Smart cities
Smart cities

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Smart cities

2 What is a smart city?

An aerial photograph looking down at the city of Chicago
Figure 1 An example of a smart city.

Cities are centres of innovation and creativity, but they also face great challenges such as rapid urbanisation, climate change and increased pressure on city services like transport and healthcare. To address the challenges and capitalise on the opportunities, cities are encouraged to become ‘smart cities’. However the term ‘smart city’ is broad and ambiguous, with no agreed definition or consensus on how cities should approach the agenda.

A number of smart city definitions exist; some have a broad focus while others focus on technology and data or citizens. For example:

  • The British Standards Institute (BSI) defines smart cities as ‘the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens’ (BSI, 2014).
  • Cisco defines the term as those cities that adopt ‘scalable solutions that take advantage of information and communications technology (ICT) to increase efficiencies, reduce costs, and enhance quality of life’ (Falconer and Mitchell, 2012).

What most smart city definitions have in common is that they consider the use of smart technologies and data as the means to solve cities’ sustainability challenges – economic, social and environmental issues. Smart technologies can be classified, broadly, as ICT solutions. They range from expensive hardware solutions such as city control centres, smart grids and autonomous vehicles, through to much lower cost solutions such as smartphone apps, online platforms that crowdsource citizens’ ideas and low-cost environmental sensors. Data is also central to smart cities, in particular the use of big data and open data.

The approaches to smart city initiatives can be classified into two main approaches: ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ (Centre for Cities, 2014). Top-down approaches focus on technology, efficiency and master planning, integrating data from different systems into a central operations centre. Bottom-up approaches focus on citizens and how they can use innovative technologies, such as social media, mobile applications and open data to create solutions to issues that matter to them and enable behaviour change.

So do smart cities already exist or are they a future aspiration? Smart cities are created, they don’t simply exist or emerge, but there is no end point. Rather, becoming a smart city is a process by which cities use smart technologies and innovative approaches to address the challenges they face, helping them to become more resilient and liveable.


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