Smart Cities: Urban Planning Meets Technology

Just as people change their behaviors as result of technology, so too do cities become reshaped to better meet their citizens’ needs. This shift is resulting in a push towards smart cities, where sustainable urban design practices blend with advanced technology and data collection. Today’s technology helps us as individuals to be “smarter” in our daily tasks. Modern urban design is no different, and today cities are becoming “smarter” by reacting to the needs of their long-term development. The smart city topic is broad and so definitions and examples of its potential is outlined within this article.

Smart cities illustration

Smart city illustration. Image via Behance.

Defining Smart Cities

The definition of “smart city” has evolved over time. In the early 90’s, the expression “smart city” related to a service delivery model which focused on the role of communication infrastructure. However, today’s definition is much more comprehensive.

The research report “Smart cities in Europe” asserts a city to be smart when “investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory governance”.

The UK Department for Business Innovation & Skills’ paper on smart cities highlights that a smart city isn’t a static concept but, “rather a process, or series of steps, by which cities become more ‘liveable’ and resilient and, hence, able to respond quicker to new challenges”. defines a smart city as a “developed urban area that creates sustainable economic development and high quality of life by excelling in multiple key areas: economy, mobility, environment, people, living, and government. Excelling in these key areas can be done so through strong human capital, social capital, and/or ICT infrastructure.

These three definitions, though derived from different institutions, emphasize a more technology-oriented, “people-centric”, and sustainable view of our cities’ futures.


Characteristics of Smart Cities. Image via Etna high tech.

6 Characteristics of Smart Cities

The Centre of Regional Science (SRF) of Vienna University of Technology, in its research “Smart cities – Ranking of European medium sized cities”, found out that there are many fields of activity in relation to the term smart city. So, it developed this list of 6 characteristics:

  1. Smart People
  2. Smart Economy
  3. Smart Governance
  4. Smart Mobility
  5. Smart Environment
  6. Smart Living

Even within these key characteristics there’s still a lack of uniformity within smart cities. The common thread among studies is that a smart city must build a strong network capability between its newer “smart” services and the existing ones. City services also continuously generate huge flows of data. Therefore, in order to leverage advantages from those data streams, smart cities have to implement tools to collect and analyze data.

Our urban planet. Image via UBM Future Cities.

Growing Need for Smart Cities

The growth of the world’s population in the coming years will lead to a period of extreme global urbanization. In China alone, 300 million people will move to urban areas over the next 15 years. According to the WHO, the urbanization trend will increase, and by 2030 it’s expected that 60% of the global population will live in cities. Frost & Sullivan predicts that the number of “mega cities” – defined as having a population of 10 million or greater – will rise to 30 by 2023, 55% of which will be within developing economies, and that there will be about 40 smart cities by 2025. The MIT’s City Science suggests that cities will account for:

90% of global population growth
80% of total wealth creation
60% of total energy consumption

Therefore, transitioning to smart cities isn’t only an efficiency and quality of life issue, but it’s also a milestone to generate sustainable economic growth.

Smart Cities Economics

Smart cities are a huge business in economic terms and can guarantee significant returns for their adopters. According to Forbes, the smart cities combined market has a potential of $1.5 trillion – more than Spain’s GDP – and is predicted to reach $3.3 trillion. Furthermore, a smarter city leads to a more efficient use of resources and generates cost savings such as through reduced energy consumption. Despite their massive potential, the main challenge to smart cities’ proliferation is to find investment funding to develop these projects. So, it’s important to prioritize projects through a cost-benefit analysis and choose the correct city/company engagement model for their implementation. Another challenge is to work out the right business model. City planners need to develop a technologically focused vision and use it to improve the three economic drivers: productivity, inclusivity, and resiliency. Moreover, it’s important that a city’s internal structures support that vision and that there is integration between the technology and sustainability departments and their peers within other agencies.  

Social and Environmental Benefits of Smart Cities

A smart city benefits not only the economic sphere but, it also provides remarkable impacts on the other two aspects of the triple bottom line: society and the environment. Here some examples:

  • Smart grids, which are highly encouraged by the EU commission and the US, increase energy efficiency and help the widespread acceptance of renewables.
  • Smart police services make our cities safer, as the Mesa Police Department of Arizona shows a reduction in crime by 25%.
  • Smart environment systems can be used to fight air pollution and provide better natural resource management.
  • The implementation of a smart traffic system in Stockholm improved air quality, reduced traffic jams, and increased the use of public transport.
  • The availability of smart governance and smart living services can improve residents’ community participation and quality of life.

These are only few of the advantages provided by a smart city. Technology improvements will lead to the creation of new “smart services”, adding new benefits to the list and making our cities ever more multifunctional, resilient, innovative, and efficient.

About The Author

Adriano Pilloni
Adriano, 25 years old, is a Master Graduate in Environmental Economics and Development from Rome Three University (Italy). During his education he developed a deep knowledge on Economics and a keen interest on Economic Theory with particular regard to energy markets, sustainability, environmental and agricultural issues. He has been proactive during his university time doing many projects and being elected by the students as Advisor of the Economics Dept. of his University. With two other students he developed a project on Food Sustainability which has been selected in the top 30 of the international Barilla contest "BCFN YES! 2013". He did the 2014 European edition of Extreme Blue, IBM's premier internship program for both graduate and undergraduate students. Now he is working as Junior Power and Gas Analyst at GDF SUEZ Italy.