What is a Smart City?

Within the past 18 months the concept of smart (and intelligent) cities has been become popular in the media. For instance, Scientific American ran a special issue on smart cities. Industry players (e.g. IBM, Siemens, etc) have specific programs and practices dedicated to advancing the cause of building smart cities. Government agencies are dedicating resources and making investments in designing smarter cities (for e.g., see - EU invests $450 million in smart cities). Despite its intuitive appeal, we have limited empirical knowledge within the design, planning, and policy fields about the dimensions of smart cities—its characteristics, the barriers, and the potential opportunities. One reason is the term smart city is still new and it appears to means different things within different fields. In some ways the term is complex and vague. Some experts use the term smart city to highlight advances in sustainability and greening of the city, while others use the term to portray infusion of information via technologies to better the lives of citizens that reside in these spaces. Even others, consider the presence of high-level of citizen engagement in the design and governance of the space as a key attribute of smarter cities.  Therefore, no consensus existing within the academy on the characteristics of smart cities and how they fit within existing conceptual frameworks, such as sustainability and policy informatics.

In a working paper, I propose the following definition: A smart city is livable, resilient, sustainable, and designed through open and collaborative governance.

  • A smart city is resilient in that it possesses the capacity, desire, and opportunity for sensing, responding to, recovering, and learning from natural and man-made disasters.
  • A smart city takes a sustainable approach to the management of its economic, social, and ecological resources to ensure that they have vitality going into the future.
  • A smart city infuses information for automated and human, individual and collective, decision-making on optimal allocation of resources, design of systems and processes, and citizen engagement.
  • A smart city enables intelligent decision-making through leveraging information via technology, platforms, processes, and policies across its environments, infrastructures, systems, resources, and citizens.
  • A smart city operates as a seamlessly integrated platform where information links the various infrastructures, systems, organizations, and citizens’ goals and values.
  • A smart cities engage citizens in planning and design of public spaces and govern use of public resources through open and collaborative governance platforms that generates, and leverages, collective intelligence. 

In some respects the description resembles a vision statement with supporting principles or goals that make the vision of a smart city come to life. First, the overarching goal of having a smart city is that it is livable, resilient, and sustainable. These goals increase the value of the city and contribute positively to the lives of the citizens that interact with, and reside within, the city. Second, we must recognize these goals as a function of infusing information into the fabric of the city. Technological devices enable citizens to leverage information as they conduct their daily activities, while they also enable planners and designers to have accurate situational awareness about the city. Information is infused into the planning and design apparatuses as public sector projects are conducted. For example, the use of computational platforms and simulation technologies can enable city planners and designers think through various alternatives, test assumptions, and visualize the impacts of various interventions on critical outcomes. Through harnessing information, the smart city is able to conduct public projects in a highly effective and efficient manner. Third, smart cities use a wide assortment of information pipelines and platforms to integrate the often disparate physical and human sub-systems, infrastructures, and processes. Through building viable connections, information flows between the various parts of the city seamlessly so as to enable for real-time intelligent decision-making. Fourth, smart cities leverage the collective intelligence of its citizens, residents and, even transients (e.g. people who commute to work in the city) using participatory platforms. The smart city has viable vehicles and platforms through which its citizens can contribute to its governance processes and the future design of the city.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the definition and the elements of a smart city.

3 replies
  1. Tim Moon
    Tim Moon says:

    I agree with your proposed definition of what a smart city is. A "smart city" is not just being "green and sustainable" nor is it just using information to better the lives of citizens. As you have proposed, I believe a smart city is something that encompasses all of the definitions being presented.

    A smart city should encourage the creation, use, and dissemination of information to better inform the decisions and actions being made by both the city and citizens. An example I can think of right now is parking in cities. If the infrastructure allowed for the detection of occupied parking spots, an app could be available that informs drivers of where the nearest available parking spot is. This would reduce the amount of time drivers spend circling the city looking for an available parking spot, which in turn would reduce the emissions made by each car. The city would also be able to determine where the busy spots are, detect parking violations, etc.

    It is also not just "information" or "function" cities should be concerned about. The livelihood of citizens (i.e. user experience) needs to be considered as well. The crosswalk is an example. While some areas have upgraded the crosswalks with buttons that inform people the crosswalk button has been pressed, other cities around the world have taken it further. In Japan, for example, not only do the crosswalks countdown to inform citizens how long until the light turns red, they also countdown to inform citizens how long until the light turns green. While small, these things can help to improve the overall experience of citizens.

  2. Ignacio Molina
    Ignacio Molina says:

    I agree with the definition you've done, integrating the multiple issues surrounding the concept of smart city.
    The large literature on smart cities is full of business advertising, political propaganda or unfounded technological optimism. So I like the balance of your definition.
    By the way, the definition appears in the accepted article in Journal of Urban Technology? I'm excited to read it.

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