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Smart cities: The urban revolution around the corner

So what is a Smart City? Or for that matter, what is Smart? Truth is, while the phrase may summon fanciful visions of driverless cars or the mastery of data analytics over energy use, being smart means completely different things to different people and places.



At the futuristic extreme it’s municipalities fashioned from scratch to be totally green, solar powered, with personal rapid transport systems and buildings that monitor their own efficiency. Masdar in Abu Dhabi is just such an example (though after $19bn spent, it’s still struggling to reach completion). At the opposite end of the scale lies Stellenbosch in South Africa where slum housing is being replaced with “smart shacks” capable of generating their own electricity through solar panels.

In between lies the achievable future for the rest of us, when public transport is mobilised by data to reflect demand not timetables, when energy is husbanded by intelligent lights and heating, when the workplace is wherever you wish it, and the hospital comes to your home for remote care in familiar surroundings.

In the UK the challenge will lie in introducing these technologies to the often-ageing infrastructure of existing cities and winning over the people who live and work there. Smart cities cannot function without smart communities willing to embrace them.

Though speaking of driverless cars…

The first self-driving cars to actually share public roads will start running between the Netherlands towns Wageningen and Ede in November, though the WePods will be spared rush hour traffic. Or bad weather. Or nightfall.

According to the BIS Smart City backround paper in 2013, it’s estimated the world could save over $1 trillion by adopting IoT to monitor and treat patients with chronic diseases. Rising to $1.6T by 2025.

The key sectors

Recent efforts have focused on social and environmental verticals such as transport, energy, health care, pollution and waste. Increasingly administrations realise a city cannot be truly smart until a cross-sectorial approach interlocks these silos. To quote BIS research paper The Smart City Market, the best solutions “are disruptive technologies that require system-wide deployment to yield the most benefits,” warning that some verticals currently “show little incentive for established players to change.” (We’ll examine these verticals more closely next month.)

Test beds and living laboratories

So where are these concepts being tested? Glasgow began 2013 as the official winner of the UK Government’s Future City Demonstrator competition, and has directed much of the £24m prize towards a vast city observatory accumulating data on everything from traffic trouble spots to potholes and uncollected bins.

In comparison Bristol applied its £3m runner-up prize on smaller schemes such as apps for hill-free routes for those with mobility problems and the award-winning Shadowing project that playfully lets street lights recall and re-illuminate the routes previous walkers have taken.

Meanwhile the market potential for smart city products is vast, predicted to reach $400bn by 2020 if you include the services to deploy them. The possibilities are enticing but there remain adoption hesitancies around the technologies becoming too quickly outdated or being insufficiently interoperable. It’s one of the reasons many cities so closely scrutinise the results of introductions such as the driverless metros of Paris (see our live example). Unlike iPhones, you can’t really buy a new building every three years…

It’s estimated that in ten years smart home appliances could cut household chores by 17-20% principally through cleaning, laundry, garden care and basic food preparation.


The three types of city intelligence


Institutions, communities and individuals combining to solve problems too large for them to handle independently. (Bletchley Park’s cracking of the Enigma code often cited as the first example.)


Where cities set up smart regions, infrastructures and experimental facilities (eg science parks) within their borders enabling groups to make use of them and tackle city problems.


The use of city-wide, real-time data capture to analyse issues, model solutions and improve life for residents (though with the risk of potentially intrusive surveillance if managed badly).


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