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What Makes a City Smart

· YSI Global,Smart Cities

All cities are different. They each have their own cultural context, social issues, economic framework and environmental backdrop. Yet, there are parallels amongst the issues they face today and their corresponding methodologies to ensure appropriate solutions.

Cities are systems of systems and can be seen to be made up of three interacting domains – the social, ecological and the economic (SDG Academy, 2017). All the layers of, the outwardly different, systems such as waste disposal, transport, energy, water, air quality etc. all include aspects of these three domains and are constantly interacting. Consequently, implying that in the social, ecological and economic domains there is continuous interactions of these systems themselves. The continuity of city transformation and the strain of resources at various times renders it difficult to achieve the equilibrium of sustainability as shown in the Venn Diagram. Nonetheless, it is this goal we should strive to build and innovate for.

A common idea that is taking root to find this sustainable solution is for most modern cities to now transition into ‘Smart Cities’. However, what does the buzzword ‘smart’ mean? Words like ‘smart’, ‘globalization’ and even ‘sustainability’ itself, have lost their concrete definition as their usage blankets different contexts. We take a similar view to Townsend (2014) where smart cities are defined as places where ‘information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies’ to address the three domains listed above – economic, social and environmental issues.

A straightforward way to view how further information and communications technologies can be integrated into cities is to look at a general three-stage process.

  1. Proliferation of sensors and detection mechanisms that collate data about a specific measurable variable i.e. air quality in an area or water flow through a pipe and consequently;
  2. a corresponding response deployment where a correction measure is triggered if necessary i.e. air purification treatment or alert to increased pumping of water into the affected area if water flow is low;
  3.  Finally, the process is recorded in real-time and digitally displayed for target audience (water utility providers or neighbourhood residents) and if the problem is not simply fixed by the response mechanism, after repeated stages of step 1 and 2, corresponding alerts to the relevant parties.

The first step is to identify the social, environmental and economic constraints of cities with the public’s view in mind. The subsequent step is for cities to build low-cost processes such as steps 1-3 to automate responses to issues in the systems – waste disposal, transport, energy, water and air quality. This problem-detection and control method, alongside the physical integration of new technologies (which we will be writing about in future blogs), is what we see as imperative in the transition into Smart Cities.

References: [Accessed 14 Jun. 2017].

SDG Academy. (2017). Module 02: What makes a City Function. In Sustainable Cities. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Jun. 2017].

Townsend, A. (2014). Smart Cities. New York: WW Norton & Co.

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