Industry Market Trends

The Rise of the First Smart Cities

Sep 20, 2011

"Our cities are fast transforming into artificial ecosystems of interconnected, interdependent intelligent digital organisms." William J. Mitchell, MetropolisMag.

Depending on what sort of personality you are, you might be either thinking, "That's wonderful!" or "Let's buy a cabin in the mountains and lots of canned food."

The concept of "smart cities" must conjure up mental images of in all of us, from urban utopias to sci-fi inspired urban dystopias - and sometimes a little of both. A smart city, also called a "digital city" or a "connected city," is a concept that has been defined as "embedding intelligence in objects" and then filling a town or city with those intelligent, connected objects: cars, parking meters, parking lots, police equipment, smart cards for public services, alternative energy sources, "smart" electric grids and intelligent networked telecommunications equipment. The ultimate goal is "smart life," whereby urban life becomes easy, enjoyable, clean, green and safe because it relies less on human whim and error and more on information and next-generation energy. The focus falls on six re-urbanization elements: a smart economy, environment, governance, lifestyle, transportation and community.

While many smart city technologies are already in pilot programs all over the world - electric smart grids, networked parking and citywide wireless Internet - many more are yet unrealized or still in the lab or prototype mode. Some of them are futuristic: electric cars that drive themselves, for example (or no cars at all, just clean mass transit), city-wide waste heat recapture and the use of personal "smart cards" for everything from summoning the police to looking for ideal social connections.

Chances are you don't yet live in a "smart city," since there aren't many of them yet. But if you believe the analysts, there will be many more of them by the end of your lifetime. ABI Research predicted this week that while $8.1 billion was spent on smart city technologies in 2010, by 2016 that number is likely to reach $39.5 billion. As of today, there are 102 smart city projects worldwide, says ABI, with Europe leading the way at 38 cities, North America at 35, Asia Pacific at 21, the Middle East and Africa at six, and Latin America with two.

Smart Transportation

So how do you make transportation smart? Ideally, you build a city with clean, quiet mass transit and ban cars from the roads. But humans love their cars, and mass transit won't meet everyone's needs. MIT's Smart Cities research group, led by Professor William J. Mitchell, has envisioned a future in which all the components of today's cars are miniaturized and combined with digital controls, enabling automakers to fit a car's essential mechanical systems into a very small space. The result would be a clean, quiet car with robotic wheels and extraordinary maneuverability - Professor Mitchell said in an interview with MetropolisMag that the wheels would, for example, be able to turn at 90 degrees for easy parallel parking. This type of "reduced footprint" vehicle would be able to fold and stack like a supermarket shopping cart, essentially turning cars into a sort of "shared-use personal transportation" device: when you need a car, you choose one from a stack in front of your apartment building, swipe your credit card and drive away, leaving the car at your destination to recharge, then repeating the process in reverse to get home.

Smart Parking

Here's a concept that's a little closer than folding, stacking shared cars. Many companies are already experiencing with the concept of "smart parking" - Streetline's Parker app for iPhone and Android is one - hoping to eliminate the common city scenario of circling city blocks, churning out dirty car idle exhaust, looking for a parking space. Using some phone apps and some native-built city solutions, some city dwellers can locate, reserve and pay for unoccupied parking spaces on their phones or through their car's navigation systems. Ultimately, the concept can help cities better meet demand for parking while at the same time control urban congestion.

Smart Housing

So what makes a smart house?

MIT House_n Research Consortium studies and tests concepts of smart housing. In the Consortium's House_n's PlaceLab in Cambridge, the group has built a prototype apartment that looks normal on the outside but is in fact embedded with numerous tiny sensors. By using pattern-recognition techniques, the home can recognize and understand the habits and needs of its occupants. By monitoring the patterns of activity and occupants' vital signs, the apartment can know, for example, whether its residents are eating properly, getting enough exercise or taking their medication. Slip out of a habit of healthful behavior, and the apartment can "remind" the occupant or a third party. The Consortium sees it as a future component of an independence-preserving healthcare systems for the elderly or handicapped and an alternative to a nursing home.

While most of us won't want to be reminded by our homes when it's time to exercise or that we should really be eating carrots instead of Cheetos, imagine an apartment that warms or cools in accordance to your body temperature, turns the lights off when you're asleep and enables you to communicate with the outside world without having to pick up a phone or sit down in front of a computer.

Smart Communications

While nobody is folding and stacking their cars yet or conversing with the artificial intelligence that runs their apartment, several cities worldwide are currently undertaking smart city projects. Earlier this year, Holyoke, Massachusetts teamed with networking giant Cisco in an attempt to transform the former mill town into a smart and connected community.

Cisco's plans for Holyoke include using technology to better deliver urban services with a goal of generating new economic opportunities, improving education and bolstering population retention. In the first phase, Cisco is working with police and fire departments to roll out an integrated radio interoperability system. The idea is to make incident response smarter by allowing first responders to connect with one another, increasing the efficiency of service dispatch. Cisco's IP Interoperability and Collaboration System will collect and transfer voice, video and data from residents who call in emergencies, says SmartPlanet.

Smart Grids

Amsterdam is one of the most ambitious smart city retrofit projects to date, and is currently operating a pilot program that will subject city residents, businesses, and government to new technologies aiming to improve communication and coordination and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A $383 million investment in smart grid technology will add network sensors to the city's grid to improve domestic energy monitoring, leading to reduced electricity use

Five hundred Amsterdam households are testing a system built by IBM and Cisco aimed at cutting electricity costs, and an additional 728 homes are being offered financing from Dutch banks to purchase items like energy-saving lighting, clean energy microgeneration products (small wind turbines and solar panels) and ultra-efficient roof insulation.

In its Smart Cities Market Data report, ABI Research notes that while Amsterdam had previously committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2025 (using 1990 as a baseline year), the new "smart city" implementations will help the city achieve its goal by 2015: a full 10 years early.

Said Josh Flood, senior analyst at ABI, "Smart city concepts are really taking off globally. Currently, the largest spending on smart city technologies is for smart grids; however, over the next five years we will see a significant increase on spending for smart transportation technologies such as automatic vehicle ID and smart governance systems such as e-ID and ID document systems."

Cisco and Cities From Scratch

Cisco is rather hot on the trail of smart city technologies as of late. The company is behind the smart city initiatives in both

Holyoke and Amsterdam as well as an incredibly ambitious one in South Korea called New Songdo City, a metropolis the size of Boston being built from scratch on a man-made island in the Yellow Sea. The city, which is slated to be fully complete in 2020, will contain commercial buildings, shops, municipal buildings, condos, offices, and South Korea's tallest building, the 1,001-foot Northeast Asia Trade Tower. Destined to be a LEED-certified "green city," it is being designed to emit about one-third of the greenhouse gases of a traditional city of the same size.

To choose a technology partner, the city's builder, Gale International (which was invited by the government of South Korea to borrow $35 billion from Korea's banks and largest steel company to build the city) first approached Korean technology giant LG, but that company's ideas didn't make it beyond the drawing board. Microsoft was tried next without success. Finally, the builder settled on Cisco, which is slated to be New Songdo's exclusive supplier of so-called "digital plumbing." More than simply installing routers and switches - or even something so banal as citywide Wi-Fi - Cisco is wiring every square inch of the city with synapses, running trunk lines under city streets and installing filaments in every wall and fixture. Ultimately, says Cisco and Gale, New Songdo City will "run on information." (Let's not think about power outages, though.)

Cisco's control room will be New Songdo's brain stem, reports Fast Company. Once New Songdo City is finished, its builder plans to roll out 20 new cities across China and India, presumably with Cisco in tow to build the city's central brains. While business software companies today can't say enough about "software as a service" and "communications as a service," New Songdo City will likely be the world's first example of "city as a service," bundling urban necessities such as water, power, traffic and telephony into a single, Internet-enabled utility.

Next Steps After Infrastructure

After the construction of the first smart cities is over - after the networking and hardware is installed and the wireless consciousness of the urban area is turned on - comes what's called the "soft infrastructure." This is where it gets a little fuzzy. These "knowledge networks" include voluntary organizations, initiatives to produce crime-free environments and social and entertainment engineering. It's essentially where technology will begin to knit with anthropology, philosophy and social engineering.

It's also where the smart city concept begins to draw more critics.


Since a prosperous and low-crime city will largely center around jobs - that's a given - many smart cities are being designed around business parks, with the hope of attracting global or regional business headquarters to the cities that will provide plentiful skilled jobs. Many social engineers are unhappy about the idea of future "smart" cities growing up entirely around corporate power and money.

In an article called, "Will The Real Smart City Please Stand Up?" writer Robert G. Hollands calls out the smart city concept as nebulous, full of rhetoric and unproven ideology and relying on some pretty deep underlying assumptions, some of which are contradictory. Holland calls on the planners of such smart cities and smart city urban renewable programs to cease relying on self-congratulation and better define their goals.

While many of us would like to think it's possible to build a crime-free city full of people happy to share resources and goals - a sort of Star Trek future - human nature doesn't seem to work that way without draconian law and punishment that is less like urban utopia and more like George Orwell.

Why Is It So Important?

As of 2006, more people on the planet live in urban areas than rural, and the sprawl surrounding megacities such as Mumbai, India and Saġ Paolo, Brazil is only likely to increase, says Bloomberg.

Cities now produce almost two-thirds of total global carbon dioxide emissions in a noxious combination of car fumes, household energy use and industrial emissions. At the same time, policy shifts in world governments will put even more pressure on controlling carbon output. The result will be cities under pressure to cut emissions while growing their population.

Finally, Smart Government

Sound like an oxymoron? Maybe. As of now, a "smart government" is defined as an administration that integrates information, communication and operational technologies; optimizes planning, management and operations across multiple domains, process areas and jurisdictions; and generates sustainable public value.

Most of us will agree that...we're SO not there yet. So it it time to buy an apartment in New Songdo City?