Smart cities

By Matt Burdett, 17 March 2019.

On this page, we look at smart city design and the use of new technology to run city services and systems, including purpose-built settlements and retrofitting technology to older settlements.

  • Exposed wires in a stairwell of Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. Even in the most developed cities, the transition to become a ‘smart’ city can take some time! Source: By the author.

What is ‘smart city’ design?

A smart city is one that uses technology to increase the efficiency of its urban systems. There have been multiple attempts to define exactly what this means, with some sources suggesting six key features (eg. energy, transport, connectivity, data harvesting, open data and transport) but there is no agreed definition of exactly what counts as part of this technology. The six features vary significantly depending on the source, and other sources suggest five, or four, or more key features. What they all have in common is that they aim to make the city work better for the people who live in it, and for the environment. Examples of smart city features might include:

  • Rubbish bins are automatically emptied when full
  • Traffic lights change to respond to traffic congestion and reduce traffic jams
  • Sensors in parking spaces can help reduce the need for people to drive around looking for a space
  • Air quality sensors can help to identify recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Free phone-charging points and wifi hotspots
  • Better use of street furniture, for exampling making park benches solar powered so people can charge phones or the bench could counts how many people walk by and help to design better parks

Using smart technologies has the potential to deliver enormous benefits. Juniper Research (2018) studied smart cities around the world to forecast the potential benefits if all cities were to fully adopt smart technologies, and found that each citizen would save up to 15 days per year.

  • Smart cities could save time which could be better used for other things. Source: Juniper Research, 2018, p3.

Using technology to run city services and systems

The use of technology to run city services and systems is not new. All cities use technology to manage energy, water, transport and other systems. The difference with smart cities is that the technology will involve automatic responses by technological systems to the inputs they receive – such as changing the traffic lights to reflect the extra traffic moving in different directions.

The graphic below identifies the range of city systems that could use smart technologies. Social media will be vital for the social aspects that currently involve people. Some governments have already created systems by which citizens can report problems – for example, using QR codes on street light poles that people can scan to report a fault with the light.

  • The future of cities will involve authorities, citizens and technological systems interacting in order to provide better services. Source: IBM, n.d.

Smart cities: purpose-built settlements

Smart cities are being planned around the world. Those that are built ‘brand new’ rather than adapting existing cities to the smart technology are called ‘greenfield smart cities’ or ‘purpose-built smart cities’. Several have begun operating, but financial problems have prevented many smart cities from meeting their original completion dates. Examples of new smart cities include:

  • Belmont, USA (being planned at the time of writing)
  • Songdo, South Korea
  • Toronto, Canada – the quayside area
  • Masdar City, United Arab Emirates
  • Dholera SIR (Special Investment Region), India
  • PlanIT Valley, Portugal (never built)
  • Konza Techno City, Kenya (begun 2018)

The advantages of building a smart city from the ground up are that there is no old infrastructure that need to be adapted, the new infrastructure can be built early on rather than digging up roads, and there is no local opposition because no-one already lives there. (Some people are unhappy about smart cities disrupting their way of life – see ‘Smart cities: the downside’ later on this page.)

Belmont, Arizona, USA: a planned smart city

The town of Belmont in the USA is a proposed smart city. The plans include (Weller, 2017):

  • 25,000 acres of land
  • $80 million investment
  • 80,000 homes planned
  • Potential population of 182,000

The town will take advantage of the sunny desert environment to produce solar power. However, the town has not yet begun being built, and there are serious concerns about water availability. This is typical of new towns, regardless of their smart status: there is often a reason there wasn’t a town there before, and new towns often fail to attract people in the longer term.

Smart cities: retrofitting technology to older settlements

As a result of the failures of new towns, many industry experts see the future of smart cities in existing urban centres. These cities will need to retrofit the smart technology into the infrastructure they already have. The downside is that this is very expensive, and can disrupt networks while the changes are made, especially by closing roads to bury the cables required.

New York City, USA: an existing city with smart potential

In 2015, the mayor of New York City announced a plan for the future of New York as a sustainable and resilient city, called ‘One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City’. The plan included significant elements of smart city ideas (, 2015).

Juniper Research (2018) conducted research on smart cities around the world. They found New York City to be consistently performing well in using smart solutions to improve their citizens’ lives in four areas: mobility (transport), health, safety (crime) and productivity (economy including reducing inequality).

They found New York City had achieved this by being an early adopter of smart technology. In 1994 the city began using a computer programme called CompStat to log crime incidents, which allowed them to predict where and when crime would occur, resulting in a drop in crime. Other smart developments include (iCorps, 2018):

  • A programme to retrofit 650 government buildings with LED lights
  • Automated ‘smart’ meter readings for energy and water, allowing people to better monitor their resource consumption
  • Identifying users who would switch from oil to gas heating, reducing sulphur dioxide emissions by 70% between 2008 and 2017
  • Solar powered ‘BigBelly’ trash cans (see image below) which include compacting technology so they hold more waste, and sensors to automatically request emptying when they are nearly full

  • New York’s ‘BigBelly’ automated trash cans. Source: González, 2018.

Smart cities: the downside?

High economic cost

The cost of funding smart city projects can be very high. Some estimates have put the cost of upgrading cities to become smart cities at over $41 trillion (over 20 years), with individual projects costing millions such as the introduction of smart energy meters to Entergy customers in the US costing over $70 million (Williams, 2018). Smart cities are possibly too expensive for middle and low income cities that are already struggling with service provision.

The cost of building a smart city is therefore so high that most governments are unable or unwilling to pay for the entire project. This results in some private funding being used. Even when the initial funding is from the public sector, the running costs are often borne by the private sector through advertising. If the private sector is not strong enough, such as in many low and middle income countries, the smart city project may not be practical.

Energy use

Smart cities require internet infrastructure that uses energy. A 2017 Greenpeace report suggested that the internet uses about 7% of the global energy supply, with much of it coming from non-renewable energy sources. As the graphic below shows, the energy used in networks is increasing and the report suggests that this could lead to a growth in the use of fossil fuels for energy production as some estimates put the 2030 consumption of energy from the IT sector at 13% of global electricity.

  • Main components of electricity consumption for the global IT sector. Source: Cook et al, 2017.

However, the way that the IT is used could mean an overall reduction in emissions. This is because the IT would prevent traffic congestion, energy use in lighting and heating, and other wasted forms of energy use. Therefore an expansion of the IT industry could actually be a key part of helping to reduce emissions.

A threat to cultural diversity?

Another criticism of the smart revolution is that is encouraging globalization and reducing the traditional practices of cultures around the world. As smaller urban areas have their communications infrastructure updated, especially those who were previously poorly connected by transport or telecommunications, the pace of life changes and some residents may prefer to return to the pre-smart days.


Cook et al., 2017. Clicking Clean: Who Is Winning The Race To Build A Green Internet? Accessed 17 March 2019.

IBM, n.d. Analyzing the future of cities. Accessed 17 March 2019.

iCorps, 2018. New York’s Smart City Transformation. Accessed 17 March 2019.

Gonzalez, 2018. BigBelly trash can in DeVoe Park, University Heights, Fordham, The Bronx, New York City, New York. Accessed 17 March 2019.

Juniper Research, 2018. Smart Cities – What’s In It For Citizens? Accessed 17 March 2019., 2015. BUILDING A SMART + EQUITABLE CITY Accessed 17 March 2019.

Skowron and Flynn, 2018. The challenge of paying

for smart cities projects. Accessed 18 March 2019.

Weller, 2017. Bill Gates is building a smart city in Arizona. Accessed 17 March 2019.

Williams, 2018. New Orleans Wants to Be a Smart City, But at What Cost? Accessed 18 March 2019.

Smart cities: Learning activities


  1. Identify features of smart cities. [2]
  2. Suggest examples of services that might benefit from smart city design. [3]
  3. Explain two benefits of building smart cities on greenfield sites. [4]
  4. Suggest why few greenfield smart cities have yet been built successfully. [2]
  5. Explain two benefits of retrofitting existing cities with smart technology. [4]
  6. Describe the features of New York that make it a smart city. [4]
  7. Suggest why smart cities may not always be the best solution for urban problems. [3]

Other tasks

Is your city a smart city? Find out what IT services your city offers online. Include private services such as food delivery apps and online ordering.

© Matthew Burdett, 2019. All rights reserved.

All secondary material on this site is clearly referenced and may be subject to copyright restrictions by the original authors. All original material on this page is subject to copyright.