At its most basic, a smart city is a city that uses information and communications technology — including traditional IT and advanced Internet of Things (IoT) technologies — to improve not only the way it operates, but also the services it delivers to its citizens. It leverages digital technologies across infrastructure — including transport and traffic management, construction and buildings, energy and water supply, and waste management, to name a few — as well as across services, including public administration, health and safety, culture and education.
So-called smart cities might provide a glimpse of the future, but there’s still a big gap between the hype and the reality. Many smart city initiatives apply technology-driven solutions to today’s problems and fail to re-design systems and services with digital citizens in mind.
Smart cities operate at their best when a people-centric approach is taken, with the belief that technology should work for and on behalf of the users. What truly makes a city "smart" isn’t just the technology, but the use of technology to solve a city's most pressing issues. It’s a city that addresses the right pain points and leverages the best opportunities for communities, individuals and businesses. "Smart" development is about putting time, resources and efforts in the right places in order to realize actual benefits.
City and digital government leaders must demonstrate clear value, tangible outcomes and engaging experiences for their inhabitants, delivering public service for the future. Everyone wants to see real outcomes, such as more efficient transport systems, reduced water and energy bills, and more livable buildings. And most people aren’t concerned with the technology making those benefits possible. Increasingly, people’s expectations are for simple functionality, and ideally they have an excellent experience along the way.
Smart cities, therefore, must start with the needs of their inhabitants, not the technology; they should build new services through human-centered design, putting people first. Cities need to learn from and work with each other and the technology industry to lead the next generation of initiatives that will drive the greatest benefits for all.
It is often the case that new technologies are used simply to speed up existing processes. But technology that is enabling smart cities, such as IoT, can actually create entirely new ways of doing things for significantly greater benefit than just tweaking the old system. The advent of word processing software was first seen as a tool to speed up office typing pools, rather than as a way to replace them entirely, in a real transformation of the workplace. Today, smart-city initiatives can do the same thing, potentially transforming our cities. We are still in the early days, however, as just a few leaders are grappling with the kind of radical re-invention necessary to find new ways of running a city and providing value to inhabitants.
Where cities havestarted to do this, the results are impressive, reaching across old silos to enhance productivity for the whole organization. New York City’s DataBridge program, for example, integrated city data from a vast array of sources into a single analytical platform. Looking at data from multiple angles is leading to more insight-driven operations and delivering improvements across city departments. One has been a five-fold increase in the inspection "hit rate" of New York buildings so dangerous that they must be vacated — boosting return on investment and making the city safer.
Japan's Yokohama Smart City also demonstrates joined-up thinking in its ongoing efforts to cut CO2 emissions while boosting economic growth. Yokohama is seeking to rethink how it deals with energy use in a wide range of contexts: from people’s homes and cars through to the wider community, bringing together data from a range of city functions.