What is a Smart City? | Blog | Intermind

Blog //

What is a Smart City?

One of the most confusing terms for the common man in modern times is the prefix "Smart". Smartphones, smart refrigerators, smart cars, smart buildings, smart cities… as the target object gets larger in size, bigger is the confusion. I have heard the term "smart planet" (coined by IBM) and with the visual confirmation of the M87 black hole, a fast expanding "smart universe" is not far away. Scaling down a bit, I'll concentrate on what a smart city is. I have been asked this question by bureaucrats in closed door meetings & even technocrats in one to one discussions, so there is no shame in not knowing what it is.

In a radio survey in the city of Mumbai, random people were asked this question. The answers ranged from obscure to outright hilarious. Here are a few

  • A smart city is one with a lot of flyovers / overpasses (I'll come to this later)
  • It has free wi-fi everywhere (please take me there)
  • A smart city is where everyone looks smart (my city will never become one with me in it)

Bureaucrats think a smart city is one with good infrastructure and e-governance. For technocrats, a smart city is one that solves their car parking problems. They command their car to take them to a meeting. The car talks to the business centre car park or an intermediary like ParkJockey, makes the payment by applying the best offer available and reserves the parking. If parking is not available, it looks up for the closest parking spot.

A smart city is much more than state of the art infrastructure or car parking convenience. Here is how I define one based on my experiences in cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai and the emerging technologies we at Intermind are dealing with.

"A smart city acts on available data from sensors, applications, people and other smart cities to optimize resources and provide a better quality of life."

Defining a smart city is akin to striking a moving goalpost. Technology changes so fast that each use case is in a state of flux. Take the favorite example of technocrats again. Their smart city car parking application changes shape the moment they take their eyes off the road ahead. Two technologies are transforming the field, the first one now tired and tested, the ride hailing app. There goes parking woes out of the window. Still hanging on to your own car? Well, autonomous cars will end your parking problems. They don't need to park in the same building you are in, especially if parking charges are astronomical there. You can inform your car once your meeting is over and it will seek you out.

  • ConnectivityThe first requirement of a smart city is connectivity. By connectivity, I do not mean physical connectivity (roads & transportation) but data connectivity. Again, data connectivity does not mean Internet or (just) WiFi. If you have worked in an office setup, you either plug in your laptop to a LAN or use the office WiFi. You re basically connecting to a network and not necessarily to the Internet. A network is the first step to a smart city. Technically, this network is called a Low Power Metropolitan Area Network (LPMAN), combining a mesh of wired connectivity including Fibre Optics, Copper Cables & wireless connectivity including NFC, Bluetooth, BLE, WiFi, Zigbee, LoRaWAN, LTE & IQRF. The major chunk of data transfer is information gathered by sensors that can measure temperature, pressure, proximity, volume, chemicals, etc. In terms of smart citizens, it is video today, but will soon be overtaken by XR (Augmented Reality & Virtual Reality).
  • Digital literacy23% of the global population is digitally illiterate (Source: https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2018161), which means they don't know how to operate a smart device, which is currently mostly the smartphone. 55% of all content on the Internet is in English, which means English illiterate people find it difficult to access information. Thankfully, both these issues can be solved "remotely"; without having to teach people on how to operate a particular user interface or the English language. Virtual Assistants built into Smart Speakers, Smartphones & Smart TVs do not have an interface. They are also learning local languages fast, so that everyone does not have to learn English.
  • Smart GovernanceThere have been experiments all over the world, where certain cities were allowed to be run by a private company. All of them have ended in disasters (Ref: https://thenextweb.com/syndication/2019/04/28/heres-why-privately-owned-cities-are-a-terrible-idea/ ). A smart city cannot escape this fate. An Internet of Things (IoT) company like Intermind can only act as a technology partner, while the Government takes the lead. The Government has to walk the talk and provide all its services digitally. After complete e-Governance is achieved, and processes have matured from information to transaction, feedback to real time interaction and single window services to self help, it's time for the Government to go smart. A smart government takes timely decisions based on data and can provide its citizens with real time feedback. It can achieve miracles like preventing an epidemic outbreak or thwarting a terrorist attack with a little help from emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence & Blockchain.
  • TransportationThe darling use case for a Smart City, transportation hogs the limelight when deciding the smartest cities of the world. The IESE Cities in Motion Index (CIMI) uses 9 dimensions including human capital, social cohesion, economy, environment, governance, urban planning, international outreach, and technology, apart from transportation. Let's face it, measuring the other 8 dimensions is not straightforward. For example, one of the factors to measure technology dominance in the study is the number of Apple Stores (Ref: https://media.iese.edu/research/pdfs/ST-0471-E.pdf). Being an Android evangelist, I would disagree. Measuring transportation is in black and white though. Time taken to travel a km/mile, availability of Metro/Tube/Suburban, ride hailing cabs, buses, gas stations, bike sharing, ferry, etc. A city either has them or doesn't. For cities that all of these, you measure smartness. Does availability increase with demand? Can you make seamless payments across different public transport networks?

    The first answer to the question "What is a Smart City?" envisages a lot of flyovers/ overpasses. Did the overpass decrease the time taken to travel from A to B? I have experienced dynamic road toll in both London & Singapore. The system is smart & really works in decongesting roads.

    Will a smart city improve the economy? We have not been able to pinpoint the attribution yet. However the aim is not to save on city development budgets or increase the city tax base. Like all daily use technologies, convenience is the primary objective.