What Are Smart Cities?


The world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. It’s generally held that 2007 was the turning point in which city dwellers formed the majority of the global population for the first time in history. Today, the trend toward urbanisation continues; as of 2014, it’s thought that 54% of the world’s population live in cities and it’s expected to reach 66% by 2050. 

Rural-to-city migration accounts for a significant proportion of this growing trend, with rural push factors (such as unemployment and low wages), coupled with urban pull factors (such as greater job opportunities and higher wages) all contributing to the phenomenon. Rural-to-city migration brings with it a number of complex challenges for urban areas such as strain on infrastructure, sustainability, pollution, poverty and wellbeing; but it also presents challenges for those remaining in rural communities and industries (such as farming and food production) that often struggle to survive when they try to compete with the pull of urban areas.

With urbanisation accelerating and global population rising, can technology go some way to provide a solution through the development of smart cities? Whilst the definition of a smart city is still very loose, the basic concept focuses around the notion of using digital technology to improve wellbeing and the overall ability of a city to overcome the challenges of modern urbanisation. In their background paper the UK Government explain that: 

“there is no absolute definition of a smart city, no end point, but rather a process, or series of steps, by which cities become more “liveable” and resilient and, hence, able to respond quicker to new challenges. Thus, a Smart City should enable every citizen to engage with all the services on offer, public as well as private, in a way best suited to his or her needs. It brings together hard infrastructure, social capital including local skills and community institutions, and (digital) technologies to fuel sustainable economic development and provide an attractive environment for all.”

They also identify five key aspects in the pursuit of a smarter urban environment:

  1. A modern digital infrastructure, centred around a secure but open-access approach.
  2. A citizen-centric service delivery model – redefining the delivery of services to prioritise the citizen’s needs whilst improving information sharing and management to create more integrated service models.
  3. An intelligent physical infrastructure, utilising technology at the heart of a city’s framework to offer service providers much greater control and flexibility in managing resource and delivering effective services.
  4. An openness to learn from others and experiment with new approaches.
  5. A transparency towards outcomes and performance to allow citizens to examine and challenge success between regions.

So, what might a smart city actually look like? Well, you don’t have to look far. As suggested in the background paper, the concept behind smart cities is an ever evolving relationship between technology and the governance of urban areas; that being the case, there are already many examples of cities deploying increasingly smart solutions to help improve the wellbeing of its citizens and to improve the management of resource. Here are just a few examples:

It doesn’t take much imagination to perceive the impact technology will have on our urban environments in the very near future. In fact, global technology leaders are already dreaming bigger than isolated intelligent solutions, instead, developing technology to be able to sell smart city ‘nervous systems’ for a completely integrated future. Bill Gates is also on the front foot, looking to invest in the development of a brand new smart city in Arizona.

Along with the challenges of population growth and urbanisation come exciting opportunities to use the ever-changing tool that technology offers us. The evolution of our urban areas into an increasingly intelligent and digital environment will undoubtedly improve the quality of life for citizens and help carry us all towards a greener, more sustainable future. However, integrating new technology into the very heart of our commercial, industrial and social environments brings new challenges that will see the threat of mis-use, cyber attack and data theft even more devastating than ever. Additionally, an over-reliance on technology can fuel a loss of skills, destroy entire sectors of employment and present extremely costly economic problems when something goes wrong. Could it be that as we move further into this century of relentless technological advancement, we may indeed learn that our increasing dependence on these advancements provides us with both the greatest opportunity to evolve into a sustainable global society and yet simultaneously poses the greatest threat to our continued prosperity also?

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