smart city of dubai

What is a Smart City and Does it Lead to Dumb Citizens?

Cities have been the engines of economic and social growth since the times of the industrial revolution. The revolution brought on by the urban settlement of humans has been effective in developing prosperity in countries around the world, even when the development was not necessarily “smart”. In most instances, for example, people have had to sacrifice health conditions, easy availability of basic needs, and sufficient living space for greater productivity.

Additional Reading: Top 15 Companies That Are Revolutionising Digital Health

The advancement of technology has changed how cities are planned and developed. As urban settlements accumulate data and deliver innovation, they now strive to enhance the quality of lives of its citizens. The onset of ‘smart cities’ or ‘smartER cities’ can be attributed to the use of technology to reap the benefits of technology which are efficiency and sustainability.

According to Juniper research, there are five essential components of a smart city:

  1. Smart Buildings
  2. Smart Transportation Infrastructure
  3. Smart Technologies
  4. Smart Utilities
  5. The Smarter City Itself

For a smart city to be realised, the people living in it must be driven by economic performance and must seek to leverage new technologies to improve their personal and collective opportunities and lives. When like-minded people are drawn together, the cities can provide them with opportunities to achieve this. With the increase in the number of active participants, the management or authority of the cities must overcome common drawbacks e.g. energy requirements, limited resources, congestion, waste, and climate change to build a functional smart city.

Defining a Smarter City

Yinchuan smarter city


To understand how smarter cities around the world are developing or even appreciate the whole concept of smart cities, it is fair first to answer one hard question: “what is a smarter city”?

Many large municipalities around the world have embraced the concept of “smarter city” in the past decade or two, but the definition of the term is still ambiguous. Since the year 2007, more people in the world live in cities compared to rural areas, and statistics shows that by 2050, two out of three people will be living in cities. The keywords in the definition of a smart city are “investment in humanity”, “modern infrastructure and communication”, “higher quality of life”, and “connectivity”.

Developing (might not be the best word to use here) smart cities such as Vienna, Barcelona, and Waag Society in Amsterdam all share a common denominator—they rely on technology to improve the quality of life.

Other examples of how cities are getting smart include the use of wireless sensors to manage traffic and street lights, using signals to reduce energy costs, and providing specific returns on investments.

Police in Boston, for instance, are already enjoying the perks of investing in smart surveillance systems as it can be witnessed from the reduced crime rates ever since the concept was introduced. In partnership with tech giant Cisco, the city uses video sensors to spot crimes and manage crowds. In the future, such technologies will be used to guide drivers and trigger variable street sign messages.

The definition of a smarter city is not complete without the mentioning of Internet of Things. While individual cities develop their own connectivity systems, IoT is emerging as the baseline for all kinds of device communication and may be the solution for connectivity and communication systems that provide greater functionality to the internet.

Relevant: Top 10 Tech Companies Set Up To Disrupt Internet of Things in 2016

Smarter Cities Around the World bristol is open


Bristol in England

Smarter cities are supposed to be fun places to live in. An upcoming smart city of Bristol in England is a good example of how making a city a fun place inspires development and innovations that transform an urban environment into a smart city.

When the city added custom-built infrared sensors to streetlamps in late 2014 to record the shadows of pedestrians passing by and then projected them through the streetlights for other passersby to see, it won the Playable City Award. The ‘Shadowing’ project developed by Matthew Rosier and Jonathan Chomko was intended to be a public art installation, but it illustrates how elusive and broad the definition of “smart city” is.

On a more recent note: Venturespring is challenging the UK tech developers to provide a solution in form of a smart applications to some of the biggest problems facing cities today. The prize for the winning team is £750,000 of investment support. #SmartCityChallenge2015

Yinchuan – A Smarter City in China

China’s approach to smarter cities is another eye opener on the future of urban habitation. China has many cities with over 10 million residents each, but it has managed to push forward a range of smart technologies, most of which rankle the rest of the world largely because of the potential privacy risks they raise.

The city of Yinchuan, for instance, has significantly reduced the size of the workforce that issues permits from over 600 employees to under 50 by simply adopting an online processing system that is accessible to all citizens who need all kinds of permits—from driving licenses to house building permits. While such a technology is easy to determine, the use of facial recognition software to speed up application and identification processes raises questions that may dampen the spirit of inclusivity in the implementation of a smart city system.

The Smarter City of Dubai

The city of Dubai has adopted a unique smarter city initiative that is a sharp contrast to that of Yinchuan. The city’s initiative, which has a concrete monetary return on investment value (ROI) features “happiness meters” that encourage residents to input their reactions on various things as digital inputs. The input is then used to evaluate the combined impact of the effectiveness of implemented programs and systems such as the effectiveness of security checkpoints, the cleanliness of the streets, and the efficiency of the local government.

Tech Companies are Playing a Big Role in Smart Cities

smart city lights


Without the participation of private companies, smarter cities would never come up. Large technology companies such as Google, IBM, GE, Intel, and Cisco among others are at the forefront developing systems and funding projects that make smart cities a reality.

Cisco’s partner, Sensity System, for instance, is a provider of hi-tech outdoor lighting systems and is contributing to the development of Kansas City’s smart city initiative by installed LED streetlights that are equipped with sensors that dim automatically to provide perfect ambient light conditions. This will help the city save as much as $4 million a year on energy costs without having to spend taxpayer money on the new expensive LED lighting systems.

There are hundreds — if not thousands — of other hardware, software, and application development companies that have caught on the smarter city phenomenon and are playing an active role in making various projects a reality.

During the 2015 CTIA Super Mobility Week in Las Vegas, giant telecommunication company Verizon showed a smart street lamp built by its partner company Illuminating Concepts that connect wirelessly to the cloud and can be used to provide public announcements over digital signs and audio speakers.

This smart lighting project was implemented in Lansing, Michigan. The functionality of these smart street lamps can be expanded to include carrying out pollution analysis and even air purification. While a single pole of such a smart street lamp can cost over $5,000, vendors avail them to cities free of charge or at discounted costs.

How Smarter Cities are Created

smart city There’s no denying that a discussion on the topic of smarter cities can be simultaneously enchanting, inspiring, and scary. Most smarter cities around the world today have emerged in response to global life threatening issues such as environmental factors population explosion. Other top reasons have led to the emergence of smart cities are urban investments and bread and butter issues that affect every urban dweller. As such, there are very different smarter city models being developed around the world.


Among the first concepts of a smart city was the U-Korea project developed at the turn of the 21st century in the city of Sandgo in South Korea. The city was equipped with CCTV surveillance systems and provided comprehensive, high-quality Wi-Fi mesh network and innovative energy management systems. From its inception, the smart city of Sandgo resembled a futuristic connected settlement that relied on cutting edge technologies for ubiquity.

Amsterdam, San Francisco and Seoul

In 2005, a new smarter city concept announced by the former US President Bill Clinton through his foundation focused on relieving congestion, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and help the residents of San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Seoul save time and money. This smart city concept led to an explosion of concepts around the world, with countries all over Europe, Asia, Africa, and Americas rolling out smart city concepts that covered a broad spectrum of visions.

Other Smart City Concepts

Stockholm, for instance, is one of the most advanced smart cities that focuses on green energy solutions and connectivity. Rio de Janeiro adopted a concept that is managed, supervised, and predictive— in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games. The metropolis of Lyon is built and interconnected as it positions itself as a leader in smart city projects and a pleasant place to live in with advanced developments that improve the quality of life.

What Does it Take to Develop a Smarter City?

To develop a smarter city, a country or city must have the resilience and capabilities to enable it to rethink a permanent approach that works for its populace. An ideal smart city concept must be developed around two forms of intelligence:

  1. The city must equip urban infrastructure with advanced data collection and processing capabilities to enable the system to anticipate problems and self-regulate. These “logical-mathematical” intelligence systems include smart water, smart power grids, smart buildings, connected objects as well as big data.
  2. The city must take advantage of digital agility and accelerating capabilities to equip the smart city system with cognitive intelligence to enable the user to interact with the environment. Modern technological advancements such as miniaturisation, the explosion of the internet, development of high-speed wireless communication channels, and highly capable sensors and data input systems make it possible to achieve such an objective.

Social Scientists’ Take on the Downside of Smarter Cities

smarter cityAs the technology industry, city planning experts, and people all over the world promote the many benefits smart cities promise to bring, there are downsides that their development will bring.

Frank Pasquale and Jathan Sadowski, in their paper titled “The Spectrum of Control: A Social Theory of the Smart City” call attention to a few negative aspects of urban centers filled with smart sensors, connected devices, and meshed networks.

Privacy Concerns

Top among them is the threat of surveillance that can be used to track people’s movements, habits, and even invade their privacy. Depending on the people using the technology, such information can be insidious or beneficial when it is collected.

Recently, the City Council of Kansas passed a resolution to abide by best data privacy practises as they formed a panel called Smart City Advisory Board to provide guidance on privacy concerns.

Dumb Citizens

There are also concerns that the development of smart cities makes dumb citizens. Presently, people have to master available technologies to connect to others, express themselves, share their thoughts and resources, and engage their leaders as they help make decisions regarding their future. However, the development of smart cities is feared to take away initiative and instead force a top-down control with a focus on maximising efficiency at the expense of creating opportunities. In such a case, the idea of a smarter city is just but a disaster waiting to happen. More or less like a ticking time bomb that will explode generations from today.

Check and Balance Systems Mandatory

Another issue that cannot be overlooked is that the technologies used in smart cities, no matter how advanced, will never solve political problems. Technology may be a boon to citizens, but it may also be an efficient tool used to control them, and to reinforce the power of the status quo. Conspiracy theorists argue that giant companies funding smart city initiatives are focused on centralising profits and disrupting existing ecosystems while giving the citizens little chance to figure out ways to incorporate their initiatives and products with a democratic way of life. Inequality, privacy, sustainability, agency and democracy are invaluable factors of modern life that must be upheld and guarded by politicians, not entrepreneurs and companies that develop smart city systems. It is, therefore, important that check and balance systems be put in place to ensure corporations do not lead the people to places they cannot imagine exist.

In Conclusion

You don’t have to be a top tech analyst to see that the landscape of many cities is continuously changing as technology becomes more and more immersed in cities and people’s ways of life. The development of smarter cities is arguably one of the most important human habitation development since the village. However, to influence positively how smarter cities will affect future life on earth, it is important that all stakeholders actively participate in its development. At the same time, all the merits and demerits of every element in such a system exhaustively analysed to ensure the evolution of the urban living space necessitates smarter living in the future.

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