What is a “smart city”?
Just as no two cities are the same, there isn’t a set definition of a “smart city”. However, all smart cities approaches have data-driven planning, delivery and monitoring of outcomes in common. While nearly all aspects of the global economy have been subject to different levels of digitalisation over decades, smart cities are ones that take a strategic and deliberate approach to utilising data to improve delivery of services and enhance efficiency and community wellbeing.
Some smart city initiatives are ‘top-down’, driven by policy and strategy from city governments and often focusing on integration of data, while other initiatives are ‘bottom-up’, driven by clusters of public and private organisations and communities, with most cities relying on a combination of approaches.
Smart city initiatives can relate to physical infrastructure but also many other areas like education, health and social care, tourism and beyond. Examples include:
- Using networks of remote sensors, part of an ‘Internet of Things (IoT)’ approach, to collect and incorporate near-live data to plan better traffic flow or air quality interventions;
- Updating processes for housing or transport through integration of data on economic, health and social inequalities or models for future climate change impacts like flooding and heatwaves; and
- ‘Digital twins’ or live 3D models of buildings or districts that integrate different datasets for holistic building or network life cycle management including work planning, materials, energy management, carbon emissions, accessibility and beyond.
What do smart city approaches have to do with climate action?
Cities always manage complexity, but global cities now must urgently integrate climate action into almost everything they do, from rapid emissions reductions, adaptation to emerging physical climate impacts, to supporting a just and equitable transition to a green climate economy.
Data-driven smart cities approaches can be a powerful component of strategies to tame this increasing complexity. By helping to integrate new and previously unrelated datasets into manageable digital frameworks, they can provide both the evidence and tools needed to enable local climate action.
Data-led, smart approaches to climate mitigation and climate-ready infrastructure development will also give cities an edge when it comes to securing climate finance, as projects that consider multiple factors—carbon impact, resilience to future adaptation challenges, capital expense, revenue, biodiversity, social impact and co-benefits—will be less risky and more investment-ready.
There are challenges to smart city transitions including:
Data privacy and security
- To thrive, smart cities require ‘open data’, which is data that can be used by anyone for any purpose. However, working with vast amounts of open data, there are issues with how cities can ensure that data is being utilised in accordance with data protection laws and that citizen privacy is maintained.
- Likewise, data collected from sensors and IoT networks present a challenge in protecting personal data from being collected inadvertently.
- The need for cities to scale new collaboration models between risk averse public and profit-focused private sectors, which includes finding smarter approaches to developing the infrastructure required to scale low carbon energy and transport.
Investment in infrastructure and skills
- Securing the investment required in digital and technology infrastructure along with significant investment in data literacy education.
- The expense and technical complications of retrofitting existing city infrastructure with smart technology.