What is a smart city and how can they change our lives?

Here’s how technology is being used to make our towns and cities ‘smart’

11 Oct 2018
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The use of the word "smart" in the context of a smart city is nothing to do with picturesque squares and immaculate parks. Instead, it refers to cities collecting data and using it to manage resources and assets.

The idea of a smart city has become hugely popular among tech companies and urban planners over the past few years. The hope is that information and communications technology can lead to improving efficiencies within a city, helping to improve the quality of life for anyone who lives, works or visits there.

How do smart cities work?

In a nutshell, smart cities rely on information gathered from smart devices, whether it’s your phone, water meter or thermostat, or sensors located in streets and vehicles. When those sensors have collected enough data, city officials can use it to identify the needs of residents and plan infrastructure.

By monitoring the day-to-day happenings of a city, urban planners can manage congestion and energy usage more easily, spot potential water leaks and figure out where public Wi-Fi needs a boost.

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Do smart cities cost a lot of money?

Actually, the technology behind smart cities is reasonably inexpensive. Thanks to mass production and the growth of cloud computing, the price of sensors and the cost of storing information are low.

At the same time, data-analysis tools have become more advanced due to huge leaps in machine learning, which means they’re better equipped to use the massive quantities of data these sensors collect. Add to this the rise of the Internet of Things, reliable 4G mobile internet connections and free public Wi-Fi and you’ve got a solid communication structure to build on.

What kind of data do smart cities collect?

The data collected really depends on what an individual city is trying to achieve.

For example, buildings could communicate their energy usage to the national grid so that energy providers can work out the most efficient way to keep them powered. Similarly, air-quality data could highlight signs of high pollution, potentially helping asthma sufferers.

In Louisville, Kentucky, some inhalers have built-in sensors so that health authorities can map where and when their owners use them. Sensors can monitor traffic flow, counting how many vehicles pass specific spots, and use the data to manage traffic signals. They can also detect when a car park is full and use electronic street signs to direct drivers to those that are empty.

Could smart cities cut crime?

Smart cities certainly have the potential to cut down on crime. As far back as 2007, Boston, Massachusets, started gathering acoustic data to pinpoint the location of gunshots. More recently, Huawei created a system that lets the police combine their video-surveillance networks with private and public security systems to keep an eye out for thefts and disturbances.

Other ideas include connecting streetlights to a network so that the local council is alerted whenever a bulb breaks, keeping the streets brighter and safer. Amsterdam can even dim its streetlights based on pedestrian traffic.

In fact, one of the most appealing prospects for smart cities is the ability to use data to anticipate problems.

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Will smart cities be able to keep people moving?

Yes. Millions of pounds are being spent developing technologies that help ease the flow of people.

Columbus, Ohio, for example, is replacing radios on its buses with wireless communication technology to transmit bus data faster and make vehicle tracking more reliable.

Meanwhile, work is going into collecting data about major incidents and events so that traffic systems can pass on information in real time. Commuters in Denver, Colorado, can access up-to-date travel information on their mobile devices to help them decide on the best mode of transport to use.

Do we have smart city projects in the UK?

Indeed we do. According to a survey by communications company Huawei, Bristol is leading the way, followed by London.

Meanwhile, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle, Oxford, Cambridge, Peterborough, Milton Keynes and Aberdeen are all making efforts to improve civic services with digital technology.

According to Smart America Challenge, cities worldwide are set to invest $41 trillion in smart technology over the next 20 years.

What makes Bristol so smart?

An initiative called Bristol Is Open is harnessing fast telecoms networks to make the city programmable. Information from sensors – including the smartphones and GPS devices of participants – is anonymised and then made public through an ‘open data’ portal.

The scheme is proving a boon to developers, and it’s hoped that they can use the data – which includes details of traffic flow, energy and air quality – in their own applications.


Will smart cities be fun, or merely functional?

Both, we hope. On the one hand, some cities in China use facial recognition on buses to check features against a centralised database of ID card photos. On the other, Bristol won the Playable City Award in 2014 for its eye-catching Shadowing project, where eight augmented street lights recorded the shadows of people as they passed, and replayed them to the next person to wander by. Those who took part were seen to dance, hop or make other exaggerated moves and complex gestures.

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Are any really big names involved in smart city schemes?

Yes. Manchester’s CityVerve is a consortium of 21 partners including Cisco, Siemens, BT and Ordnance Survey, which is looking at using technology to reduce pressure on A&E admissions and enhance the energy management of buildings.

Meanwhile, Alphabet – Google’s parent company – is set to turn an 800-acre area of Toronto, Canada, into a model smart city with climate-friendly energy systems and self-driving vehicles. It says its goal is “reimagining cities from the internet up”.

Will these companies recoup their investment?

We assume so, otherwise most wouldn’t get involved.

In fact, Navigant Research claims that revenue from the smart city industry is set to reach $20.2bn by 2020, and that’s without factoring in the potential boost to local economies as more people decide to live and work in cities that are ‘user-friendly’.

We shouldn’t look purely at the financial benefits, though. Smart cities are capable of lowering our carbon footprint by monitoring and tackling pollution and applying innovation to lighting and energy to improve urban life for all of us.