Smart cities: acceleration, technology, cases and evolutions in the smart city

Smart cities and smart city projects have been among the most actively discussed realizations which are made possible by an integrated Internet of Things (IoT) approach.

By 2019, 40% of Local and Regional Governments Will Use IoT to Turn Infrastructure Like Roads, Streetlights, and Traffic Signals into Assets Instead of Liabilities (IDC)

In the period from 2017 until at least 2020, smart city projects are poised to sharply increase as we move from ad hoc smart city projects to the first true smart cities (which stretches far beyond just IoT or technology, more below). This growth has in fact already started since a few years, with an acceleration in 2016.

The announcements on new smart city initiatives and investments are also accelerating and if we look at the major IoT projects, smart city projects are among the leading IoT segments in practice. Lessons of early initiatives get shared and positive returns are reported, further driving the smart city space which is also driven by government investments.

Smart cities - smart city project acceleration

Smart city projects, use cases and drivers

We mentioned a few smart city projects: one in the smart environment context (air quality monitoring to fight pollution in the city of Glasgow) and one in a smart flood alert context (an open source flood sensor network in the UK).

These are maybe not the smart city use cases that immediately come to mind but they are crucial and if you know, for instance, the challenge of pollution in urban environments, it’s easy to see one of the key reasons why smart city projects are set up: because they can offer immediate and useful benefits to citizens. Citizen-centricity indeed.

More popular smart cities use cases include smart parking, smart traffic management, smart city and street lighting and smart waste management. Still, also these cases often combine a mix of enhanced efficiency, urban problem solving, cost reduction, better living in urban regions and putting citizens first for a variety of reasons.

We previously wrote about research by Accenture that looks at the usage of newer technologies, including the Internet of Things, from a perspective of citizen-facing public services, which found that improving citizen satisfaction indeed by far ranks first. As the infographic of the research indicates, improving satisfaction of employees also ranks high (80 percent) and the implementation of newer, connected, technologies already leads to tangible outcomes in a slight majority of cases.

Moving from smart city projects to smart cities

In order to be a ‘true’ smart city, cities need to have an integrated approach whereby various projects are connected and most of all the data and platforms are glued together in order to achieve all the benefits smart cities make possible. Open technologies and open data platforms will be key to move to that next stage.

Smart city projects are the second largest IoT segment when looking at the global share of IoT projects (IoT Analytics)

According to IDC, the open data platform will emerge as the next frontier in Internet of Things platform discussions by 2018. Although this will come with hurdles and IDC doesn’t specifically mention smart cities, it’s clear that this open data platform evolution will certainly be prominent in the smart city space.

In its “IDC FutureScape: Worldwide IoT Predictions 2017“, where IDC mentions this open data evolution, the company also states that by 2019, a whopping 40 percent of local and regional governments will use IoT to turn infrastructure such as street lights, roads and traffic signals into assets instead of liabilities.

Smart city projects are all around us and rank high in lists of IoT deployments

As mentioned, smart city projects already are all around us, with a constant stream of announcements regarding new ones.

When Germany-based IoT Analytics, an analyst firm looking at the Internet of Things, announced a new report which essentially is a list of 640 actual, real-life Internet of Things projects as they already exist today, the company said that of all the IoT segments it looked at, smart city projects ended second, after connected industry, and before smart energy and connected car. This is especially the case in Europe as the graphic from the company below indicates.

Within the segment of listed IoT projects, IoT Analytics fond that the most popular smart city applications are smart traffic, followed by smart utilities. Also city safety is a big one.

Smart city projects rank second in the list of IoT segments with existing Internet of Things projects according to IoT Analytics - source
Smart city projects rank second in the list of IoT segments with existing Internet of Things projects according to IoT Analytics – source

Challenges to realize the true smart city

Although smart city projects mature and new ones are being promoted and/or deployed, it will take several more years before we really can call a city a smart city.

Smart cities today are more a vision than a strategic end-to-end approach. You can image that in order to have a true smart city there is a lot of work across the various activities, assets and infrastructure, which can be turned into smart versions. Realizing a true smart city can be incredibly complex as so many factors and parties are involved and cities have numerous tasks and functions.

Moreover, in a smart city all these areas are connected as mentioned and that doesn’t happen overnight. There is a lot of legacy, there are several operations and regulations, new skillsets are required and many connections need to be made and there is loads of alignment to do on various levels (city administration, public services, transportation services, safety and security, public infrastructure, local government agencies and contractors, education services, the list goes on).

Obviously, the complexity of full smart cities doesn’t need to stop the smart city evolutions and projects.

Complexity is also contextual and as cities exchange experiences and develop IoT projects with clear benefits they have the opportunity to grow their expertise and learn from potential failures. Having a roadmap in mind, with various stakeholders involved, of course greatly expands the possibilities of current ad hoc smart city projects in a further, more integrated future.

Smart cities and the IoT technology choices

This means that choices need to be made that can easily be scaled or integrated or, if needed, be easily replaced with better IoT technologies.

In the end, the IoT technology stack for smart city applications today is relatively easy and cheap for many use cases such as smart waste management or smart parking. Urban environments typically have good wireless coverage for cases with moving parts, you have the cloud, there are several point solutions and products which are designed for smart city projects and in several cities across the globe there is low-power wide-area network connectivity available (LPWAN) which suffices for many applications. In fact, when drafting its list of IoT applications, IoT Analytics found that 59 percent (!) of all LPWAN projects today are part of smart city initiatives while LPWAN in general is only present in 10 percent of the IoT projects the company identified.

Choices regarding connectivity, data exchange, IoT platforms and so forth will evolve as we start moving to real smart cities. It’s best if these future choices are already being taken into account for current smart city deployments.

Smart city - use cases and applications

Smart city applications – looking at the broader perspective

There certainly isn’t a shortage of smart city use cases and projects. As per usual in the application of new technologies for anything ‘smart’ there isn’t really a definition of smart cities, let alone of smart city applications.

While most professionals look at smart cities from the broader perspective, both from a goals and technology perspective, others will call any mobile app, developed by one or the other department, a smart city application.

The Internet of Things is virtually always present, although there are exceptions. From a technological and strategic perspective we obviously also need to look at security (which is also a goal in the context of safety, for instance), Big Data, mobility (in the broad sense of mobile ability, mobile technology and being mobile, whether it concerns public transport or applications for the less mobile citizen), cloud and the full stack of connected technologies and information-related topics.

It’s clear that information, and thus also information management and data capabilities are essential for the smart city of the present and future.

The essence of a smart city and community

While smart cities are inevitably linked with technology, a smart city vision is about more than that.

The smart city: where people want to live, participate and get a better life – with technology as an enabler

Part of the essence of smart cities is leveraging the appropriate technologies to improve quality of life in cities in general.

As earth’s population grows, new cities need to be built and existing urban areas keep developing. Technology, when properly used, is essential to tackle these challenges and help solve numerous challenges which cities today face. Yet, in order to really create a smart city world a far broader vision is needed.

Citizens for cities and cities for citizens: we can do so many things

Take a look at the first video in our post on Smart City Expo World Congress 2016, which took place in Barcelona, Spain, one of those leading cities in smart city developments, from November 15th until November 17th.

The topic of the opening remarks in the video: “Cities for Citizens, Citizens Changing Cities”, at the same time the theme of the event.

54% of humanity lives in cities and 80% of wealth is created in cities

In the beginning of the video the audience gets to see another video that sets the tone of the opening remarks and event. It paints a rosy picture of a smart city world with connected and empowered citizens. You get to see people and hear a series of words that stick.

Evolving. Visions. Tomorrow. Together. Common. Move. Grow. Learn. Possible. Love. Care. Like. Breathing. Experiment. Change. Create. Innovate. Improve. Alive. Dreams come true. And the sentence “we can do so many things”. In 1:30 minutes attendees get to experience ‘carewords’ and emotional impressions before the actual congress starts.

After some silence the participants in the opening address enter the stage. Jerry Hultin, chairman of Global Futures Group, chairman of the advisory board of the Smart City Expo World Congress and seasoned smart cities expert welcomes the audience and opens the Smart City Expo World Congress 2016.

Jerry Hultin - Chairman Global Advisory Board Smart City Expo World Congress on LinkedIn
Jerry Hultin – Chairman Global Advisory Board Smart City Expo World Congress on LinkedIn

He says: “making the cities of the world places where the people want to live, where citizens want to participate and where technology gives everyone a better life”.

Three crucial elements mentioned by Jerry Hultin:

  1. wanting to live in the city,
  2. wanting to participate and
  3. a better life – through technology.

We can – only – do so many things: the challenges at hand

Yet, the questions are numerous and the stakes are high.

After opening remarks from Gerardo Pisarello (Vice Major Barcelona), Gila Gamliel (Ministry for Social Equality of Israel), Rajesh Agrawal (Deputy Mayor of London for Business) and Jiangbo Ni (Vice Minister of the Housing and Urban-Rural Development ministry), Jerry Hultin points out some of them.

Did we grasp the opportunity of social technologies to connect for a greater good?

He reminds that, while today 54 percent of humanity lives in cities and 80 percent of wealth is created in cities, in the next 30 years approximately 2.5 billion more people will live in cities, bringing the total of people who live in cities to 70 percent of humanity.

Now that the technological possibilities and challenges are becoming clearer the questions and concerns are on the rise too. Technology and jobs. Privacy. Refugees who leave where they live because where they live is inadequate. Dissatisfaction among citizens as we see across the globe. Financing, return on investment, new revenue sources, the list goes on.

Yet the main question of all: will technology really make lives of people in cities better? How can technology be used to achieve just that? Jerry Hultin clearly mentions the challenges at hand in his opening address at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2016.

And here is an additional question: what else is needed since technology alone is never the answer?

Better lives in cities – human perspectives beyond smart technologies

No matter how smart our smart technologies are and how smart they can be used there are essential elements which we need to tackle as well – and they are predominantly human.

Safety and trust

Technology can help in improving safety but what about trust? At the time of writing this (December 20th, 2016) we look back at 2016 and ahead at 2017. In the wake of attacks across several cities around the globe, with Brussels being the closest one for us, distrust is high and hope for improvement is low.

Inclusion and participation

Citizens set up initiatives but in many cities they don’t feel included nor asked for participation, which is even more so in specific population groups and in countries where the focus on smart city technology to improve the citizen experience is high but the attention for basic human rights and participation is low.

The will to change

Citizens also need to have the will to change. Just now the city of Madrid (in Spain, just like Barcelona) wants to implement measures to fight pollution but the initiative is immediately turned into a political question and protests emerge. What is the use of monitoring air quality to prevent pollution if the will to change behavior as a consequence is not there (regardless of the exact context of the decision in Madrid)?

The will to act

Seeing challenges and having solutions to tackle them is one thing, acting is another. This isn’t even about change. It’s about engagement. Smart cities aim to better engage citizens but how are citizens engaging themselves? As an example: we just donated to the building of the first Cruyff Court in Brussels. Here you have an initiative with volunteers and citizens wanting to create more social cohesion by offering youngsters opportunities through sports in The Netherlands and Belgium. And the next step is the city of Brussels or, more precisely, Molenbeek. Internationally, Molenbeek is most mentioned in the context of terrorism but it is part of a city, our youth memories and in need of people who act and try to connect.

Social cohesion

And that brings us to the last part: social cohesion. Where has it gone and how do you bring it back, especially in the mega-cities of the future? Social cohesion combines all of the above and it’s the fabric of a city where people want to live, love, grow, learn and care. It’s the fabric of a smart city world.

“We can do so many things”, Jerry Hultin stated. Indeed but, in the end, we need to start with ourselves.

Smart cities: striking a balance – how we all are essential

In 2014 we had an interview on the BT Let’s Talk blog (disclaimer: BT is a partner and also sponsor of the Johan Cruyff foundation but this has nothing to do with this post) with Fred van Beuningen, back then Managing Director of Rotterdam Partners, on sustainability and smart cities.

Social cohesion is the fabric of a city where people want to live, love, grow, learn and care

Van Beuningen had been involved in the EU’s Smart Cities project before and here is what he said when asked whether a smart city is a sustainability.

“I define smart in a broader sense than seems typical today. When I was involved in the EU’s Smart Cities project…I noticed that the conversation was dominated almost entirely by the ICT industry. Smart is taken to mean connected or digital. I welcome a broader perspective to include elements such as physical infrastructure and buildings, social cohesion, the environment and the knowledge infrastructure.

Fred van Beuningen - on LinkedIn
Fred van Beuningen – on LinkedIn

Striking the balance between all that and with social cohesion in mind is the often forgotten essence of a smart city and community. Or better: it’s what a community is about to start with, just as social technologies once stood for the opportunity to connect instead of rant, attack, brag, ‘influence’, alienate, fight and troll. Did we grasp that opportunity of ‘social’ despite all the technologies for a greater good?

Support any other initiative in your neighborhood and set a step in the direction of a smart city in the human sense, as small as it may seem.

Because the future of cities is what you and we will make of it, as is the future for the adults of tomorrow and the many years after that.

Additional resources on smart cities

Smart city best practices

At the end of 2016, Machina Research (now part of Gartner) compiled a report based on an analysis of the strategies across 22 smart cities.

As a result, a ‘Smart City Playbook’ was developed with, among others, 6 smart city best practice areas.

Read more


6 smart city best practices areas according to The Smart City Playbook - source PDF highlights
6 smart city best practices areas according to The Smart City Playbook – source: PDF highlights (executive summary)

Moving to the next stages of smart cities

As mentioned earlier, at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Jerry Hultin, chairman of the advisory board of the Smart City Expo World Congress, shared the challenges facing smart cities beyond technology. On our overview page of the event we offer some key takeaways with additional resources on topics such as urban development.

Read more

Smart city application case

As is the case everywhere, air pollution is a major challenge in smart cities. Smart cities have an opportunity to play a role in fighting pollution and the broader sustainability picture. In one of the videos we listed in our Smart City Expo World 2016 overview, the key theme is even how smart cities can fight pollution and climate change in times where sustainability is under pressure. In an IoT-enabled smart city application case we look at how the challenges can be tackled in practice.

Read more

Citizen-centricity first

One of the tasks of local governments and cities, certainly in public services is to enhance citizen satisfaction. This is also the case in smart cities. Research from Accenture tackles the technologies in public services and the key role of citizen satisfaction.

Read more
Smart city applications

A full list of all possible ‘smart’ applications that are designed for smart cities or can be leveraged in a smart city context is sheer impossible as each city is different, there are loads of services and several public functions are organized differently across the globe (e.g. local transportation networks, organization of tourist services, etc.).

Below are some applications and areas where you find smart city and IoT projects in categories that often de facto overlap:

  • Public services such as citizen services, tourist services, public transportation, identity and administration, and information services.
  • Public safety where we can find applications in areas such as smart lighting, environmental monitoring (remember the flood network), asset tracking, policing, video surveillance and emergency response.
  • Sustainability, including environmental monitoring, smart waste management and recycling, smart energy, smart metering, smart water, etc.
  • Infrastructure with, among others smart infrastructure, structural health monitoring of buildings and monuments, smart buildings, smart irrigation (for instance in parks) etc.
  • Transportation: smart roads, connected vehicle sharing, smart parking , smart traffic management, noise and pollution monitoring, the list goes on.
  • More integrated solutions for smart city functions and services in areas such as smart care, smart education, smart governance, smart planning and smart/open data, which is also a critical smart city enabler.


Top image: Shutterstock – Copyright: jamesteohart – Smart city background image: Shutterstock – Copyright: Dmi T – All other images are the property of their respective mentioned owners.