Every week it seems, another city announces plans to become the next “smart city,” be greener than Kentucky bluegrass, and get hitched up to the Internet of Things. But what exactly makes a metropolis a truly intelligent and connected one? Is it employing a chief data officer? Installing sensors in every traffic light and parking space and adding a few more nodes to the Internet of Things? Building apps that make it easier for citizens to access public services?
This summer Google announced the launch of Sidewalk Labs, a venture with the nebulous mission of improving city living through technology. IBM, Cisco, and Intel have launched similar smart-city platforms—grids that will connect all of the data that municipalities generate from Internet-connected devices. With urban populations around the globe projected to double by 2050, new connected technologies promise to make cities more sustainable, cleaner, safer, and more vibrant.
Copenhagen won the 2014 World Smart Cities award for its “Copenhagen Connecting” plan, which involves using wireless data from cell phones, GPS systems in buses, and sensors in sewers and garbage cans to meet ambitious green initiatives and, in Mayor Frank Jensen’s words, “make it easier to be a citizen.” The project—a partnership between the municipality of Copenhagen, private companies, and four universities—promises cyclists and bus passengers a 10 percent reduction in travel time, and will yield economic benefits of 640 million euros ($727 million USD) by the time it’s completed. The Copenhagen Solutions Lab, the city’s incubator for smart-city initiatives, serves as the governing body for all smart-city projects.
In 2014, Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri introduced a new agency charged with “providing simple and quick solutions and maximizing the citizens’ time.” Called the Ministry of Modernization, the branch has provided IT solutions that help the city government engage citizens. It launched BAWiFi, one of the world’s largest free public wireless networks, providing access in parks, libraries, museums, and subway and bus stations. Other connected-city initiatives include a digital registry for birth certificates, online access to all city government data, and smartphone applications for everything from cultural events to tax filing.
The city-state’s “Smart Nation” initiative aims to engage citizens, industries, research institutions, and the government to “harness ICT, networks, and data to support better living, create more opportunities, and to support stronger communities.” It involves a number of apps that allows citizens to communicate with providers of public service. The Beeline app, for instance, draws on aggregated data to provide a demand-driven service to create new transport routes that meet public needs. Singapore regularly holds hackathons, including a recent “smart port” contest and a GIS mapping technology challenge, that encourage citizens to develop solutions.
One of Dubai’s first strategic smart-city initiatives takes a different approach: its goal is to measure—and improve—citizens’ happiness and satisfaction with government services. A product of the Dubai Smart Government program, the “Happiness Meter” lets users rate their experience while using government websites, apps, or in-person services for entities including the police and the transportation authority. Decision-makers have a real-time view of the data. “The ultimate goal of all our initiatives is to make people happy and make their lives simpler by reducing the time taken for completing government services,” Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid said in a press release.
The lessons of these four metropolises: For cities to be truly smart, the urban fabric needs to be just as intelligent and connected as the infrastructure.