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What makes a city ‘smart’?

A look at other cities across Canada and around the world that are implementing tech innovations.

In an increasingly digital world, things seem to be getting “smarter” — like our phones, our cars and our homes.  But what exactly is a “smart city”?

The term “smart city” refers to civic infrastructure and urban development that utilizes information and communication — as well as Internet of Things (IoT) technologies — to manage city assets.

The goal of smart city technology is to reduce inefficiency and improve public services. This could range from energy reduction, better allocation of resources and improved transportation systems to municipal bike sharing programs, open-sourced data gathering and publicly accessible Wi-Fi.

These days, many cities are indeed getting a lot smarter.

Why is the ‘smart’ term so popular right now?

Though the idea of utilizing technology to build a smarter city is nothing new, the trend is in full swing for a number of practical reasons.

The rapid increase in global urbanization has occurred at a rate that is often impossible for legacy infrastructure to support. Rather than building new infrastructure, cities are able to increase capacity by better utilizing existing infrastructure through the use of smart city technology.

Furthermore, with the cost of sensors, computer chips, solar panels and other components declining rapidly, smart city innovations are more affordable and readily available than ever.

Another key innovation enabling the growth of smart city technology is the digitization of data, which can help municipalities better allocate resources and inform urban planning decisions. Smart city initiatives are also often seen as a win-win for the politicians responsible for implementing them, as they can improve civic life while potentially saving tax dollars.

As a result, municipalities of all shapes and sizes are rushing to establish partnerships with technology leaders, research institutions and innovation hubs to explore the smart city opportunities that best suit their populations’ needs. For example, the Alberta Smart City Alliance has brought together IBM Canada, Cisco Canada, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, the University of Alberta and the Cities of Edmonton, Calgary and St. Albert to collaborate on issues facing Alberta’s municipalities.

What are some examples of smart city technologies?

Smart city technologies range widely, from irrigation systems that keep sprinklers off when it’s raining, to applications that direct traffic to open parking spaces, to improved mapping of garbage truck routes.

The City of New Orleans, for example, used big data analytics to investigate which of its residents were most at risk of suffering a house fire, and distributed smoke alarms accordingly. The City of Toronto’s Cycling App, which encourages riders to map their routes, is helping to inform the development of the community’s cycling network.

Where are the world’s ‘smartest’ cities?

While many major cities are actively pursuing smart city technology, much of the initial experimentation is taking place in newer, mid-sized cities. That’s because legacy infrastructure in older and bigger cities like New York, Beijing, Paris, Rome and even Montreal is typically difficult and costly to replace. Mid-sized cities with relatively newer infrastructure like Barcelona, Tel Aviv and San Diego have instead emerged as leaders in smart city implementation.

Tel Aviv tops the charts because of a number of inherent advantages, and the tendency of its 1,450 startups to favour rugged and durable technologies over sleek and fragile. The city has wired 80 public locations with free Wi-Fi and is considered a world leader in irrigation, security and mobile technologies.

San Diego recently deployed the world’s largest smart city platform in partnership with GE. The project includes the installation of 3,200 intelligent sensors around the city, as well as the replacement of a quarter of the city’s outdoor lighting with 14,000 LED fixtures, which is expected to reduce energy costs by $2.4 million annually.

Aside from being the home of the Smart City Expo World Congress, Barcelona has proven itself one of the world’s smartest cities by installing 670 Wi-Fi hotspots, 19,500 smart meters that optimize energy consumption, smart bins that monitor waste levels to optimize collection routes and digital bus stops that update passengers on wait times, among other innovations.

What does this mean for local businesses?

The implementation of smart city technology can be a source of opportunity for local businesses. For example, digital information that is being collected and made publicly available by fellow Canadian cities like Toronto can help local businesses identify opportunities and collect valuable insights. Even though the city’s new data sharing initiative for bikers was originally intended to inform city planning, the publicly available data could be of value to businesses looking to provide products and services to the city’s cyclists.

Additional digital signage and free Wi-Fi can also present unique, location-based opportunities to engage with locals and travellers alike. Barcelona’s digital bus stops, in this sense, can also provide an interactive experience that helps riders learn more about the local area and nearby businesses as they wait.

These are only the early days, however, and many of the business opportunities that smart city technologies will present remain to be seen.


Up Next: How is Winnipeg looking at new technologies to improve infrastructure?

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Jared Lindzon

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, covering a variety of topics, including technology, careers, entrepreneurship, politics and music. His work regularly appears in major publications in Canada, the United States and around the world, including the Globe and Mail, Fast Company, Fortune Magazine, Rolling Stone, Politico, the Guardian and more.

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