Smart cities: are they working, and how can they stay smart?

Smart technologies are being deployed by cities big and small, all around the world. But what exactly are smart cities, and are they realising their potential, for example in terms of lower carbon dioxide emissions?

Researchers at the University of Birmingham recently sought to answer these questions. They found that a smart city can be defined by a vision that includes five key factors: digital technology; environmental sustainability; civic initiatives; mobility; and business.

More than 70% of activity contributing to a smart city occurs in the first three of these areas, the team discovered.

Taking two examples, Singapore and Copenhagen, the researchers said that both are successfully using technology to enable their citizens to enjoy a better quality of life, but in different ways.

Singapore’s vision focuses on developing the ‘smartness’ of its people in using technology, such as wireless communications and energy-efficient appliances or vehicles, the study showed. This helps people to reduce the need to move around the city or, if necessary, do so more cleanly.

In contrast, Copenhagen’s strategy centres on engaging people, companies and government to create a ‘green’ economy, as well as ensuring that urban planning allows the city to grow in a way that creates a better quality of life.

Professor Chris Rogers at the University of Birmingham said: “Singapore and Copenhagen demonstrate that each smart city adopts solutions that fit its own circumstances. It’s vital to learn from these global examples and understand how they became smart — understanding these key factors will help smart cities to fulfil their potential.

“Smartness is a complex and ever-changing concept, but can be expressed as ‘talent-green-technology’. It’s important to have talented people and a citizenry that is receptive to working towards all of the goals of a smart, sustainable and resilient city.

“This will involve innovative use of new technology, but it must equally support the delivery of smart low carbon dioxide initiatives that both improve the quality of life of citizens and enhance the natural environment.”

Thinking specifically about the new technology adopted by smart cities, a separate report from Lux Research says that cities need to be not just smart but agile, making technology choices that let citizens adapt and improve on solutions they implement today.

“Cities are under threat but they also remain nodes of innovation that will test, pilot and deploy technologies that address the biggest threats to humanity,” commented Lux Research analyst Alex Herceg.

Instead of deploying top-down technological solutions, which cannot support the scale and diversity of changes that will happen in the coming years, local officials should favour open-source principles, allowing smart cities to thrive and adapt, the research firm said.

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