What's a "smart city"?
It's a fair question, but a hard one to answer.
Many larger municipalities have embraced the "smart city" concept in recent years, but definitions of the term -- and examples of the ways technology is being used to make cities "smart" -- run the gamut. Mayors and city CIOs usually talk about using sensors to, say, wirelessly manage streetlights and traffic signals to lower energy costs, and they can provide specific returns on investment for such initiatives -- x millions of dollars saved over y amount of time, for example.
Other examples include using sensors to monitor water mains for leaks (and thereby reduce repair costs), or to monitor air quality for high pollution levels (which would yield information that would help people with asthma plan their days). Police can use video sensors to manage crowds or spot crimes. Or sensors might determine that a parking lot is full, and then trigger variable-message street signs to direct drivers to other lots.
Smart cities as places for fun
Those are some of the countless practical examples. But smart cities can also be fun. In Bristol, England, a custom-built infrared sensor system was added to street lamps for a few weeks in late 2014 to record the shadows of pedestrians walking by. The shadows were then projected back through the streetlights for others walking by later to see.
Called "Shadowing" and developed by Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier, the initiative was intended as a public art installation. A winner of a Playable City Award, "Shadowing" helps illustrate how broad and elusive the definition of "smart city" has become.
That's a good thing.
"A smart city shouldn't just save money, but should also be attractive and fun to live in," said Carl Piva, vice president of strategic programs at TM Forum, a global nonprofit association with 950 member organizations whose aim is to guide research into digital business transformation, including smart city initiatives.
"Being a smart city is more than being efficient and involves turning it around to make it fun," Piva said.
The Bristol "Shadowing" project was discussed at a recent forum in Yinchuan, China, attended by politicians and technology experts from around the world, Piva said. It was introduced by Paul Wilson, managing director of Bristol Is Open, a joint venture of the Bristol City Council and the University of Bristol that's devoted to creating an "open, programmable city region" made possible by fast telecom networks and the latest software and hardware.
"Many smart city projects don't have immediate ROI attached," Piva said. "My personal reflection is that technology of the future will become more and more invisible to individuals, and the best success criteria will be people not really even noticing the technology. For the time being, that means seeing a lot of technology trying to talk to us or engage with us in various ways. Every city mayor and everybody running for election is now invested in making his city smart. You sort of need to attract businesses and want to attract individuals with talent and make it a prosperous place, to make it livable and workable."
Piva admitted that "smart city" is a broad concept and a lot to take in, especially for average taxpayers who must foot the bill for smart city projects. "It's a topic very high up on everybody's mind, and it's a question of which pathway you use to get there," he said. "Different leaders focus in different directions."
Piva said he has noticed that some cities want to focus on building technology communities, which seems to be a significant part of what Kansas City, Mo., is doing with an innovation corridor coming to an area with a new 2.2-mile streetcar line.
Other cities, especially in Brazil, are using technology to focus on fostering tourism, Piva said. "The common element of smart cities is the citizen and the need to have citizens involved and feel at home," he explained.
Over and over, city officials talk about the smart city as needing to provide "citizen engagement."
China's focus on smart cities
China, which has multiple cities with more than 10 million residents each, has pushed forward with a variety of smart technologies, some that might rankle Americans because of the potential privacy risks they raise.
Piva said there are nearly 300 pilot smart city projects going on in a group of municipalities in the middle of the vast nation. "If you jump on a bus, you may encounter facial recognition, which will be used to determine whether you have a bus permit," he said.
The city of Yinchuan has reduced the size of its permitting work force from 600 employees to 50 by using a common online process accessible to citizens who need anything from a house-building permit to a driver's license, Piva said.
While Yinchuan's payback on new permitting technology is easy to determine, "a lot of these ROIs are really hard to calculate," Piva admitted.
A stark contrast to Yinchuan's smart city initiative, which has a concrete monetary ROI, is in Dubai. Officials in that United Arab Emirates city are building a "happiness meter," which will collect digital inputs from ordinary citizens on their reactions to various things. It could be used to evaluate the combined impact of the cleanliness of streets and the effectiveness of security checkpoints with an assortment of other measures. In some cities, citizen inputs regarding happiness may come from smartphones. But they also could come from digital polling stations. For example, users of airport bathrooms might click a happy face button at a kiosk if they thought the bathrooms were clean.
The theory behind happiness meters is that, if municipal officials can capture data from citizens about what it's like to live in a city, "people will be more successful and take care of the community better," Piva said. However, he acknowledged, "it's a hard ROI to measure and takes lots of different touchpoints."
A working definition of smart city
Ask just about any city official or technologist working for a city, and you are likely to get many different examples of a smart city. A strict definition is even harder to nail down.
Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, took a stab at a comprehensive definition but only after first jabbing at the broad ways the concept is used. "'Smart city' is one of those all-encompassing terms that everyone defines however they want," he said.