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Humans are flocking to cities, and cities are rapidly evolving — not just to accommodate more people, but to help them flourish.

With the UN forecasting that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, an increasing number of cities are turning to Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to make their streets, trains, taxis and government services “smarter” to improve efficiency and quality of life.

But what exactly does a smart city look like, and are there any good examples already leading the way?

What Exactly Is a Smart City?

A smart city refers to a metropolitan or cosmopolitan city that utilizes IoT technology to effectively manage the city’s assets and resources which include sustainable energy, transportation, waste management and more. The main objective of using this technology is to improve the quality of life of the city’s citizens from an economic, social and environmental level.

Kenta Yasukawa, co-founder and CTO of Soracom, said any city that collects and analyzes data can be considered a smart city. “In practice, cities around the world are using connected sensors and big data analytics to improve life for residents and visitors across areas of governance ranging from traffic and transportation to power and water delivery, waste management, municipal services and law enforcement,” said Yasukawa.

As for the characteristics that define a smart city, Yasukawa shared that each smart city will have their own unique objective, but they all acknowledge the importance of IoT technology. “Some [smart cities] focus on innovation, others on infrastructure or overall efficiency. What they share in common is an understanding that emerging IoT and cloud capabilities offer a meaningful opportunity to better understand the intimate workings of an urban center. …and ultimately better serve its population while reducing both cost and waste.”

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How Can Cities Become Smart?

Chris Wiegand, CEO and co-founder of Jibestream, shared that the key for a city to become smart lies in how it can leverage both IoT technology and location-awareness. “By using sensors to process data and facilitate edge computing, they are able to manage infrastructure and resource allocation efficiently, resulting in a removal of friction from daily interactions and experiences for both municipal employees and city residents,” said Wiegand. He went on to explain that to make any space smart, “It is crucial to have a digitized representation of the city that is geospatially accurate at both street level and at the underground level, with indoor maps of subway paths and concourses and large public buildings.” This visual context of the city makes it easier to interpret the data provided by the IoT technology.

Wiegand also mentioned that you need to have the “requisite connectivity for devices and sensors to function properly.”

When asked whether any city can become smart, Wiegand said, “Any city can become a smart city, regardless of size, as long as it lays the key supporting infrastructure and has the commitment of citizens, municipal officials and local government and collaboration between public and private companies with the different levels of government.”

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Examples of Smart Cities

To give you an idea of what a smart city looks like, our panel of experts have identified the following "smart" cities:

  • Singapore — When Singapore rolled out its Smart Nation program, the city embraced new technologies in every aspect of its infrastructure and operations. And in doing so, the city became a leading example for energy-efficient street lighting, which is responsive to weather changes. “The city of Singapore is arguably already the smartest city in the world, with the minute workings of the city rendered in data down to the backyard shortcuts children take on their way home from school,” said Yasukawa.
  • Barcelona, Spain — In 2017, the city of Barcelona rolled out a mandate to “rethink the smart city from the ground up. ” Barcelona has, for time, been using IoT and cutting edge digital devices to municipal operations, but with the 2017 mandate there is now an emphasis to introduce a shift from “technology-first” to “citizen-first.”
    “Barcelona expanded its smart applications and implemented open standards-based platforms that integrate data from thousands of IoT devices that previously did not communicate with each other. Through reforming the city’s network to become more adaptable and connected, Barcelona is considered one of the leading examples of smart cities,” said Daniele Loffreda, market development advisor and consultant for Ciena.
  • Songdo, South Korea — Deborah Andrade, communication specialist at SlicingDice, said Songdo in South Korea, is considered to be a “world reference” for a smart city. “Songdo has Smart Work centers with teleconferencing systems that allow a third of its government staff to work closer to their homes that are equipped with Wi-Fi and sensor networks,” said Andrade.

Andrade added that Songdo was the first city to implement the Online Electric Vehicle Technology (OLEV) transportation system, which utilizes magnetic fields to generate electricity for buses.

“[Songdo] has an innovative IoT Cube’s lab, where different technology companies obtain real-time data from Songdo’s citizens and work together towards bringing better solutions and smart innovations for them,” said Andrade.