This “complete street” in lower Manhattan has physically separated lanes for automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians. Smart cities use “complete streets” to separate traffic safely and efficiently.

10 Ways to Envision a Smart City

This article is adapted from our new book, “Smart Cities, Smart Future: Showcasing Tomorrow.” It’s available from Amazon and in bookstores.

WHAT IS a smart city and how is it different from our traditional notion of a city? There is no single definition for a smart city. The term itself is a moving target and every city is different.

That said, here are 10 ideas that can help us envision and define the smart city concept:

  1. A smart city encourages people to walk, meet, talk and congregate on streets, in shops and in public spaces.
  2. It’s a place where people interact easily, effortlessly and joyfully with each other and with their environment.
  3. A smart city provides a matrix for random informal interactions, serendipitous meetings and spontaneous relationships.
  4. It’s a place where people feel safe — not because they are surrounded by cops and cameras, but because the city’s cyber-physical infrastructure is designed intentionally for the purpose of creating an atmosphere of trust, community and shared responsibility.
  5. Smart cities make it easy for people to travel from one neighborhood to another. They provide a mix of transportation solutions that reduce traffic congestion and diminish harmful emissions from vehicles.
  6. They provide seamless broadband and Wi-Fi coverage. In a smart city, there are no dead zones and no dropped calls. Free charging stations are conveniently placed; no one worries about their phone battery dying.
  7. Smart cities take energy efficiency to the next level; they generate more power than they consume. Smart cities grow their own food and manufacture products from recycled materials. They measure water usage by the drop and conserve natural resources by the ton. They’re miserly, but in a good way — in a smart city, nothing goes to waste.
  8. Smart cities have solar-powered smart trash bins that signal when they’re getting full. That might not seem like a big deal, but smart trash bins save cities millions of dollars annually by reducing the costs of collecting garbage.
  9. Smart cities have smart street lights equipped with sensors that spot potholes, measure traffic flow, listen for gunshots and help drivers find empty parking spaces.
  10. They have smart systems that make it easy for citizens to obtain permits and licenses without having to stand in line at city hall. They remove the friction and complexity from processes such as paying taxes, registering children for school and finding health care for an aging parent.

Cities on a Hill

Smart cities are living laboratories. They are role models and exemplars. They are explorers and pioneers, navigating a course for the future of humankind.

Smart cities deal head-on with thorny modern problems such as transportation, energy efficiency, education, public safety, public health, citizen engagement, privacy, immigration, economic inequality, climate change and cyber security.

Those are problems that cannot be sidestepped, downplayed or delegated to higher authorities. In many instances, cities and towns have little choice but to step up and create their own solutions. They must do or die.

Smart cities are co-synchronous with “new localism,” a movement based on the belief that many problems are best solved at local levels. That might not seem like a particularly revolutionary idea, but it’s a significant departure from the 20th century maxim that big government is the answer to all problems, large and small.

Today, the methods of big government are under attack. There’s been a shift in thinking, especially in the realm of problem solving. In the decades following the Second War, urban planning methods reflected the era’s bias for command-and-control hierarchies.

Much of the urban planning from that era assumed that crowded streets were bad, that cars were good and that poor people should live in soul-crushing high-rise apartment projects. Post-war urban planning was epitomized by legendary figures such as Robert Moses and Le Corbusier, who sought to eliminate the natural chaos of city life and replace it with something more orderly and manageable.

That post-war approach emphasized grand scale and epic proportions. It assumed that if a project was important, it must be big — and if a project was big, it must be important. That kind of circular reasoning was used to justify decades of bad urban planning.

For cities, smallness is an asset. Cities are naturally limited in size, which turns out to be an advantage. They don’t have to solve problems on a huge scale. They don’t have to devise enormous projects. They can afford to think small.

A New Approach to City Planning

Smart cities are beneficiaries of a new method of urban planning that emphasizes collaboration, co-creation, crowdsourcing and grassroots efforts. The new method combines bottom-up innovation with cross-functional insight to create entirely fresh and original solutions for complex problems. It focuses less on grand strategy and more on tactical solutions.

The new method is informed and influenced by software development techniques such as Agile and DevOps, and by design thinking, a process that starts by exploring the problems of people in the real world and working backwards to develop practical solutions. The new method uses rapid lightweight prototyping, pilot projects, pop-ups and virtual reality to evaluate, refine and continuously improve ideas before they’re launched.

The new method is firmly rooted in data science, which allows cities to rigorously test new ideas and predict in advance which are most likely to succeed in the real world.

Smart cities use data science to determine the size and location of pocket parks, playgrounds, sidewalk extensions, community gardens, pedestrian malls, bike paths and traffic circles. Instead of simply guessing where those amenities are needed, smart cities use data to generate predictive models — and then they test the accuracy of the models before moving forward.

Thinking Beyond Technology

Smart cities are enabled by modern digital technologies; that is a given. But technology alone doesn’t make a city smart. The technology must be fully integrated and deeply woven into the fabric of the city. It can’t be an afterthought or a thinly applied veneer. It must be an active component, thoroughly baked into the city’s infrastructure and inseparable from the daily experiences of city life.

Technology isn’t something bolted on at the last minute, it must be part of an overall solution designed to meet the needs of people. Imagining, designing, building and managing smart cities is an interdisciplinary effort requiring input from experts and stakeholders from multiple industries and economic sectors.

Smart cities follow the basic principles of design thinking and human-centered design, which prioritize the needs of people and use science to guide the development of projects. Smart cities favor neighborhood initiatives over grandiose master plans; they know the quality of life in a city depends on healthy streets, vibrant shops and a diversified economy.

Looking Backward

When we think of smart cities, we tend to think in futuristic terms. We often use the language and iconography of futurism to express our visions of what a smart city should look like. But we should also look to the past for lessons and examples of how previous generations handled the challenges of planning and developing urban spaces.

In the mid-19th century, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann transformed Paris from a medieval collection of sprawling neighborhoods into one of the world’s first genuinely modern cities. He used the tools and techniques of his day — parks, public squares, large monuments, axial roadways, sewers, water-distribution systems and standard cornice lines — to complete the city’s transformation.

At roughly the same time, Ildefons Cerdà, who coined the term “urbanism,” was planning the expansion of Barcelona. Cerdà designed an orthogonal grid for the city’s new streets, which created a sense of order and clarity. He also had the sidewalks cut at 45-degree angles at street intersections, an innovation that created mini-plazas with shops and services all over the new part of the city. Cerdà was a transportation expert, and he planned the streets and avenues of the expansion with traffic in mind.

Visionary planners like Haussmann and Cerdà serve as vivid reminders that smart cities are created by smart people. Both men had a deep understanding of the cities they were tasked with redesigning, and they used the tools at hand to bring their visions to life.

In today’s cities, “smart” and “high-tech” are not necessarily synonymous. Most smart city projects don’t require advanced degrees in engineering or terabytes of computing power. Our research shows the primary requirements for creating successful smart city projects are deep knowledge of local problems, imaginative thinking, thorough research, good planning, bold action and persistent follow-through.

Bicycle sharing services in Madrid, a hundred miles of running trails in Portland, Oregon, banning automobile traffic in New York’s Central Park and providing free public transit in Tallinn, Estonia, are all examples of smart city projects driven primarily by local governments or community groups responding to the needs of citizens. In most cases, technology is an enabler, not a motivator.

Battling Complacency

In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens includes a heartbreaking scene in which a Parisian child is struck and killed by a speeding carriage. The carriage’s owner, a powerful nobleman, tosses a gold coin toward the child’s grieving father, but not before berating the city dwellers who have gathered and blaming the fatal accident on their carelessness.

We’ve come a long way since then — or at least we like to think we have. Today, conversations about transportation often focus on new ways for alleviating traffic congestion, providing more travel options for commuters and making it easier for drivers to find parking spaces.

What’s often missing from the conversations, however, is safety. We all dread being stuck in traffic jams. But it’s far worse being involved in a traffic crash. “Mobility is a very human-centered problem,” says Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating deaths and injuries from traffic crashes.[1]

“Traffic crashes kill 40,000 people annually in the U.S. and injure millions more. We can do more to prevent this suffering and we believe all of us — whether we’re driving, walking, bicycling, using a wheelchair, or riding transit — have a basic right to safe mobility,” Shahum says.

Traditional solutions often fail to address basic safety issues such as maintaining physical separation between those walking, bicycling, driving, and taking transit. Some forward-thinking communities are building “complete streets,” which are streets designed to separate traffic and reduce the chances and severity of collisions.[2]

“Complete streets” in lower Manhattan provide physical separation for different kinds of traffic.

There are many alternatives to the status quo that don’t require high-tech solutions or major capital investments. One of the most effective ways to prevent serious traffic crashes is by managing speeds, especially on streets used by those walking and bicycling.

Fatalism, acceptance and complacency are some of the biggest obstacles to achieving higher levels of safety, Shahum says. “It reminds me of the early days of the anti-smoking movement. Back then, most people thought there was nothing anybody could do to curtail smoking, but look how far we’ve come in such a relatively short time.”

As a civil society, she says, there’s no reason to be complacent about thousands of traffic deaths every year. “Almost all those deaths are avoidable. New York City adopted a Vision Zero program four years ago and they’ve reduced traffic deaths by 28 percent. [3] In Sweden, where the program began 20 years ago, they’ve cut traffic deaths in half. [4]

Cities of Our Dreams

The smart city movement is part of a larger digital revolution. Digital technologies aren’t simply transforming business and industry — they’re transforming each and every aspect of our lives, including the places where we live. We are experiencing a genuine shift of paradigms; a new world is being born.

Like newborn infants, smart cities will experience growing pains. No two smart cities will be exactly alike. To varying degrees, smart cities will reflect the cultures and habits of the regions or nations in which they are located. Attempts to create one-size-fits-all models, cookie-cutter templates or strict formulas for smart cities are unlikely to succeed. Smart cities will not be machines; they will grow and evolve, adapting like biological organisms to the changing environments around them.

Smart cities are not a panacea. They will not solve all the world’s problems. Some will be more successful than others. Some will thrive and others will fail. There will be crime. There will be homelessness. There will be wealthy neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods.

But smart cities will engender hope. Their citizens will have a palpable sense of community. They will feel inspired and energized. They will be proud of their smart city. They will strive to keep it safe and clean. They will enjoy the wide variety of experiences and opportunities offered by the city. They will participate in governing their city and make their voices heard. They will be smart citizens.

We believe that cities have redemptive power. People choose to live in cities because they offer a social dynamism that’s hard to find in small communities.

Cities are places where people can walk out their front doors and immediately begin having conversations with friends, neighbors and even total strangers. They talk, they exchange ideas and maybe they agree to start a business together. Or maybe they decide to have lunch, visit a museum, see a movie or go for a walk down an avenue lined with shops.

Smart cities will offer the same opportunities, and more. A smart city will know when you’re sick or injured and automatically dispatch emergency medics to help you. A smart city will turn on the lights when you enter a park at night — and turn them off when you leave. A smart city will remind you when it’s time renew your driver’s license — and then help you renew it from your mobile phone. A smart city will help you find a good rehabilitation center if your mom slips and falls on the sidewalk.

In our new book, “Smart Cities, Smart Future: Showcasing Tomorrow,” we describe smart city projects of varying scale and complexity. We explain how smart cities are “systems of systems” and introduce key concepts such as interoperability, open standards, resiliency and continuous improvement. In addition to writing about smart cities, we share stories of smart towns, counties, regions and nations.

We hope the book will become an indispensable resource as you engage more deeply with the smart city movement and become more personally involved in planning our shared future.

Best wishes and good health to you!





You can purchase Smart Cities, Smart Future: Showcasing Tomorrow from Amazon or at your local bookstore. Thank you for your interest. The smart city movement needs your input, ideas and active engagement!




author, futurist, private pilot, dad and hockey fan!

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Mike Barlow

Mike Barlow

author, futurist, private pilot, dad and hockey fan!

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