalities like Dubai, Stockholm and Singapore. But what is a smart city supposed to be? And how does it work?

What Is a Smart City?

Since “smart city” is a new term, most definitions are broad. Many people refer to a smart city as any city built on advanced communication and information technology into the infrastructure. In these cities, local authorities collect vast amounts of data about services like public utilities, transportation, and waste management. They can then use this data to:

  • Drive policy and new development
  • Let public services “talk” with each other by sharing data so that they can function as efficiently as possible
  • Communicate with residents by giving them live updates on traffic, letting them report accidents or announcing any damage to roads

For some cities, smart infrastructure means a strong relationship between local government and the private sector. Corporations involve themselves in both the construction and maintenance of transportation and utility systems. Other smart cities are international centers of business and communication — such as Rejkavik, Tokyo and New York City. Their city governments have simply continued to improve their infrastructure with cutting edge technologies and a more old-fashioned relationship with the private sector.

Smart cities are the cities of the future, but you probably won’t see any flying cars or holograms. Instead, they incorporate the latest infrastructure and communications technology, and they run according to the tremendous amounts of data they collect.

Cities of the Future: Songdo, South Korea – Episode 1

Smart City Technology

A smart city’s innovations are only going to be as good as the data it has. To collect the amounts of minute-to-minute data these cities need, smart cities use massive networks of Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

IoT devices are the keystone of smart city technology. Without an immense network of IoT sensors and devices collecting data, a smart city won’t have the information it needs to function. Manufacturers can create practically any product as an IoT device — smart lampposts that report if a bulb burned out or internet-connected cars that provide real-time traffic info to city officials.

In Songdo, sensors continually collect data about public utilities — like when water flow is at its peak or when people need the most electricity each day. City planners then use this information to optimize the city’s processes. Better data about traffic and water or electricity usage means greater efficiency and better long-term planning.

Another excellent example is the StormSense project. Virginia researchers deployed a network of water-level sensors in East Coast communities prone to coastal flooding. They used this data to create better forecasts and gauge emergency preparedness in those communities. It taught them how seriously people take flood warnings and how quick they respond. Virginia Beach even used StormSense data to create voice-query support for Alexa. Now, users can ask Alexa about local water levels at Virginia Beach and get the latest updates.

The shortcoming of IoT devices is that they need strong digital connections — collecting data is only useful if you can send it somewhere. Right now, these devices send data to the city and other devices over 4G. In the future, 5G networks will be available, which will make transferring huge amounts of data faster and more secure. IoT sensors will also become more reliable data sources.

Smart Also Means Green

A focus on the environment is one of IESE’s nine essential dimensions of any smart city.

When city officials talk about smart city technology, most emphasize how to make a greener and more efficient city. They will need tremendous amounts of environmental data to do so. Better traffic management, optimized lighting and pollution monitoring are all possible green benefits of the data that a network of IoT sensors can provide.

Contractors build planned smart cities, like Songdo or Dubai’s Masdar City, in an eco-friendly manner from the ground-up. They use renewable energy sources like solar, wind and photovoltaic power to reduce their carbon footprint — or eliminate it entirely, in the case of Masdar City.

Older cities, like Vienna and Paris, have ambitious goals for reducing their energy use. These cities usually focus on reducing their carbon footprint. They minimize it by making infrastructure more environmentally friendly or by increasing the renewable the city’s available power sources.


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The Future of Smart Cities

The path forward for smart cities isn’t totally clear. IoT networks can be more vulnerable than traditional networks to cybercrime. Systems that rely on data can fail when sensors break or lose connectivity. And, like any meticulously planned community, planned smart cities don’t grow organically and run the risk of feeling inauthentic or indistinct. Many residents describe Songdo, while impressive in construction and infrastructure, as a lonely place to live.

Further, if a smart city’s construction is interrupted, it may remain half-built for years. For instance, Masdar City remains only 5% completed after the global financial crisis put the city’s construction on pause. These planned cities run the risk of becoming examples of failure — monuments to over-ambition and shifting priorities about our needs from the places where we live.

However, the need to build more sustainable, smarter cities is soaring. Global trends show more and more people are moving to urban areas — the U.N. projects more than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Smart city spending reached $80 billion dollars in 2016 and is projected to hit $135 billion by 2021. And, smart cities across the globe have integrated technology into their infrastructure to increase residents’ standard of living and withstand the challenges of the 21st century.

The city of the future will have to be smart — designed for economic and social sustainability in a world that communicates more than ever.

What Is a Smart City and How Does It Work?
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Category: Manufacturing & EngineeringTech


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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.