After ten years of investment in smart city programs, there is no global consensus on what defines a smart city, or what a successful smart city would look like.

The 2014 European Union report Mapping Smart Cities in the EU offers the most complete analysis.

Defining The Smart City

After reviewing nine distinct definitions from cities, academic institutions, researchers and over government organisations, the authors of the EU study recommended a working definition of a smart city as, “A city seeking to address public issues via ICT-based solutions on the basis of multi-stakeholder, municipally based partnership.”  

“A smart city is a city seeking to address public issues via ICT-based solutions on the basis of multi-stakeholder, municipally based partnership.”  

The same report offered a second definition of the characteristics of a smart city, that “a smart city is quintessentially enabled by the use of technologies (especially ICT) to improve competitiveness indenture a more sustainable future by symbiotic linkage of networks of people, businesses, technologies, infrastructures, consumption, energy and spaces.”

The European Union also identified six axes or dimensions along which a smart city could carry out its mission, “to generate greater and more sustainable economic development and a better quality of life”: Smart Economy, Smart Mobility, Smart Environment, Smart People, Smart Living and Smart Governance. 


Measuring The Smart City

The EU’s contribution to smart cities is notable, as cities from Singapore to Dubai have adopted the six dimensions of tenants of their own strategy. But, by aligning smart city objectives to the Europe 2020 strategy, the report fell short of offering a globally relevant metric for smart city success.

In 2012, urban strategist and author Dr. Boyd Cohen proposed a “wheel” framework to analyse and rank global smart cities against six the six key dimensions defined in the EU mapping report. The mechanism identified 28 indicators for sub-components assigned to each dimensions: smart buildings under Smart Environment, online government service availability under Smart Government, creativity under Smart People and so forth. In 2014, Dr. Cohen revised the methodology to include total of 62 indicators, of which 16 were directly mapped to the ISO sustainable cities standard (ISO 37120).

The Smart City Wheel is popularly accepted, and is the force behind Dr. Cohen’s annual “Smartest Cities in the World” report, published by Fast Company. However,  Dr. Cohen himself admits that the methodology, which includes sending an excel sheet to cities and asking them to fill it out, is less than ideal.

But cities and governments have not given up on the ideal of a global smart city standard, and in 2015, Dubai and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began work on a new, international smart city index.  With Dubai onboard as the first pilot city to  evaluate the model — Dubai is unique among smart cities for actively pursuing projects in all six dimensions, and so able to evaluate all indicators — the ITU Focus Group of Smart Sustainable Cities (FG-SSC) and two study groups on “Environment Climate Change and Circular Economy” (ITU-T Study Group 5) and “Internet of Things and Smart Cities and Communities” (ITU-T Study Group 20)  completed a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess the impact of the use of ICTs in the sustainability of smart cities. Beginning in May 2015 and continuing through July 2016, Dubai evaluated the effectiveness of the KPIs with the support of 8 government departments actively participating the city’s smart initiatives.

The results of the first year of the pilot program were published in December 2016. The next step of the project will be to refine the KPIs to allow for cities at varying maturity levels to effectively participate in the evaluation.  If successful, it will be the first global index to evaluate smart city progress.  


Picture of a Smart City

Given all of the confusion of what defines a smart city, is it possible to paint a picture of what smart city is today?

In just under a decade of experimentation, a familiar profile of a smart city has developed. 

In today’s smart city, a new government office has been formed to oversee the smart city program; recruit partnerships; and garner support from city stakeholders and residents. Their closest partners are the local telecommunications regulatory body, and local ICT providers. The office is also working closely with the utility, transportation and land departments within the municipal to implement standards for infrastructure interoperability and to open city data for public access. Where necessary, the office will champion new laws and regulations to advance their agenda. The office will set the standards and sometimes define the requirements for new technology, but installation and commercialisation will be overseen by a 3rd party through a public-private partnership model. Sometimes, management of technology will be overseen by an “implementation arm” of the office. 

To demonstrate the impact of the smart city and increase public participation, the office also organises or sponsors hackathons and other community-based events to promote innovation with the open data made available by the city.

Today’s smart city invested early in Internet of Things technology, and is slowly beginning to see benefits. At least one neighbourhood in the city will have smart street lights installed, and studies are underway introduce the lights to more areas of the city. Smart Bins have also been installed in some locations. Emergency responders are now viewing the city through real-time, visual dashboards that are supported by geolocation data. As more shared data sets are made available, their dashboards are becoming more and more powerful. City leaders are excited to see the “City Operating System” taking shape. 

City residents have seen an explosion in the number of apps and digital services made available by the government. Most of the larger government departments have released apps for their services, and everything from paying a parking fine to registering a noise complaint can now be done through a smartphone. Slowly, the city is beginning to merge these apps into a single experience, creating a citizen dashboard powered by the same open data that is pumping value into the visualisation platform for city leaders.

Relationships between the city and the private sector are mixed. Some vendors, mostly the home-grown “entrepreneurship success stories” have been championed by the government, and residents, the business and the city all enjoy the benefits of a fruitful partnership. Other vendors have been left out or blocked from participation in the program. The international technology industry — lead by IBM and CISCO — continues to play a significant role in the smart city. 

Although the city has been investing heavily in technology, the benefits are not experienced equally. Residents increasingly feel a disconnect when they move from a “smart” experience in the city to a “dumb” one. A resident who has recently moved in the city is able to complete the entire registration process to hook up utility services online, but has to visit a customer service centre to get their internet connected. Some sectors are more advanced in the application of smart technology, while others lag behind.

In 2016, stakeholders have moved away from strategy and planning to the implementation, management and operationalisation of the smart city. With the shift in focus comes a shift in strategy, and residents wait to see if, this time, the promise of the smart city will be met.