What is a smart city?
Of course, “a smart city” is not something that literally exists. A city cannot really be smart in the way that a person or an animal is. The smart city concept was invented by politicians and companies to describe the application of technology to build, design and optimize the city to make it as pleasant as possible for residents and visitors.
The attention currently being devoted to smart cities is a result of the rapid progress made in the domain of digital technology, as well as the fact that more and more people are moving to cities. Half of the world's population are already city dwellers and studies predict that this figure will increase to three quarters by 2050.
Building a smart city is an extremely difficult puzzle. Think of the delicate balancing act that many cities must perform: attracting tourism while keeping their own populations happy. What a smart city means for its residents and visitors is therefore very much related to the unique plans and ambitions of the city council. Does it want to be the most bicycle-friendly city, the most environmentally friendly city, the one with the highest life expectancy for its residents, the one with the most vibrant downtown area… In other words, making the right choices in a smart city all starts with the goals that those involved in the city want to achieve. And that puzzle is never finished. Success in becoming a smart city is not something that can be measured on a scale of one to ten. A smart city is an ambition and a continuous evolution and not a measurable state in absolute terms.
How do you build a smart city?
Roughly speaking, there are two ways to build a smart city. The first is to start from scratch and establish a whole new city or district. A well-known example is Songdo International Business District, built from the ground up and officially opened in 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. The advantage of building a (smart) city from scratch is complete freedom of design. A major disadvantage is that lots of space, time and money are needed. And even then, there is no guarantee of success. Reactions from residents and visitors of Songdo show that they often do not find the city very pleasant, and that the city lacks a 'soul'. It’s unfortunate, as offering a pleasant, welcoming place to live and work were some of the goals of the smart city in the first place.
The second, and by far the most common approach – which, by the way, draws a lot of lessons from the first – is to make existing cities 'smarter'. For example, since 2016, imec has coordinated the City of Things program, which, together with a variety of partners, investigates and tests how technology can play a positive role in smart cities in Flanders and far beyond.
As with the first approach, there are a number of pros and cons here as well. Perhaps the biggest advantage is the existing inhabitants and users of the city. Whereas people are not there at the start in smart cities that are built from scratch, in an existing city, residents ensure that their hearts and souls are involved in making that city what it is: a place that is of them, for them, and also by them.
However, in an existing city, there is often less freedom to just build or try out new concepts. At imec, we circumvent that by creating digital twins: exact virtual copies of cities. Since 2018, imec has been working with multiple partners to build such a virtual twin of the city of Antwerp. Not only is that very exciting to watch, but it also offers the opportunity to predict the impact of potential plans before changing anything in the real city. With a virtual twin like this, it is possible to combine real data (concerning what is happening at that moment and what happened in the past) with imaginary interventions. What happens if you close streets or introduce one-way traffic? Such questions are not unrealistic (think of major events, exceptional pandemics…). Thanks to a digital twin, it’s possible to gain clear insights into the resulting impacts. It’s also possible to backtrack less successful interventions with the push of a button, and building a virtual city is still faster and cheaper than building a completely new one in real life.
But whichever approach you choose, virtual twin or not, the art of building a smart city lies in always keeping the ultimate goal in mind: improving quality of life. And that is why two things are very important: knowing what needs and challenges there are and, at the same time, knowing which technology you will need to make available in order to offer a solution. Both sides (the technological offer and the questions/needs) evolve partly independently of each other and it is not always clear in advance where they will intersect. Think of fast cable connections, smart traffic lights, all kinds of camera systems and sensors, 5G and so on. These are all cutting-edge technologies that can be used for multiple purposes, and that can both help solve existing problems and be used for applications that we have not yet emerged. This requires a continuous and sustainable interaction between technology and society. That is why, in many smart city projects, there is active involvement of all stakeholders: researchers, government, business, citizens… At City of Things, we do this, for example, in the “hackable city” initiative, in which citizens actively participate in order to map out their wishes and problems and also to devise and build solutions for them.
How can technology help make a city smart?
Here are a few concrete examples of solutions that are already in place and of applications that could potentially exist (and that are technically perfectly feasible, in any case):
Mobility: in a city, you want to get from A to B quickly. The rise of shared bicycles, scooters and other means of transport can be regarded as smart city features. Cities in which citizens can view exactly where the tram or bus is located on their smartphones or via the screens at the stops. Think of apps and solutions for parking bicycles or cars, mobile audible tickers for traffic lights for the blind and visually impaired, and so on. Or, think of the many parcel deliverers in action. In a smart city, their rounds are calculated in such a way that they cause as little traffic disruption as possible, and there may be pick-up units so that they don't have to stop at every house, but only once per street.
Less visible are systems that regulate traffic lights at intersections so that traffic can move through the city as smoothly as possible. Do you always get a green light just when you come to a traffic light? Maybe it's your lucky day, but chances are that a smart system had already seen you coming.
Security: Physical safety (for example, a low chance of being mugged or involved in an accident) is probably the first thing that comes to mind, and a smart city can play a role here. Solutions for mobility and safe traffic are an example of this, but also, for example, streetlamps that come on when people pass, and cameras that can scare off people with bad intentions.
But security is about much more than that. What effect does illegal dumping have on a citizen’s sense of security? In any case, studies show that it is the number two most common annoyance. What about digital security (data, privacy…), and security in the broader definition of 'security' (do I feel 'at home' and 'welcome', 'do I belong')?
In other words, the challenges are complex, and the solution is not always simple. Do people really feel safer in a city with more cameras? Should the streetlights be on where people are walking, or in the place they are heading towards? This is a first example of how technology can never stand alone, but must take all the effects it entails into account.
Urban planning: a smart city starts with a smart design. During the corona crisis, it quickly became clear that cities had to redesign their streets and squares to face this new reality (with fewer cars, pedestrians who have to keep their distance, etc.). A less visible element of smart cities to citizens is the technology that helps governments and city architects to design the spaces and traffic flows of those who move within them in such a way that it automatically solves a number of problems or challenges.
Crisis management: if something unexpected and undesirable occurs (an accident, fire, flood, etc.), you naturally want it resolved as quickly as possible. In a smart city, technology helps to organize and execute such interventions faster and better. Think of a system that can predict flooding based on expected rainfall and current water levels in sewers and waterways. This allows the fire department to more quickly and effectively reach the places that are hit the hardest (instead of the places from which people call first or most frequently). Or, consider drones that can arrive on site faster than emergency services and can already transmit images.
Health: quality of life and health naturally go hand in hand. A smart city is therefore a city that safeguards the health of its residents and visitors, with air quality as one of the obvious factors. Technology helps to map this and adjust traffic flows so that their effect remains as low as possible. But health is, of course, much more than that and includes things like mental health, fighting loneliness, promoting physical exercise and so on. For example, in its “Hello Jenny” project in Ghent, imec built a smart speaker to combat loneliness among senior citizens.
Economy: there can be no city without an economy. Admit it: don't we all feel a little happier when we can buy or sell something? Simple technologies in this area are the websites and city apps that offer an overview of all merchants, places of interest, events and so on. But this is again a far more complex story. All other aspects such as accessibility, urban planning, safety, air quality, and more have an important influence on the economy in the city. Economics also concerns poverty and the homeless, about waste flows, water management and food waste, etc. In short: here again, there are plenty of opportunities to enlist the help of technology.
It is probably becoming clear by now that the definition of a smart city cannot be captured in a single sentence, nor can it be 'built in a day'. It’s also clear that we are, in fact, already anticipating the moment when the word 'smart' can disappear from this definition and much of what we have described in this article will be completely normal. Until then, we invite you to delve deeper into it, to make your voice heard and, above all, to help build it.
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