What is a smart city? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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What is a smart city?

Research Assistant Sawyer Middeleer explores smart infrastructure—the role of big data and networked connectivity for mobility, climate resilience, citizen engagement and service delivery in Chicago.

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In 1890, Chicago was a crucible of innovation. Cutting-edge theories in public health and urban planning promoted the use of high-tech tools like chemical water purification and combined sewers to reduce mortality rates and broadly improve quality of life. Expanding electric grids powered street car lines that allowed residents to commute longer distances to work and kicked off a century of suburban sprawl. This infrastructure, out of sight and mind for most residents, was in fact the foundation upon which the modern city was built.

A smart city integrates information, communication, and Internet of Things (IoT) technology with big data analytics to better manage city assets.

Now, over a century later, we are once again at an inflection point: a new generation of technology is poised to transform our urban landscape into smart cities.

So what is a smart city? Put simply, a smart city integrates information, communication, and Internet of Things (IoT) technology with big data analytics to better manage city assets. IoT devices are the sensors, screens, meters and cameras that interact with the environment to gather data on what’s happening around the city. If successfully implemented, these technologies promise to improve the quality of government services, facilitate better decision-making and reduce costs.

In March, I attended the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in Kansas City, MO, a gathering of CIOs, software developers, and IT experts, discussing everything from autonomous maintenance drones to municipal data security. Here’s a taste of the many smart cities projects I heard about that are going on around the country:

  • CHICAGO | Array of Things, a network of hundreds of IoT sensors on light poles, will monitor temperature, air quality and more, like a “fitness tracker for the city
  • NEW YORK CITY | Link NYC kiosks provide Wi-Fi, wayfinding information, emergency alerts and news headlines to pedestrians
  • SAN DIEGO | The City of San Diego is installing cameras beefed-up with cutting-edge computing capability to support their Vision Zero initiative by identifying high-risk intersections before crashes happen
  • KANSAS CITY | Kansas City’s smart LED street lighting system can measure and report energy consumption to reduce costs and support sustainability goals
  • ANN ARBOR | Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a stormwater control system that can monitor and communicate performance in real time
  • SAN FRANCISCO | Mayor Mark Farrell is championing a multi-billion dollar initiative to provide universal high-speed broadband

This list doesn’t even cover many of the ambitious technologies highlighted at the conference that are still in the early stages of development: a data marketplace for cities to buy and sell data gathered by IoT devices, integrated “Mobility as a Service” platforms for efficient multi-modal end-to-end trip planning, and cryptocurrencies that could transform public accounting, infrastructure financing and community wealth building. As strange and disruptive as these ideas might seem, they might all be commonplace in seven to ten years.

Despite the optimism about how new technology will revolutionize cities, there are many challenges ahead. Throughout the week, conference speakers raised many important questions that policymakers and practitioners ought to consider. What role will communities play in shaping regional smart city development? How can we ensure that automated decision-making processes are equitable? What kinds of new partnerships are needed to address complex financing and deployment issues? Without near-term answers to these questions, we risk perpetuating the shortcomings of many of today’s cities.

With so much at stake for smart cities in the coming decade, it is vital that all stakeholders are involved in discussions around strategic planning and implementation. Many projects will be regional in scale and impossible to achieve without multi-jurisdictional and multi-sectoral collaboration. In my next post, I’ll explain how partnerships can be the pathway to achieving equitable and sustainable outcomes.

Sawyer Middeleer is a research assistant at Metropolitan Planning Council and a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

Learn more about smart infrastructure:

Karl Turkel

"How is smart city technology implemented and scaled?" by Sawyer Middeleer

"Why should we act now toward incorporating and managing Smart City technology?" by Sawyer Middeleer


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