What, Exactly, is a Smart City?

By Peter Williams

Dr. Peter Williams is the Chief Technology Officer, Big Green Innovations, at IBM. His focus areas are resilience to natural disasters and chronic stresses; Smarter Cities; and cloud computing for government. He has had a major role in developing the intellectual foundation for IBM's "Smarter Planet" and "Smarter Cities" initiatives, and in identifying and integrating their technological components - both IBM-originated and from outside the company.

Jul 13, 2016 | Urban Sustainability | 0 comments

With all the interest around the world in smart cities, I had naively supposed that there was a ready definition of what a smart city actually is, that I could at least use, for example, to differentiate one from a “normal”, or even “stupid”, city. Certainly, as someone who lectures at Stanford University on the subject of smart cities, I thought that it was incumbent upon me to offer a definition to my students.

On one level this is straightforward. Smart cities are a leading manifestation of the internet of things (IOT): they involve the use of sensors – either standalone or added to physical devices – to generate data that can be communicated, integrated and analyzed to enable some aspect of city life to function better in some way.   Data flows may be used singly or in combination with other flows, or in combination with historical (ie accumulated) data from the past. At this level, IBM (my employer) has a snappy definition of “smart” – “Instrumented, Interconnected, Intelligent”. The Smart Cities Council is in much the same place, with its “collecting, communicating and ‘crunching’” [of information].

So far so good. But then it gets harder.

The first issue is actually a very old one – when it comes to it, what actually is a city? Webster, Wikipedia and the other reference sources that one might consult all define a city in terms of its size and significance (for example: “a place where people live that is larger or more important than a town…”). Yet in the UK, a city historically was defined by the presence of a cathedral: while some of these places are very large, the city of St Davids, in Wales, has a population of just 1,600 people, who are significantly outnumbered by the sheep in the area. Meanwhile Reading, England is “just” a town, but with a population of nearly 233,000. Here in the US, Kettleman City, CA had a population of just 1,439 in 2010; clearly it will never rank in size or importance with, say, Los Angeles, population 3.9 million.

So if size and importance don’t offer a fully viable definition of “city”, what about role? Perhaps cities might be defined as social, economic, religious or cultural centers? The problem here is identifying which. St Davids, with its cathedral, is undoubtedly a religious center, but with its tiny population, not really an economic or social one.  Yet the mere town of Reading has a university, several top-flight sports teams and a strong economy adding value to a significant stretch of SE England; it is clearly a center of several things, and of some significance. Likewise in the US: as a truckstop, Kettleman City has a minor economic significance, but not much else; and certainly neither it nor LA really pass muster as a religious center! To some extent, St Davids aside, being a “center” for something is a function of size, but assuming a city passes that test (if we could define it), which of the many things that it could be a center for actually have to apply? Smart prayers, anyone?

It’s also hard to identify the geographical scope of a city, and thus where it should seek to apply the IOT. One can identify the urban area that makes it up easily enough, and one would presumably include the services provided within its boundary as candidates to become “smart”. But what about the things it requires from outside that boundary, such as its commuter workforce, food supply, water supply or ecosystem service such as forested areas that might prevent flash flooding? Presumably, no one is arguing that these areas be exempted from the IOT just because they are outside the city’s territorial boundary.

But even if there was a consistent definition of a city, why would the applicability of the IOT be linked to cities alone? If habitation ranges along a continuum from “city” to something like “village” or “hamlet”, there is plenty of work to show how the IOT can bring benefit to the latter; and that these benefits are often from the same systems, such as water, energy, crime and so on, that are contained within most definitions of smarter cities. In addition, as I recently heard my Stanford colleague Terry Beaubois point out on a panel discussion, at a time when urbanization is increasing dramatically, there are states now, Andra Pradesh in India being one, that are explicitly attempting to use IOT technologies to improve economic and living conditions in villages such that people stay there, rather than move to cities. In other words, the issue is not city or village, but the overall settlement pattern, and that is what may need to be managed, in a “smart” way using the IOT.

This leads me to suggest that we should use a more neutral term such as “community” in preference to city. Communities can be large or small, and they may or may not be a center of some noteworthy aspect of human activity; they may be separated from other communities or they may be aggregated into a conurbation of some kind. But any community of any size or significance can be “smart”. Communities should also define the services of interest to them, within their territorial boundary or outside it, as required.

But if smart communities are those of making some noteworthy use of the IOT, one issue remains – for what purpose? Smart cities have variously been linked with efficiency; sustainability (similar, but not identical to efficiency); responsiveness; livability; urban planning or technology showcases; participation; resilience; and other qualities. These ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but by no means are they synonymous. Efficiency may be at odds with livability; sustainability and resilience may or may not align; showcases may or may not be responsive; and so on. In other words, there are choices to be made about the applications to which the IOT is put, and about the dimensions of smart which the community pursues.

Perhaps the one constant factor that needs to be kept in mind as these choices are made is that technology will be alienating without participation, as critics of the smart cities idea have made clear. “Top down” technology does not make for compelling places to live, and will, I suspect, ultimately fail. I will therefore assert that the definition of smart cities absolutely needs to include the participatory element. How that is achieved will vary according to the political norms and customs of each country – but participation does need to be present.

With all these cross-currents clouding the outwardly simple concept of smart cities, I will close with my own proposed definition:

“A smart community may be one of any size or significance, geographically separate or part of some larger urban unit, that employs the IOT to:

  • improve aspects of its operations or other factors within or outside its boundaries that are important to its economic vitality, safety, environmental footprint, quality of life or other factors deemed significant;
  • respond to the community’s changing needs rapidly and efficiently;
  • engage the community and enable informed understanding of, and where applicable consent to, what it is doing;
  • collaborate with other communities as needed or desired.”

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