Almost 4 billion people call cities home today, and by 2050, the United Nations predicts that number will expand to nearly 6.5 billion. Even more staggering figures indicate by 2100, the earth's population could reach 10 billion and cities will hold up to 8 billion people.
These urban areas are also increasingly the drivers of the economy. Today more than 80% of the population in the U.S. resides in large metropolitan areas — up from just over 60% 50 years ago — generating more than 90% of the country's GDP.
City builders and stakeholders see this growth as an opportunity to build smart cities. One UN study estimates over 60% of the urban areas that will exist by 2050 have yet to be built, with huge new infrastructure projects needed, particularly in Asia and Africa. Simultaneously, existing cities worldwide have aging infrastructure that will need work or replacement done to keep up with growth.
No two smart cities are alike, and there is not even an agreed upon definition of what constitutes "smart." But in the most general sense, a smart city is one that makes urban areas more sustainable and livable for residents of all ages and abilities.
"We have to stop building cities as if everyone is 30 years old and athletic," Gil Penalosa, former parks commissioner for the city of Bogotá, told a recent energy conference audience. His current organization, 8 80 Cities, focuses on strategies to make urban areas accessible for the entire age spectrum, from eight to 80 years old.
"We have to stop building cities as if everyone is 30 years old and athletic."
Founder, 8 80 Cities
In some cases, achieving those goals can be as simple as widening and protecting bike lanes or prioritizing rapid public transit, Penalosa said. But often, more sophisticated smart city initiatives require 21st century technologies, particularly Internet of Things (IoT) and information and communication technology (ICT), as tools to build or change an urban area. Those technologies are built off of data collected from the city and its inhabitants.
What smart cities tools change are usually infrastructures — defined broadly as the systems that provide water, energy, food, shelter, transportation and communication, waste management and public spaces. Smart cities might provide renewable energy like wind and solar, new modes of transportation like electric and self-driving cars, more streamlined water systems, building construction that is more energy efficient and public spaces that double as green spaces, urban farms, entertainment areas or a combination of all three.
Different groups have taken a shot at creating guidelines and best practices for smart cities, including U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Cyber Infrastructure and Analysis (OCIA), Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) and the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA). These agencies outline ways smart city initiatives can address foundational areas for identity protection, authentication, authorization and access controls (AAA).
How technology will drive change
Most smart city innovation is possible from increasingly low-cost sensors collecting millions and millions of data points. A Goldman Sachs study showed that sensor prices fell 50% in the last decade, and according to a report by Business Insider, cities' investments in IoT technologies will increase by $97 billion from 2015 to 2019.
New artificial intelligence programs that can parse and find patterns in that data will make the smart city technologies even more savvy. Integrating artificial intelligence into IoT or ICT systems is still new, but California's Redwood City is using a machine learning algorithm on data sensors to learn more about traffic patterns.
For all the different areas that smart cities can change, the forms it will take will also be diverse. The elephant in the room is the autonomous cars, with companies like Mercedes saying they will be on the road in mass in the next three years.
A UCLA study found that the time regained from not driving is estimated to be worth $1.2 trillion per year and other benefits could come from repurposing land from dedicated rights of way and on-street and off-street parking spaces. Traffic will likely go down due to more efficient driving and the potential for autonomous vehicles to drop off passengers and park themselves. One estimate notes 30% of San Francisco and Los Angeles traffic in the central business district is due to drivers looking for parking spaces.
Less flashy systems and platforms will come onboard with less fanfare. Smart traffic lights that change for current road conditions, sensors that tell gardening crews when plants need water, free citywide Wi-Fi and identification cards that can access multiple services like transit and banking.
Environmentally-friendly laws, while typically not using ICT or IoT technology, are often also part of the smart city planning. San Francisco passed green roof laws at the end of last year which make it the first U.S. city to require that certain new buildings be built with a green roof. Green roofs reduce stormwater runoff, improve air quality and help mitigate the urban "heat island" effect. For building tenants and owners, green roofs reduce the need for heating and cooling. They also can provide food and a recreational area for residents.
Where smart cities are today
Governments from the U.K., Germany, China, India and Brazil have contributed organizational power and resources to become leaders in urban innovation, with one estimate showing the global market for smart urban services will be $400 billion per year by 2020.
With over a billion people moving into Asian cities in the next 20 years, the Asian Development Bank is allocating $18 billion annually in grants and loans to help transform cities. Dubai's Smart City initiative has 50 different smart services across 26 government agencies, while the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) developed a range of different programs to encourage European countries and cities to invest in smart city developments.
With over a billion people moving into Asian cities in the next 20 years, the Asian Development Bank is allocating $18 billion annually in grants and loans to help transform cities.
Smart Cities Dive
Singapore, however, is the model for smart cities. The city-state already has most if not all government services available online, a self-driving car program in testing and a 2014 initiative from the prime minister has an undetermined number of sensors and cameras being installed that will allow monitoring everything from the cleanliness of public spaces to the density of crowds. Singapore's goal is to be the world’s first "smart nation" with a host of apps and e-services for all Singaporeans.
The U.S. federal government is trying to kick start American cities innovation. In 2015, different federal agencies, including the Departments of Commerce, Transportation and Energy, worked on an effort to implement programs of technology-based innovation for cities. The White House announced a Smart Cities Initiative and put a spotlight on the different projects being implemented across the agencies. The Smart Cities Initiative also included the launch of the private, nonprofit MetroLab Network, which pairs up city governments with local university research labs using federal funding towards smart city projects.
The Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge, launched in December 2015, gave its first grant of $40 million dollars to Columbus, Ohio, which beat out 78 other mid-size cities with its proposal. Columbus had already raised amount of $90 million from private partners while another $10 million was pledged from Vulcan Inc., the business and philanthropic company for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The Ohio capital included plans for everything from electric vehicles, autonomous shuttles, platooning trucks, bus rapid transit to smart traffic lights.
Not making the same mistake twice
Of course, cities have gone through transformation driven by technology before. A report by President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology describes cities as entering a fourth industrial age, shaped by computer-driven technological innovation. The first stage came with the steam engine, the second with the electrical grid and reliable mass transit, the third with the automobile.
Not all of those transformations were good. As Anthony M. Townsend points out in his book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, there are unintended consequences in new technologies. The automobile replaces horses and the piles of manure they left along the streets, but automobiles brought in their own pollution and helped create sprawling suburbs.
"If we don't think critically now about the technology we put in place for the next century of cities, we can only look forward to all the unpleasant surprises they hold in store for us," Townsend writes.
Privacy advocates are already discussing how data collection should be done in smart cities to protect privacy and sensitive information. Security issues from hackers are also a major concern, exemplified when a hack shut down the traffic management system in Haifa, Israel, causing traffic jams.
"If we don't think critically now about the technology we put in place for the next century of cities, we can only look forward to all the unpleasant surprises they hold in store for us."
Anthony M. Townsend
As the technology develops, stakeholders will need to help drive innovations being built off the data collected to solve problems. Many cities are using open data policies, with locations like Boston and Seattle making open data part of their smart city mission.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the famous urbanist Jane Jacobs made an argument that, 60 years later, could be the guiding principle for smart cities today. She wrote, "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."