How will the smart city of the future look and behave? Too early to tell, perhaps… Source: Shutterstock

How smart cities can create smarter societies

THE concept of a smart city is one that is emerging gradually as the technologies which make up the whole become more widespread, better understood, accepted and implemented.

Smart cities are not necessarily a type of city – ideas of gleaming new, white concrete edifices, policed by robots, play little part here. Rather, the term is used to describe the aggregation of a number of technologies from different sources. The data from the aggregated technology can be used, hopefully, to improve citizens’ lives.

The technologies involved tend to fall into six broad categories: energy, water/sewerage, waste, assisted living, transport and security. Examples might include:

  • Smart energy technology management, such as smart meters and appliances, which can feed data into supply systems, maximizing energy efficiency and managing supply loading.
  • Assisted living technologies which help the old and infirm live independently and reduce the load on local healthcare and its supporting infrastructure. Specific examples might be sensors and monitors of patients which feed to local healthcare practitioners’ systems.
  • Transport systems optimized according to an area’s population’s working patterns: a predominance of shift workers in a particular suburb causing public transport timetables to be altered according to demand patterns.

The host of devices playing their part will easily number in the millions: medical sensors, public lighting switches, water supply valves, energy use monitors, display boards – the list is almost endless.

Additionally, the hardware platforms on which data can be shared could be described as smart city technology too. Add to that the software layer on top of the hardware, plus network monitoring software which ensures that everything works as required.

Growing City

Smart cities grow from the citizens up, and the governance down. Source: Shutterstock

The direction of tech

There are two directions via which technologies are implemented into smart cities:*
*Perhaps a better definition might be smart urbanizations – villages, suburbs and hamlets could also adopt the tech.

  • Top down. Traditional infrastructure owners such as local governments and public sector providers may install technology in order to drive efficiencies for their organizations, as well as to improve their local tax-payers’ lives.

In some cases, the top-down drivers are not publically-owned but are in fact private sector organizations supplying either for the sake of their own business model or on behalf of local governments who have subcontracted services out.

In either case, the overarching movement of technology’s application remains effectively the same. A smart electricity meter helps end-users monitor their energy use, but the reduction in the time spent by the energy supplier (public or private) estimating bills and energy use patterns drive efficiency.

  • Bottom up. This approach emphasizes the use of technologies by individuals, such as social media, web, mobile applications or sensor data, as a means to enable citizens to improve their own lives’ quality. By using tech, citizens might, for instance, acquire new skills through online learning, improve interaction with authorities (public or private), or discover new possibilities for transport (car sharing, bike hire schemes).

In order for the bottom-up approach to reach its full potential, it would be necessary for the data platforms to be open enough to allow citizens to develop new mobile applications or online crowdfunding platforms to fund innovative projects.

Free interaction with reliable data is imperative for citizens to empower themselves in the context of smart cities.


Knowledge of your need for vitamin D can be sold, or used to help you. Source:

Data integrity, personal security

As soon as a population’s activities are monitored in order to improve quality of life, there are immediate concerns with data privacy.

An energy company which is allowed to constantly monitor its users’ personal energy use might identify a multiple occupancy rented apartment – of interest to a suspicious landlord. Or the same type of data might also be sold on: night-shift workers’ details (identified by energy use patterns) to a vitamin D supplier for the purposes of advertising, for example.

The ability to anonymise data is therefore key, both for citizens’ privacy, but also to protect the intellectual property of the private sector organizations and the public sector bodies involved in smart city infrastructure.

Additionally, data needs to be correct and complete, and it is therefore imperative that connected devices supply data reliably. The question remains whether the onus of this responsibility falls to the equipment supplier or a local government (or its agents) tasked with ensuring improvements for citizens, or the citizens themselves.


Citizens may need to be at least partly responsible for their city’s data infrastructure. Source: Shutterstock

Bigger pictures

When a device breaks, who pays for its replacement? Who pays for the monitoring and troubleshooting of the network, and all its nodes? Where does the public sector end and the private sector’s responsibilities take over? Who represents the mass of citizenry?

We often forget the incredible newness of the technology we utilize every day. Our large cities and population centers of whatever size have been decades, if not thousands of years in their construction. We cannot, therefore, expect our cities to become “smart” overnight.

How smart our cities become will be determined not just by the way which technology develops, but also the changes in social and economic constructs which are caused by technology’s application, and our reactions to change.

The historical tale of the rise of the smart cities, will, therefore, be told (in years to come) in terms of changes in societal norms and human behavior. The underpinning technology that made our cities “smart” may be but a footnote.