“Smart city” is a marketing term used to define the use of technology – and in particular data collection – to improve the functioning of cities. The idea behind smart cities is that the more local governments know about city inhabitants the better the services they deliver will be. However, the reality is that the term means different things to different actors from companies to governments.
The World Bank suggests two possible definitions of smart cities. The first one is “a technology-intensive city, with sensors everywhere and highly efficient public services, thanks to information that is gathered in real time by thousands of interconnected devices.” The second one is “a city that cultivates a better relationship between citizens and governments - leveraged by available technology. They rely on feedback from citizens to help improve service delivery, and creating mechanisms to gather this information.” The different priorities, characteristics and terms used in each definition, in this case, given by the same entity reflects the diversity that exists in the sector.
Companies have given definitions of smart cities such as “new ways for the city to work” for IBM or “open-air computers” for Siemens.
Smart city projects range from the use of apps created by small start-ups – for instance to grade local services – to very broad infrastructures, designed by companies like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft that centralise the data collected on citizens and offer cities data analytics services. All of these have in common the reliance on data: whether it’s about generating and collecting data or offering services based on already available data.
While smart cities are extremely diverse, they are most commonly employed in three sectors: transport, energy and health.
A research paper commissioned by the UK Department of Business Innovation & Skills described Intelligent Transport Systems as “any technology, method or application that provides the traveller/client with added value, guidance, improved safety or efficiency benefits through information collection, storage, manipulation and subsequent dissemination.”
Smart public transport projects often rely largely on “smart cards.” Smart cards are travel pass that have integrated circuit within them. They are personally identifiable: either because it’s mandatory to register them under your own name (like the “Navigo” cards in Paris) or because they can be traced back to you by other means – for instance if you use a credit card to top up credit on your card. Today, smart cities developments have moved further down the road to “one card fits all.” People can now use their contactless credit card or their smart phones to pay for public transport in cities like London or Beijing, or they are linked to other forms if identity such as in student cards in the city of Buenos Aires. Bike sharing programmes are also being developed in more and more cities, as with public transport data is systematically collected. In New York, Citibike has been sharing the data they gather on their bike users, thus revealing the extent of the data gathered: trip duration; start and stop time, date and location; gender and year of birth of users among others.
Smart cities are also gathering data on road users, using electronic toll collection to detect when cars drive by.
Energy and water management technologies are starting to be implemented in order to optimise energy use and to better understand demand and supply. Energy management technology range from smart grid – implemented by the state – to home energy management systems – also known as smart meters. Smart meters allow states to obtain more data to assist them with management of energy storage and help them resolve energy loss and power outage. They allow companies to reduce billing errors and customers are offered cheaper energy deals.