What are smart cities to you?
What are smart cities to you? This is a question that I get asked often and it is a difficult one
to answer because in fact, it can be many things. And which city wants to be dumb, anyways.
Google returns 300+ million search results for this question, so there is no shortage of
answers. If anything, it shows that “smart cities” can mean many different things to people in
different countries and cultures. It will most likely also depend on the context in which the
question is asked, but this gets even more confusing.
From my viewpoint, which I must admit is shaped by my role working for a technology
company in this space, a “smart” city is one that uses different types of devices and existing
data repositories to collect and supply information, which is then used to manage assets and
resources efficiently and effectively. Or in other words, smart cities are about combining
technology and ubiquitous connectivity to harness data and derive insights for better
But most importantly, smart cities are people focused! Making a city smarter is all about
improving people’s experiences of a city so that it better meets their needs.
Following on from this thought, this article introduces a slightly different way of defining
smart cities – that is, by comparison with the human body. Because metaphorically speaking,
human bodies and cities have a lot in common:
In cities, buildings are where the activities take place, where people live and work and
socialise. In the body, this is done by our muscles and skeletal system, which enable us to
move and live and breath.
In cities, we have greenery and parks, which clean the air and provide oxygen. In the body,
this is done by our lungs.
In cities, we have roads that move traffic, people and goods. In the body, that is done by our
There are many more comparisons like these, but the point is that what makes our bodies
really “smart” is our 5 senses. We can see, hear, smell, touch and taste to collect information
about our environment. This information is continuously flowing through our nervous
system, a network of nerve cells and fibres, which processes the information and transmits
nerve impulses between parts of our body.
This constant data collection and information processing allows us to continuously adapt to
changing environments – i.e. when it gets cold we start shivering (i.e. our muscles start
twitching to produce heat) and when we get hot we start sweating (i.e. our body tries to cool
us down). We sneeze when dust enters our nose and there are lots of other examples where
our senses trigger meaningful actions, reactively and proactively. And a lot of these things are
in fact triggered subconsciously and are driven by our body’s “operating system” rather than
a well-defined thought and decision-making process in our brains.
Circling back to a “smart” city and my earlier interpretation of the term, this sensing is done
by a network of electronic sensors collecting different types of data from a variety of sources,
which is then transmitted through networks and combined and processed in platforms and
applications, providing actionable information. Adding to this, data can be pulled into the
same platforms and applications from other external sources, e.g. social networks, apps or
existing data repositories like public transport or healthcare records.
This data in combination with the right applications and systems allows cities to adapt to
changing circumstances in real time, like our bodies, either through automated
(subconscious) or “human” (conscious) decision-making. If set up properly, such systems
will also allow cities to learn continuously from their past inputs, actions and outcomes and to
improve the way they interpret information.
Importantly, no process, system and application should work in isolation. In our bodies, the
nervous system combines the data input from all 5 senses continuously in real time and
overlays past experiences when interpreting information and making decisions about how to
act, e.g. whether to feel cold or hot, shiver or sweat, or better not touch a hot item because we
have learned that it causes injury and pain.
And I think that this is the ultimate goal and definition of a smart city: A city that collects and
combines relevant data and knowledge and applies well-designed interpretation processes in
a never-ending, self-reinforcing feedback loop that continuously grows and improves - just
like our bodies do when we interpret and act on information provided by our senses.