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What Do We Really Need To Build Smart Cities?


Danny is Co-Founder & CEO of TerraScale, Inc., a clean infrastructure design and development firm shaping digital infrastructures globally.

As the co-founder of TerraScale, I often hear authoritative sorts (and some not-so-authoritative) discussing what a smart city is. Is it a few sensors here and there, or keyless entry?

Here is an excerpt from a 2018 McKinsey Global Institute report titled “Smart cities: Digital solutions for a more livable future”:

“Until recently, city leaders thought of smart technologies primarily as tools for becoming more efficient behind the scenes. Now technology is being injected more directly into the lives of residents. Smartphones have become the keys to the city, putting instant information about transit, traffic, health services, safety alerts, and community news into millions of hands.”

I agree. Considering how more people are becoming aware of and interacting with the Internet of Things is how we’ll transition to a truly smart city in the near future.

In order to have a truly smart city, you need smart people who are engaged with their communities, work toward the betterment of others and use technology in their everyday lives. A smart city must start first with its citizens, not the technology. The technologies needed to create a smart city already exist, but they need to work seamlessly together to enhance its residents’ quality of life and health. So, how do we “create” smart people?

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I think what leaders and individuals can do is encourage community participation through innovative technology and digitally integrated platforms. By acting together and sharing common goals and values, it is much easier to integrate emerging technologies into people’s lives. Leaders can also embrace the adoption of new technologies in the workplace, support the educational advancement of employees and share intellectual capital with their communities.

What Else Is Involved In Creating A Truly Smart City?

In October 2021, the founder and CEO of a smart city integrator had this to say in an Entrepreneur article:

“In general, cities and habitats are posing a dire need to be more connected, more innovative, and more citizen-centric. Technology has played — and will continue to play — a significant role in designing solutions to address the problem statements that citizens and the authorities face. But when looking to develop or transform into a smart city, we need to not just address the current challenges the city is facing, but also scale it to its maximum potential. Keeping the population growth smart transformations attract in mind, that will, in turn, result in infrastructure limitations, congestion, and insufficient power structures.”

I think solutions to such challenges may include community-forward integration of physical, digital and power infrastructures into cities themselves, harnessing “green” capital strategies and using innovative technologies to future-proof smart cities. Much of our current infrastructure is designed with an expiration date — planned obsolescence. Smart cities will likely be built to last and adapt to changing conditions in the future we are not equipped for today.

Who Will Create These New Cities?

This is a matter of the planning that has gone into a city’s general plans and who performed the alchemy of planning. Most cities are trying to position for the future but are saddled with the need to deal with legacy architecture and structures. I think the real clean way to build a smart city is to build it from scratch. This requires the right amount of land and planning. There are currently such cities (such as NEOM) in the planning stages as I write this.

Public-Private Partnerships And Land Use Planning

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As I stated above, the right amount of land is needed, and if a city is desirous of being smart going forward, an assemblage that is unencumbered and conveyable to a developer would go a long way toward the creation of the future tech-driven city. Land use planning has to be future-focused. Public-private partnerships could allow consortiums of like-minded organizations to come together and use the strengths of the public and private sectors to efficiently allocate capital and resources to construct smart cities better (and faster).

Green Integration

When building a city from scratch, the integration of true green technology without concern for legacy infrastructure beyond what is laid in the ground will be crucial, and it can be applied as a back to emerged and emerging green tech.

Data And Its Place In The Smart City

Boston Consulting Group examined 75 smart city applications that use data from a variety of different kinds of sources, including connected devices such as cars, appliances, traffic lights, etc. In general, nearly 50% of the apps use data sourced from multiple industries or platforms. An example would be an application that uses several different types of data to calculate the cost of parking at a particular location. BCG also identified another 40% of potential future applications that will require “cross-industry data aggregation.”

Data will be the blood that rushes through smart cities’ arteries. By integrating information from various individual, household and community sources, it is possible to give people the liberty with which they can tailor and improve their lives, as well as strengthen their communities and beyond. For example, think of a smart pantry that automatically senses that you’re out of baby formula and sends a notification to you that the grocery store down the street has six packages left in stock, or a dishwasher that senses your average load and changes its water usage accordingly.

How I View All This

Cities have changed throughout humankind’s time on this planet. We’ve gone from agricultural villages to bustling cities to sprawling suburbs, and advancements in technology have allowed us to settle in all sorts of residences. Smart cities are the newest and best version of the evolution of our dwellings, prompted by revolutions in materials, digital technology and environmental conscientiousness. Leaders in government and business now have a better-than-ever opportunity to put roofs over people’s heads in ways that connect us like never before.


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