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What Makes a Smart City?

By Gina Rosenthal, Founder, Digital Sunshine

Smart digital workplace

Smart city seems to get mentioned in 5G or the Edge discussions. But is the phrase just a buzzword? What sort of benefits can a smart city or smart building offer to the people that use them? How can municipalities and technical companies sort through the buzz to understand the technical requirements of building a smart city?

What Makes a Smart City?

What do people mean when they talk about smart cities? For starters, a smart city will go beyond simply putting services online or providing bandwidth and connectivity to its citizens. Here is a definition from the Smart Cities Council:

A smart city uses information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance its livability, workability and sustainability. First, a smart city collects information about itself through sensors, other devices and existing systems. Next, it communicates that data using wired or wireless networks. Third, it analyzes that data to understand what's happening now and what's likely to happen next.

ICT is an important field, as it expands the function of traditional IT beyond desktops, networking, servers, storage and applications to anything that can be used to carry communications and associated media. As Techopedia explains, ICT includes management of technologies used to handle telecommunications, broadcast media, intelligent building management systems, audiovisual processing and transmission systems, and network-based control and monitoring functions.

City Systems Communicating with Smart City Devices

The sensors mentioned in the Smart Cities Council definition include all sorts of smart city devices, such as streetlights with sensors that can be turned on and off or dimmed remotely, or that can alert maintenance workers when a bulb needs to be replaced. But to make a smart city, it takes more than installing smart devices and putting them on a network.

The magic happens when the data being shared by the smart devices is shared with other devices on the smart city network. Compute can be performed on this data to turn it into valuable information. That information can then be harnessed to create a better environment for the citizens of that city. Having sensors that can identify themselves to other devices on the same network so they can share data and even perform compute operations based on the information they share is the definition we gave for IoT in a previous post, Edge Architectures Enable the Future.

To take the streetlight example further, according to Smart City Lab if the network and connections are fast and robust enough, streetlights can even “provide a platform for WIFI, HD Video streaming, gunshot detection, air quality monitoring, traffic management, and smart parking.”

A smart city will be able to integrate all the elements of a city (streetlights, traffic signals, utilities, payment systems, transportation systems, parking systems, etc). into one a single ecosystem where each element can communicate proactively with other elements.  This could improve life for citizens, save money, and make the city a safer place to live.

Smart Buildings

While a smart city uses IoT technology to connect city services, a smart building embeds IoT technology into traditional building systems. Some examples from include:

  • A CO2 meter that can estimate the number of people in a room and tell your HVAC system to increase the ventilation rate in response
  • An occupancy sensor that can order a bank of lights to turn on when it senses a presence
  • A dashboard that can analyze a building’s worth of sensor data and turn it into actionable insights

Ultimately smart buildings and cities enable a better experience for the occupants of the building, make maintaining building services easier and more automated, and help building owners save money. Some areas that facility managers are concentrating on to create smart buildings include IoT solutions that manage energy, optimize equipment like lighting or HVAC usage, improve environmental quality by measuring air quality, and devices to manage people or spaces (via

Smart Building Example

Let’s look at some examples of smart buildings. Deloitte has a 15-floor smart building in Amsterdam that hosts 3,300 staff. Deloitte's vision for the building was to create “the office of the future would be a place where people met, where you would interact and engage with clients and new colleagues.”

Every desk is wireless. Employees are connected as soon as they walk in the door. There are 30,000 sensors in the building that monitor all aspects of modern office life: parking bays, room occupancy, lighting, food consumed in the restaurant, who is in the building (when they arrived, who they sat next to), as well as how many people are there.

According to the article, there has been a shift to building services being performed by demand, not a calendar and that's delivering energy conservation savings of 70% for energy, water, and maintenance costs. The smart devices communicate to deliver services on-demand:

"Smart lighting detects when rooms are empty, smart robots spend more time cleaning busy hallways, more robots conduct security patrols, a smart gym tracks a user’s fitness session and smart towel dispensers understand when a bathroom has been busy and alerts cleaning teams.”

How does all this technology make the lives of the smart building occupants better? According to the same article:

  • Data from the sensors in the restaurant help map when it will busiest, and the foods that are most popular so that the restaurant team can prepare enough.
  • A revised booking system uses wayfinding technology and Aruba BLE Beacons and Wi-Fi positioning and a user’s mobile device to find the best room, even using AR to help them get there.
  • Smart lights give meeting attendees a visual cue that their meeting time is coming to a close, hopefully eliminating the awkward “I think I have this room now” interactions.
  • Because of the IoT sensors, there’s no need to call IT to fix a room, the devices alert their ticket systems proactively.
  • Cleaning schedules are optimized using room occupancy information, busier areas get more attention.

Making a smart city or building

A smart city or smart building requires smart ICT and business architecture design and implementation. The business requirements and desired outcomes must be considered as well as what smart devices and sensors to use, how to perform compute, store, and secure data, and how to build a fast network fast enough that the devices scan data and turn it into information in real-time.

Putting all the technology together backed by a business plan that is people-focused is where a smart city or building starts. If they are implemented correctly, smart cities and buildings make a more connected world by creating a space where barriers to collaboration and communication are lowered.