What is a smart city?

During the past few years, multiple buzzwords such as “smart city,” “digital city,” “smart mobility,” “smart parking,” “digital mobility,” and “digital parking” have been popularised. They all relate to technology and sustainability, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that just from the terms themselves. When something is described as smart or digital, you may take a guess and assume it’s related to technology, but still, it’s a bit unclear in what ways or what that even means or is referring to. What exactly makes a city “smart”? What is the smartest city in the world? Does “smart mobility” mean that a vehicle autonomously drives itself? Is “digital parking” referring to virtually parking cars in a video game?         

Let’s dive in and explain. 

So what exactly is a smart city?

A smart city is a city that uses technology to solve problems and to improve the quality of life. It takes advantage of technological advances and inventions such as IoT (Internet-of-Things) and shapes them into citywide solutions that are not only beneficial to the city’s residents and visitors but also the planet. The various components of a smart city include public transportation, energy distribution, water and waste management, infrastructure, security and healthcare. One of the core elements of smart cities is ensuring that every resident has a voice and access to these solutions.

How does a smart city work?

The smartness of a city is measured by how effective its initiatives and technological solutions are when it comes to tackling its current challenges. In order to pinpoint the current and most pressing challenges, a city must gather data that paints a picture of the state of things in the city. That is why the technologies are data-based and take collective data that provides necessary information and statistics, based on which smart tools are designed and modified. 

Once the initial data is collected, the necessary technological solutions can be produced and installed. These solutions use IoT, which are devices that are all connected to the web and all communicate with each other and share data that then allows them to take action without needing any guidance from humans. They come in many forms such as cameras, lights, meters and sensors and can be installed throughout all the city sectors. For example, smart waste management uses IoT devices in waste bins that sense the contents of what is disposed into them. They can even share responsive messages to the individual with guidance on whether something needs to be recycled or composted or encourage them to be environmentally-friendly by sharing environmental facts and statistics and showing how much an organisation can save by recycling. 

Because IoT devices are all connected, they enable the solutions to be citywide and the improved efficiency and saving of resources to be on a much larger scale. Furthermore, when data is continuously collected, it can display and prove what is working and what isn’t, what needs to be changed, and how these solutions need to be adapted. The importance of data is also emphasised when it comes to citizen inclusion. When data is collected from the entire population of a city, every citizen has a voice, which, as mentioned above, is one of the goals of smart cities. The point is to make these solutions as accessible as possible to every single resident.

Why are smart cities important?

If you’d close your eyes right now and picture a city, what would you see? Towering skyscrapers, nightlife and the glow of city lights are very likely. However, so are traffic congestion, air and water pollution, constant noise, CO2 emissions, long queues and frustrated crowds of people who are always in a rush. To frequent visitors and especially to permanent residents, these struggles are a bit too familiar. High levels of air and noise pollution, global warming and biodiversity loss are significant concerns that already inarguably cause permanent harm to the environment and the individual. Cities are aware of this and attempt to address and solve these problems, and at the same time aspire to have a lasting and positive impact on their communities and the environment. That is where a smart city comes in.

Smart cities want to face these challenges head-on and effectively improve lives and the environment by implementing strategies that help cities run more efficiently. When it comes to water management, IoT solutions can offer effective optimisation by collecting data and reacting in real-time by monitoring water usage, detecting existing leaks in water pipes and notifying engineers about them, as well as help people sustainably use water resources. These solutions even allow users to monitor their water usage from their smartphones, alerting them if there is a leak inside their home. Waste management is another crucial part of every city and when city populations rise, so do the waste levels. With smart tools that manage waste, monitor waste bins with sensors and optimise collection routes. IoT solutions can notify those in charge of waste collection which waste bins are full, and which are not so that they can focus on collecting waste from the necessary bins. That saves a lot of time and money and also plays a part in lessening traffic congestion as it optimises the entire routes. 

Traffic congestion is a tremendous problem in cities, raising stress levels and affecting overall health, in addition to losing time and money. Noise levels and greenhouse gas emissions released by cars stuck in traffic contribute to noise and air pollution on an everyday basis. Implementing IoT devices that help vehicles move efficiently and sustainably throughout the city is beneficial to individual residents and the environment. These include the display of information about bus arrival and parking availability in real-time, encouragement of ride-sharing and public transportation, and smart traffic lights that react to the presence of vehicles and pedestrians, saving costs and energy, as well as improving overall safety. Safety is another crucial element of smart cities. Solutions like those that help prevent road accidents and quickly notify the necessary officials in the case of a crime or of a fire or flood allow for quick and reliable intervention, making the city safer for its residents. 

Furthermore, cities use a significant portion of energy, draining the planet of its resources. Indirect solutions to this include optimisation with smart mobility, smart waste management and smart water management. Direct solutions include smart utility meters. With smart utility meters, energy usage is tracked so that users and organisations can monitor and change their usage patterns, which lowers costs and saves resources. Another direct solution is a smart grid, a network that provides electricity in an energy-efficient way by responding automatically to changing demand. 

Healthcare is another vital component of smart cities. With IoT devices, medical professionals can identify specific groups of people who have a higher risk of illness, monitor patients suffering from long-term sickness and provide some medical services remotely. In the event of an urgent emergency, a quick response is made possible. Artificial intelligence may even give advice and guidance to medical professionals based on the provided data. Another innovative tool is an app that monitors air quality and notifies users of unsafe air quality.

As already mentioned smart cities aim to make intelligent solutions that are accessible to every citizen. When these solutions exist throughout the entire city, no citizen is left behind. The accessibility and universality of these solutions result in everyone having the possibility to benefit from them. 

What was the first smart city?

Before the term “smart city” was even coined, many cities were launching initiatives that today would be classified as being part of the smart city concept. However, in order to discuss the history of how smart cities came to life, we have to go back to the beginning and mention a figure who is responsible for the ways cities operated in ancient times. 

The idea of urban planning has been around for a long time. It actually dates all the way back to ancient Greece, where Hippodamus of Miletus, who used to be called the “father of city planning,” first started studying cities and designing plans for what he envisioned to be the ideal city and then successfully adopted these plans to multiple cities. One of these designs was the well-known “grid” layout of a city, in which streets cross at right angles with each other, enabling further city expansion. As can be seen here, urban planning has always been crucial to the success of cities despite the differences of challenges throughout time. Adapting to the current and existing challenges is key to successful urban planning. When the needs of a city change, the solutions need to change as well. That led to the creation of smart cities. 

A smart city might seem like a fairly new idea, but it actually took its first steps in 1970s California. In the efforts of improving the city of Los Angeles and fighting its significant problem with poverty, a report was made. It was titled “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles” and created using big data. City officials hired programmers who provided them with access to computer databases, cluster analysis and aerial photographs that gave them information about the housing and the residents of each neighbourhood from which they wanted to base policies that benefit those in need. 

Then, in 1994, Amsterdam stepped forward and created De Digitale Stad, DDS. This was a virtual digital city that aimed to promote internet usage by building a large digital community in which Dutch people could participate with internet access. The project only lasted until 2001, but it solidified the base from which digitalisation in Amsterdam could grow. Today, Amsterdam is one of the most thriving smart cities, and it could be argued that it was a smart city before we even knew what a smart city was. 

The actual term “smart city” originates from the United States of America. In the mid-200s, during the business collaboration of two major corporations, IBM and Cisco, the term was coined. In 2008, IBM started the Smart Planet project, and in 2009, they launched the Smarter City campaign. The Smarter City Challenge, which was part of this campaign, aims to help cities plan and implement smart city strategies and solutions with the deployment of their experts all at no cost to the cities themselves. 

Where are today’s smart cities?

Smart cities can be found all over the world. In fact, there is a chance you may live in one. Many people who live in urban areas defined as smart cities may not even be aware of it. The ways parts of a city are digitised often go completely unnoticed by the individuals who take advantage of the solutions, possibly even on a daily basis. Since the idea of smart cities may seem futuristic and complicated, it’s easy not to notice smart city technologies when they are right in front of us. Residents can use these technologies and tools without much contemplation and without realising they are part of the IoT network. For instance, some cities have traffic lights that detect pedestrians waiting to cross the street with cameras and sensors. This means traffic lights change only when it is necessary and not throughout the entire day and night, which results in smoother traffic flow and saving of energy. Although this is something huge in the concept of smart cities, it is something that can be easily missed on an individual level. Looking up the particular ways the city you live in or are planning to visit uses digitalisation can be very beneficial. You might find out about some helpful tools that you had no idea were available to you, or even discover the different ways you are already using smart city technologies and contributing to the city’s sustainable development. 

Although “smart city” is an all-encompassing term that includes the citywide digitalisation of various sectors and areas, this doesn’t mean that a city has to be completely digital to be considered smart. It can start by launching initiatives that are most attainable and crucial to them and grow from there. 

Here are some examples of smart cities: 

  • Singapore is the number one smart city in the world, according to IMD’s 2020 Smart City Index. Not only does it provide its residents with smart safety thanks to police surveillance cameras and web police portals, but its university students can also get around in a self-driving shuttle and payment for public transport is contactless. In addition to this, healthcare is digitised, enabling residents to access services remotely and to wear IoT devices that monitor their state and transmit that information to medical professionals. 
  • Dubai has multiple initiatives like smart police stations, which are computerised kiosks that offer services such as reporting traffic incidents and crimes, Hyperloop construction, an innovative transportation system that saves time and money, and is even having its government go completely paperless in 2021. 
  • Helsinki is ranked the second smartest city in the world, according to IMD’s 2020 Smart City Index. Its implemented and planned smart city solutions include a smart waste collection system, electric city bus fleet, electric bikes and scooters, energy-saving city buildings, reducing food waste by enabling residents to pick up leftover food from restaurants and encouraging clothing stores to create clothes from recycled material. 
  • Paris is actively fighting pollution by requiring every driver to purchase a Crit’Air’ sticker for their car in order to enter designated areas. This clean air sticker displays emission levels, and if a vehicle doesn’t have a sticker or has high emission levels, a fine will be issued. However, if a car has low emission levels, perks like free parking may be offered. Moreover, the city encourages public transport, extending metro and train transit and offering free public transport to any student under the age of 18. 
  • London’s smart city initiatives include sensors that measure air pollution levels in priority locations such as schools and hospitals. The city also has a Smart Mobility Living Lab. 
  • Amsterdam created the Energy Atlas as a guide to making energy plans, continuously works on optimising mobility and offers a national public transport chip card that can be used in all forms of transport. It also made its City Data open-source and implemented Bubble Barriers which catch plastic in waste and canals, preventing it from entering the North Sea. They have a Smart Citizens Lab and a Smart Kids Lab, encouraging its residents to participate in sustainable and smart living. 
  • Barcelona is another city with innovative solutions such as IoT trash cans that report data in real-time, streetlight sensors and free citywide Wi-Fi.

What is smart mobility?

Now that we’ve defined smart cities, let’s move to one of their core components: smart mobility. Smart mobility, sometimes called digital mobility, is a response to the challenges posed in all modes of transport in a city, from public buses and trains to private vehicles and bicycles. The ultimate goal is optimisation with the use of technology. To achieve this, cities install IoT equipment like cameras and sensors, which rely on collecting data to ensure their effectiveness, continuous improvement and adaptability to changing demand. Some of the most common tools that rely on real-time data are displays of the state of traffic in an area and smart traffic lights that change lights and signal length according to sensors detecting vehicles and pedestrians. 

On an individual level, smart mobility saves time and money, lessens stress and distress levels, improves accessibility and increases safety by reducing the number of accidents. With smart mobility, a city’s residents and visitors can get to their destination quicker and with more ease. On a city (and global) level, smart mobility is a sustainable solution that decreases harmful effects cities have on the environment, such as noise and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. Populations in cities are continually on the rise, which not only means more people but also more cars and more traffic. It’s crucial to take active steps to improve city life and to protect the environment. 

Since mobility challenges are common and universal in cities, smart mobility is often one of the first steps taken when embarking on the smart city journey. Oslo is a city where sustainability is a core objective. Its efforts are apparent with its commitment to promoting the public and private use of electric vehicles with incentives such as exemption of road tolls, opening mobility hubs for the sole use of shared mobility vehicles and introducing car-free zones. Lublin is another example of smart mobility with their impressive public transport system made of modern trolleybuses and buses intended to encourage using public transport over private vehicles. 

When it comes to smart mobility and implementing sustainability strategies, one element cannot be forgotten: parking. Driving around looking for a parking spot not only means losing time and money but also contributing to traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and noise and air pollution. However, finding an available parking spot in an urban area can be tremendously difficult, particularly in city centres. The solution to this comes in the form of technology. Bringing IoT solutions to traditional car parks and digitising the parking experience are necessary steps for a city to run smoothly and sustainably. 

Digitalisation is not limited to any particular type of car park. It applies to all parking facilities regardless of whether they are privately-owned or public, outdoor or indoor, or utilised by corporations, hospitality services, universities, hospitals or shopping malls. 

When a car park is digital, drivers can access real-time information about the number of available parking spots and their locations, enabling straightforward navigation. Instead of relying on luck, drivers can know where to go to find available parking. For drivers, this is all accessible with a smartphone, simplifying the entire experience so they can enter and exit the car park without long queues and without coming in contact with any external surfaces. Thanks to cameras and sensors that automatically read and recognise license places, open barriers, read the QR codes on mobile applications and update parking availability in real-time, parking is made accessible and safe. That is particularly important in current times where touchless solutions provide the much-needed safety for individuals at the time of a global pandemic. 

As a tech company specialising in smart mobility, we offer digital parking solutions that include:

-NaviParking: locating car parks with available parking 

-NaviPay: convenient access to parking spots 

-NaviParking Enterprise: the optimisation of corporate parking 

To learn more about these solutions visit naviparking.com 

What is the future of smart cities?

Thanks to the continuous advancement of technology and its accessibility expansions, smart cities continue to grow and thrive, paving the way for the total embrace of digitalisation and sustainability in urban areas. New initiatives are constantly designed and launched all over the world, which is critical as the UN predicts that 68% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050.

Klaudia Żychowska

Klaudia Żychowska is a Polish native who grew up in Chicago. After completing a Bachelor’s Degree in English with a double concentration in Creative Writing and Professional Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she decided to move back to Poland to reconnect with her roots. She is fascinated by smart cities and innovative technologies and is responsible for content strategy at NaviParking.

All author posts