What are smart cities?

by | Oct 22, 2021

A woman uses an interactive panel in a smart city at night.
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Paris. Chicago. Seoul. Nashville. Every city has its own vibe. But today’s interconnected, digital world is driving many leaders to rethink and reinvent their hometowns as more efficient, self-sustaining, “smart cities.” By merging a city’s infrastructure with big data and smart technology, these real “cities of the future” are building brighter tomorrows through better decision-making.

What is a smart city?

First, forget about glittering, Epcot-like utopias. A smart city is any modern urban center using advanced, networked technologies to gather vast amounts of data. Then, analyzing that information, the city’s digital infrastructure improves its functions, government engagement, and the quality of life for residents, business owners, commuters, and even tourists.

The eyes, ears and central nervous system of a smart city is something called Information Communication Technology (ICT). Hundreds (or thousands) of sensors, smart objects, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices are networked together by fast, fiber-optic internet and wireless technology like 5G. With input from citizens using smartphone apps, the ICT framework powers data gathering, and decisions made by artificial intelligence (AI). The result is traffic patterns, healthcare, air quality, energy/resource consumption, and even trash collection can all be better monitored and managed digitally.

Smart cities: necessary and inevitable

Today, over half of humanity lives in cities. By 2050, experts predict that seven in ten of us will live in an urban area. Cities exert an enormous economic influence. Currently, the top 600 cities on Earth generate more than 60 percent of the global GDP.

Urban areas gobble up the most energy, and of course, produce more carbon and pollution—impacting air quality, natural resources, wildlife, and the climate. With more people living in cities, there are more challenges too. If housing shortages, unemployment, sanitation, and congestion are left unchecked, cities can become unlivable.

The logic of a smart city is simple. Through better use of data and technology, a city becomes more efficient and better able to grow its own economy. Government can better meet the challenges of urbanization. Businesses can find new paths to success. People will have instant access to information that enhances and improves their quality of life. The goal is a city that constantly communicates with itself, adapts, and becomes more attractive to industry and skilled workers.

A man enjoys a sunny day in New York, which is a smart city.

What makes a smart city so smart?

While there’s little agreement about the must-have characteristics of a smart city, let’s explore some of the more tangible features one might notice.

More connected devices

The Internet of Things (IoT) and the millions of devices connected to it act as the skeleton and skin of a smart city. Smart utility meters, traffic signals, and air quality monitors collect and communicate data to various systems. Other devices then decide how to manage everything from traffic jams to water and energy use—streamlining our daily lives in the process.

Smart buildings

U.S. Energy Information Administration study estimates that by 2050, buildings will devour up to 60 percent of the world’s energy. A smart building uses sensors to measure how many people are inside and adjusts lights and thermostats to conserve energy and expenses. Built for connectivity, smart buildings also keep the people who use them connected to business, the city, the world, and each other—boosting efficiency and productivity.

Smart traffic

The pre-pandemic Global Traffic Scorecard determined that the average U.S. driver spends about two-and-a-half days per year caught in gridlock. Smart cities are tackling congestion with networks of intelligent sensors that pinpoint bottlenecks in heavily traveled areas. Then, networked signals make decisions to improve traffic flow in real-time, diverting drivers or changing the cadence of stoplights.

The smart grid

More than two-thirds of the world’s energy is devoured by cities, which, in turn, create almost three-fourths of the planet’s CO2 emissions. Smart grids rely on a web of smart energy meters and hooked-up appliances to intelligently channel and distribute power where it is needed. Plus, smart grid creates a more sustainable and affordable energy supply.

Smart waste

Before mid-century, experts warn that the world’s cities will generate about three-and-a-half billion tons of trash. Examples of smart waste management include using technology-enabled trash bins that can electronically sense when they’re filling up. Features like built-in compactors increase a bin’s capacity. Plus, since they are online, the containers themselves notify trash haulers only when they need to be emptied, limiting the number of garbage trucks on the street.

Smart urban agriculture

Also called vertical farming, this idea brings crops and food production right into downtown. Computer-run solar-powered mini-farms and greenhouses are built into or atop commercial and industrial buildings. These indoor farms minimize human labor by using precise agricultural sensors, IoT devices, and smart robotics to create a sustainable food supply with a yearlong growing season.

People connected to public services

Thanks to smartphones and app technology, locals can have direct contact with more city services than ever. Smart cities use this interactivity to provide alerts and updates about everything from traffic patterns to weather conditions. App-based input also gives residents a more direct voice in local government decision-making.

A man relaxes outside in a smart city.

Where to find the smartest smart cities

Although they dot the globe, most smart cities are emerging in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Let’s look at a few that are making an impact.


This southeast Asian city-state typically tops every list as the world’s most advanced smart city. Contactless payment systems on their heavily used public transit and virtual doctor’s visits are so routine, they have become the norm. With major buy-in from the business and government sectors, Singapore’s next goal is to create an eco-friendly, zero-vehicle, city-within-the-city.

New York

The Big Apple has powered up new, WiFi-enabled “smart hubs” and public online charging stations have replaced former phone booths. Plus, the city’s car-sharing program and a DOT-run congestion management system have reduced travel times by about ten percent.


Norway’s innovative capital is so serious about reducing emissions, they’ve committed to having only electric vehicles on the road by 2025. Numerous incentives entice drivers to switch, including free parking, lower taxes, and reduced toll prices. Other Oslo initiatives include “recycle and reuse” waste management and the development of green energy resources.


Though it doesn’t exist yet, tech billionaire Marc Lore plans to build this smart city from scratch in the southwestern U.S. desert. Green energy, environmentally friendly architecture, and a drought-resistant water system are all part of the blueprint. Lore envisions a climate-change-proof oasis about the geographic size of Chicago that would eventually be home to five million people.

Final thoughts

The world is transforming, and smart cities are part of that transformation. With governments, businesses, and everyday people quickly embracing IoT and AI technologies, embedding smart systems into the fabric of a city is no longer science fiction. It’s the natural path to building efficient, equitable, healthier places to live, work, and thrive. When we think of “cities of tomorrow,” aren’t those all qualities we want them to have?

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