Making Cities Smarter

We have smartphones, smart cards, smart cars, and pretty smart houses, judging by the increasing number of data-sharing devices linked up between the kitchen and the living room. It makes sense that our cities should be equally smart as well.

For some time now, cities globally have been investing in all sorts of infrastructure to make them hyper-connected, environmentally sound, and, well, cool. Certainly, in some places (San Francisco, New York, and Tokyo instantly come to mind), living in a smart city has become almost a civic right, a basic service citizens demand and won't live without.

Let's stop for a second and put this into perspective. Thanks to the billions of dollars (or euros, yen, yuan, pesos, or whatever other currency comes to mind) already spent by cities, states, and nations, we can make calls while riding underground subways, get GPS info from solar-powered bus stops, whiz by highway toll booths without hitting our brakes, and surf the Web at a park while listening to the birds sing. These are impressive accomplishments.

The exciting — or scary — part, depending on your point of view, is that capital projects like these show no sign of slowing down. Networking, energy efficiency, mobility, smart grids, and smart buildings will continue to be potential growth areas the world over as municipalities and regional governments set budget plans for the next decade, industry experts predict.

A report released this week by clean-tech market intelligence firm Pike Research, for example, forecasts that investment in smart city technology infrastructure will total $108 billion from 2010 to 2020. By the end of that period, the firm anticipates that annual spending will reach nearly $16 billion. $16 billion annually . Numbers like that make me think this could be a steady, niche market for component suppliers and semiconductor makers for the foreseeable future.

The conversations about what projects will get the green light are happening now. This week in Amsterdam, leaders from various corporate, government, and environmental segments are gathering at Smart City Event 2011 to discuss, share, and advance the concept of smart city development and “climate neutral” projects. Participants will swap information about best practices, funding opportunities, and cross-industry stakeholder cooperation.

On a European scale, a government commission has even been established to help create a roadmap for smart city initiatives. Among other things, SETIS (Strategic Energy Technologies Information System) pools together different tools smart city planners could use: interactive strategic modeling, technology and capacity mapping, scientific reports, implementation methodologies, and energy cost calculators.

Across the world, and perhaps not at all surprising, China is pumping more money in broadband infrastructure. According to a report this month from IHS iSuppli, China’s spending on broadband infrastructure equipment will soar to $1.15 billion in 2014, up from $925 million this year and $688 million in 2010.

This is only a sliver of what's happening on regional and national levels. Multiply high-tech capital works projects by individual cities on every continent, and I'd say the math would cause some eyeball popping among supply chain professionals.

On the surface, these projects may not seem as glamorous as the hyped up tablet computer or smartphone space. Nevertheless, the smart city market will be just as important — or even more important — to end users. Really, what good is a smartphone if you can't get a WiFi signal or buy a coffee with a flick of your wrist while waiting at an electric car charging station?

17 comments on “Making Cities Smarter

  1. AnalyzeThis
    May 25, 2011

    This is a subject that I personally am very interested in and I've been following the developments in smarter city building very closely.

    One interesting project I'll mention is the Babcock Ranch project, which is essentially an attempt to create a sustainable city from scratch. I think they're doing all sorts of interesting and unique things: building their own 75-megawatt photovoltaic power-generating facility, putting somewhere like 90% of the land in the development into preservation, perhaps utilizing autonomous electrically powered vehicles, etc.

    Anyhow, it is clear that our existing cities must evolve to keep up with the latest technological developments and future cities and developments should require much more thought given to their technology infrastructure and long-term environmental impact.

    As you mention, a lot of money will be spent by governments to upgrade their infrastructure in the coming years. Unfortunately, sad to say, a lot more of that money will likely be flowing into countries such as China rather than the US, at least in the short-term.

    Regardless, this is an exciting time to be working in this space and I'm looking forward to seeing these smarter cities of the future develop.

  2. Jennifer Baljko
    May 25, 2011

    DennisQ – Thanks for citing the project below. Sounds fascinating, almost like science fiction. I'll check it out.

    You raise a couple other points worth thinking about: Will it be easier for some places to create 'new' cities or pockets of cities as they roll-out technology? Will cities be upgrading forever since technology is always racing ahead? Where's the point when cities will be “smart enough”?

    Personally, I go back and forth on this. Some days, I'm psyched to hear about these improvements, the convenience that comes with them, and the way it empowers people worldwide when everywhere access is possible. Other times, I really would like to grab the phone out of hands of the chatty person on the bus, fling it out a window, and shout woo-hoo! when it gets flattened by truck. For me, I'd like to make sure there's some balance and careful thought going into urban planning.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mydesign
    May 26, 2011

        Now a day “Smart” is a very common word prefixing with all devices or technology. One thing I would like to know is; is smart appliances or homes or cities are really SMART. Recently, TECOM of Dubai holdings announced about smart city projects in different parts of world. According to them SmartCity means build a large network of knowledge-based industry townships with state-of-the-art IT and media city on the models of Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City. Am not sure about the smart facilities they are going to provide.

        Smart technology means, where system may use its intelligence and logics to act as smart on different situations. Many people are considering that smart city is one to be well networked and some others feel that, it is a city with all modern amenities with in a hand distance. But strictly speaking a smart city consists of the combination of all these features and many more.

  4. Daniel
    May 26, 2011

       I would like to know the difference between smart city and integrated township. Integrated township can also have all these facilities.

  5. Jay_Bond
    May 26, 2011

    Reading this article makes me wonder how many cities are going to overlook current more important issues in order to integrate more technology. Many companies that are making things “smart” for their employees or customers are doing so to generate more money. If a person can get free WI-FI access at a coffee shop, they might stay around longer and possibly by something else.

    Some cities are trying to boast about great technology they are implementing in order to bring attention and possibly get more people to move there or to stay put. While in the mean time these same cities have infrastructure problems and other areas that need attention. I'm just hoping everybody isn't jumping on the “smart” technology bandwagon and overlooking more important issues other than can I get WI-FI at a bus stop.

  6. tioluwa
    May 26, 2011

    Very interesting post, exciting as well.

    How smart can cities get? I think the possibility is endless, but one thing that will really create a notable land mark is communication. When appliances, homes, organizations, institutions, government can communicate with each other in a secure and flexible way, then greater options start to open up.

    The possibilities are endless.

  7. Jennifer Baljko
    May 26, 2011

    Thanks Toms for jogging my memory about the Dubai project. I remember reading about the developments-in-progress when I visited the city some time ago. Would be interesting to hear about how those projects are progressing in light of Dubai's financial crash in 2009 (?).

    Interestingly, I received an RSS feed today that had this in one of the headlines:

    The Smart World takes centre stage at the BDigital Global Congress 2011

    The Smart World, the range of smart technologies applied to improving cities, health and social media, is set to headline the 13th edition of the BDigital Global Congress. Over a four-day period from 30 May to 2 June, national and international experts will showcase the latest trends in technology applied to the fields of the Smart City, Smart Health and Smart Social Media at Barcelona's CaixaForum.

    It seems we upped the ante again. Forget smart cities, we're talking about a smart world.


  8. Backorder
    May 26, 2011

    I would guess, the difference would be in the size and scope of the smart implementation in infrastructure. A township project wouldnt include RFID toll plazas for instance.

  9. Nemos
    May 26, 2011

    The article described perfectly how is and how will be our cities smarter in the developed world but didn't mention anything about cities in the underdeveloped world.

    The needs are completely different that's why the electronic equipment differs

    From my point of view, it sounds weird to read how should be to buy a coffee with a flick. I believe we must concentrate to how technology will help us to improve our way of life and in particular, the way of living in the underdeveloped world.


  10. Jennifer Baljko
    May 26, 2011

    Nemos – good points. I wish I had a good response for how the developing world is “going smart.” Just a guess, given how prevalent cell phones and cell phone techology are in many of these regions, I would expect that's where we'll see some near-term investment and innovation. For instance, during the Mobile World Congress a few months back, I remember hearing about a student-led initiative (I believe it was called NextDrop) that uses mobile phone technology to notify peole about water supply and availablity; the idea was that people who live in places where water was scarce and supply was intermittent  could truly benefit from knowing when and where the water was available. The model was being tested in India. (you can read about it here – By our standards, that may not be considered a smart city, but for the people who get these alerts, this kind of technology may well be their smartest,  life-changing tool. Anyone else have details about what cities in the developing world are doing on this front? Like, what's happening in Lima, Cairo, or Manila?

    And to Jacob's question about the difference between smart city and integrated township, they sound almost the same to me. I'm sure there's a technical difference, but it seems like they are blanket terms that encompass a range of activities from big-scale green power generation down to mobile apps that let allow residents to connect directly to city adminstrators/offices.

  11. mario8a
    May 26, 2011


    how far are we from Japan industrial Cities, seems like the cell phones we are using they used them around 10 years ago.

    I think a smart city will be subjective to have a balc up plan to not depend on the technology all the time…



  12. Mydesign
    May 27, 2011

       Jennifer, SmartCity is a conglomerate promoted by Dubai Holding with TECOM Investments, to develop and manage Knowledge Industry Townships Worldwide. The Dubai smartcity is in operation with more than 103,000 m2 build up area having major IT companies and integrated residential township for employees, with all the advance level amenities. They survived well during the recession period because of the presents of mix group of companies (low, medium and big level companies). I do agree that the global recession affected the giants (IBM, Accenture, yahoo etc), but when compare with outside number of wind up companies and job losses are very less. Moreover, the annual turnover from Dubai smartcity during 2008-09-10 is at par with previous years. The only thing is growth rate is little bit less than the expected or predicted rate. In between government also funded some amount for initial investments.

       Last year they had opened first phase of Malta smartcity, with an investment of 275 million Euros. The whole development, which covers an area of 360,000 m2, is to be fully completed in 2021.

       Recently they announced another one in Kerala, India (SmartCity Kochi), with an expected investment of  1500 Crore. The project would be spread over 246 acres with an expected to have 818,000 m2 of built up space.  It was to be the first SmartCity project in India and on completion, SmartCity Kochi would be one of the largest IT parks in the country.

    More details are available in their official website

  13. Jennifer Baljko
    May 27, 2011

    Toms – Thanks for the TECOM details and link. Will read up on this and other ideas mentioned by the group.

    Thanks everyone for the conversation. Appreciate reading different perspectives.

  14. Mr. Roques
    May 28, 2011

    How related is this to smart-homes? I think that market will be huge when the current generation that started using the internet and computers starts (continues) to buy houses, etc. because the current decision makers where born without that and grew without them.

  15. SunitaT
    May 28, 2011

    “By the end of that period, the firm anticipates that annual spending will reach nearly $16 billion. $16 billion annually.”

    This is very good news for semiconductor industry but the bigger question is will it add extra pressure on supply chain which is already facing many challenges?

  16. prabhakar_deosthali
    May 30, 2011

    @Nemos _ I agree with you about our need to also look at the needs of the cities in the underdeveloped world where providing the basic infrastructure like roads, parking lots, drainage systems etc is still a top priority. But as technologists we cannot stop from providing the ultramodern communications and associated smart services to the developed cities. Though not today but definitely tomorrow this techonolgy will become affordable and hence percolate to the cities of underdevelopd world also. By recovering our R & D costs from this modern cities, we can then provide the same technology to these underpreviledged nations at a much lower cost. The benefit will slowly spread across the world. A cellphone was a luxury item just a decade ago here in India but now it has become a common man's necessity and the service has also become affordable to the common man.

  17. Ms. Daisy
    May 30, 2011


    Thanks for the thoughtful observation. The priorities obviously are different and the needs are differrent between the developed and not so developed geographical areas of the globe. Your point on the purpose of all the innovations and modifications is actually the key to assessing the practicability and usefulness of these innocvations. Otherwise we are just innovating just to to make “smart” product.

    Hopefully the making of smarter cities is to improve quality of life of the inhabitants with lower carbon prints left in its wake.

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