At first blush, cities like Barcelona and Dubai have little enough in common. Try finding an outdoor cafe where you can work through a bottle of red wine at 3pm in Dubai, or a multi-acre megamall with an indoor ski slope in Barcelona. Scratch away the surface differences, though, and you’ll find a similarity that in many ways is more important than their climatic and cultural differences.
Both cities, and hundreds more around the world, belong to a growing trend of smart cities, united by their goal of replacing tired and inefficient city management techniques with the best that the 21st century has to offer.
Not sure whether your home city is part of this brain trust? Read on for some of the common threads that successful smart cities share.
1. Smart cities have vision
As you’ll soon see below, smart cities are driven by technology. But their most defining shared trait isn’t a piece of software or an updated type of infrastructure. What smart cities from Glasgow to Rio fundamentally share is a set of values focused on livability, efficiency, and safety.
They are driven not only by those values but by an active posture towards the future. Smart cities are giving up the old model of city management, of responding to problems when they arise, choosing instead to tackle problems before they happen.
These cities consider themselves holistically – they don’t want to clean up messes and sort out traffic jams, they want to find ways to stop the messes from getting made and the traffic jams from forming in the first place.
They understand that the individual problems cities face don’t happen in a vacuum. Poorly timed stoplights lead to congested streets, which lead to more air pollution, which drives down livability, which turns off businesses and individuals who might otherwise become taxpaying residents and drive the local economy. Smart cities manage for the big picture, trying to enlist these cause-and-effect chains to create the livable, efficient, safe spaces people need to thrive.
2. Smart cities keep an eye on themselves.
Rather than sift through decades of stored, centralized information in order to craft policy, smart cities use internet of things (IoT) sensor networks to provide moment-by-moment snapshots of how the city is functioning.
These sensors can be retroactively attached to existing infrastructure, like water mains and electric grids, as well as built into new projects. When data from these sensors is brought together in supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, cities get totally unprecedented real-time flexibility.
With traffic lights, for example, CCTV cameras and sensors combine to give city authorities a clear picture of how traffic is flowing. When things slow to a crawl, the data these systems collect gives a clear picture of where the major snarls are taking place, allowing the authorities to make precise adjustments to light timing for as long as needed.
Rather than using a decade’s worth of imprecise, analog information, smart cities give themselves the gift of flexibility by creating a constantly updated image of themselves.
3. Smart cities break down barriers
The huge amounts of raw data that smart cities have to process can lead to challenges of their own. Sensors and cameras are great at generating a high volume of timely data, but on their own they don’t make it any more digestible. That’s where higher-order software applications come in. These systems of systems, like IBM’s Operations Center for the City of Rio, offer new ways to process and react to unprecedented amounts of information.
The Operations Center breaks down the siloed information gathering and decision making that plagues civil government. By ensuring that information streams from municipal weather agencies, emergency services, and traffic authorities are combined into a holistic, updating map of the city, for example, Rio is able to not only to respond directly to floods and landslides as they occur but to accurately forecast where in the city might be vulnerable in the near future, warn people who might be in danger to evacuate or shelter in place with automated mass text messages, and reroute traffic without causing major delays. When varied information-gathering and decision-making streams are brought under one roof, smart cities get smarter.
4. Smart cities keep their friends close
Many smart cities recognize that they can’t achieve their ambitions for safety, livability, and efficiency alone. A key feature of smart city governments is their willingness to collaborate with private sector partners and entrepreneurs to reach innovative solutions.
One standout is the growing market in Energy Performance Contracts, whereby municipalities partner with energy service companies who build out high-efficiency street lights, install solar panels, or retrofit heating and cooling systems guaranteed to save on the city’s power bill. If the systems don’t deliver, the contractor pays back the difference. These partnerships allow cities to overcome high initial costs and information gaps and invest more confidently in energy-saving measures by offering a results-oriented model backed by the firm’s expertise, while giving contractors the chance to win big on the strength of their results.
Smart cities also recognize the value of partnering with entrepreneurs. San Francisco, for example, has piloted a Startup in Residence program that pairs individual departments with startup companies. These collaborations allow city agencies to have crucial input into tailormade applications that help them accomplish their goals, while giving startups unfettered access to municipal data and the invaluable insight of city professionals.
As the world’s population continues to concentrate ever more heavily in cities, the challenges they face become more and more acute. Smart cities and their partners give us a reason to be hopeful for a future in which they not only endure these changes, but thrive on them.