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Just what is a smart city?

Matt Hamblen | Oct. 2, 2015
There many examples, and some very nebulous definitions.

Kansas City, Missouri

What's a "smart city"?

It's a fair question, but a hard one to answer.

Many larger municipalities have embraced the "smart city" concept in recent years, but definitions of the term -- and examples of the ways technology is being used to make cities "smart" -- run the gamut. Mayors and city CIOs usually talk about using sensors to, say, wirelessly manage streetlights and traffic signals to lower energy costs, and they can provide specific returns on investment for such initiatives -- x millions of dollars saved over x amount of time, for example.

Other examples include using sensors to monitor water mains for leaks (and thereby reduce repair costs), or to monitor air quality for high pollution levels (which would yield information that would help people with asthma plan their days). Police can use video sensors to manage crowds or spot crimes. Or sensors might determine that a parking lot is full, and then trigger variable-message street signs to direct drivers to other lots.

Smart cities as places for fun

Those are some of the countless practical examples. But smart cities can also be fun. In Bristol, England, a custom-built infrared sensor system was added to street lamps for a few weeks in late 2014 to record the shadows of pedestrians walking by. The shadows were then projected back through the streetlights for others walking by later to see.

Called "Shadowing" and developed by Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier, the initiative was intended as a public art installation. A winner of a Playable City Award, "Shadowing" helps illustrate how broad and elusive the definition of "smart city" has become.

That's a good thing.

"A smart city shouldn't just save money, but should also be attractive and fun to live in," said Carl Piva, vice president of strategic programs at TM Forum, a global nonprofit association with 950 member organizations whose aim is to guide research into digital business transformation, including smart city initiatives.

"Being a smart city is more than being efficient and involves turning it around to make it fun," Piva said.

KC light
In Kansas City, officials are working with Cisco to install various sensors, including controls from Sensity Systems, for new LED streetlights to improve operating efficiency. Other smart city sensors could be added later. Credit: Matt Hamblen

The Bristol "Shadowing" project was discussed at a recent forum in Yinchuan, China, attended by politicians and technology experts from around the world, Piva said. It was introduced by Paul Wilson, managing director of Bristol Is Open, a joint venture of the Bristol City Council and the University of Bristol that's devoted to creating an "open, programmable city region" made possible by fast telecom networks and the latest software and hardware.

 

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