Survey Says: General Population Lacks Awareness on Smart Cities

By Roberta Gamble

Roberta Gamble directs the Energy & Environment team for Frost & Sullivan in North America. She works closely with major energy-related companies to guide the direction of the group. She also manages consulting projects and customized client research. Previous experience includes management of the financial and business aspects of gas turbine power plant commissioning and construction.

Sep 23, 2014 | Urban Sustainability | 0 comments

According to a report released this summer by the United Nations, over half of the world’s population lives in cities, a figure expected to increase to two-thirds by 2050. Considering less than 30 percent of the population lived in cities a mere 60 years ago, this growth – not just in proportion but in sheer numbers– is an unprecedented change in how humanity lives. Few of these cities are expected to embody anything remotely resembling a utopic vision of civilization: by and large, city systems will be heavily taxed by the accelerated increase in residents, traffic, and businesses, leading to cramped and polluted conditions in much of the world.

Cities must adapt and evolve, and quickly, if they are to accommodate this growth and continue to be then engines of their countries’ economies. Smart cities and sustainable cities are terms that have been bandied about considerably in recent years as a way to help cities do more with less. This has certainly not been lost on the cities themselves. A quick Google search of “smart city” with a given country or state will more often than not result in significant information about city plans and efforts, pilot programs, and vendors to cities all eager to communicate their activities and value propositions in the space.

But how much does this resonate with the key element of a city: its people? How aware is the general population of the term “smart city?” How aware are residents of city efforts to create a more peaceful, healthy, productive and well-running metropolitan?

We ran a survey this summer of 1000 consumers in the US about this question to help shed light on a few hypotheses, namely:

  • Have people even heard of the term “smart city”?
  • How would they define such a term, and what would they consider key for identifying a smart city?
  • Had any US cities actually seemed “smart” enough to warrant this title?


While the full study results and analysis will be out later this year, here were a few snapshots from the research:

Think no one has heard of the term “smart city?” You’re mostly right…

Well, less than half – 39 percent in fact – of people knew or had heard of the term “smart city”. Of those that said they were familiar with the term, they skewed towards respondents that were urban or suburban (vs. rural), had at least an undergraduate college, and/or earned $100,000 per year or more. While the level of awareness ramped up rather healthily from technical school to undergraduate degree and then graduate degree, and with income levels from $40,000 per year to $100,000 then $200,000+ per year, what was truly evident was the extreme lack of awareness of smart cities with less-educated and lower income residents. For example, only 16 percent of people who made less than $40,000 per year ever heard of the term, as compared to 45 percent of those in the highest bracket, and 32 percent as the average across all respondents. A fourth of high-school only graduates had heard of the term versus 39 and 44 percent of those with graduate and post-graduate degrees, respectively. The average again was 32 percent across all respondents. No respondent with less than a high school degree had heard of the term “smart city.”

This lack of awareness is probably not surprising. But if cities are looking to use smarter systems to improve living conditions, as well as to increase voter turn-out and civic activity, they may want to consider focusing efforts on smart city education to these less informed demographics.

Most Important Features of Smart Cities are Interactive Features Like Wi-Fi, 4G, And City Services Apps

Perhaps that is not everyone’s assumption, but it was mine going into the survey. I find little to be more aggravating that visiting a city where I need to navigate its public transportation system, and not having a one-stop assessment of traffic/parking/waking times/bus schedules on my iPhone’s Apple Maps, instead it directs me to lists of local public transportation apps that I need to research and download.

I also wouldn’t mind a way to stay on a city-wide Wi-Fi from home to the car or train, to work, out to lunch, over to a client’s, and out to dinner in the evening (we’ve all checked work email between courses, admit it…) without having to bother every time with new passwords or log in or – the horror! – private networks.

However, while important, apps, Wi-Fi, and 4G were not clear winners in our survey – special city apps didn’t even make the top five. While certainly it’s critical, and two of the top five qualities of a smart city were Wi-Fi and 4G (number two and five, respectively), the top factor was energy efficient buildings. Rounding out the five were smart/automated buildings at number three and different infrastructure systems that could “speak” to each other at number four.

The actual ranking of these five areas is probably not hugely significant, as the percentage differences among them were slight. However, it is interesting to note that a city might not have to emphasize how connected it is to show that it is “smart.” Even the arguably more mundane, and possibly better ROI-based, options such as building efficiency and automation improvements may resonate with the generation population as a positive step towards a better city.

So are there any actual Smart Cities in the US?

Yes, somewhat, barely…

Out of the 15 largest cities in the US, California did well in this category, with, in no particular order, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco being three of the top five. The other two were New York and, perhaps a little surprisingly, Columbus.

But even the smartest of them all had only 46 percent of the respondents “strongly agreeing” with the statement that it was a smart city, meaning even what might be the smartest city in the US is not considered to be this by well over half of the population.

How smart these cities really may be is harder to determine, but this gives an indication any city putting funds and efforts into smart city improvements, may want to work on publicizing it better.

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