What is a smart city?

Smart cities are places where digital solutions are leveraged to enhance the use of traditional networks and services. Thereby the aim of smart cities is to increase the quality of life for the residents, improve sustainability, and benefit businesses. The smart city definition of the European Commission states that “A smart city goes beyond the use of digital technologies for better resource use and fewer emissions. It means smarter urban transport networks, upgraded water supply and waste disposal facilities, and more efficient ways to light and heat buildings. It also means a more interactive and responsive city administration, safer public spaces, and meeting the needs of an ageing population.” Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) makes this possible by collecting real-time data, which helps to understand changes in demand and respond accordingly in a more timely and more cost-efficient manner.

The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations predicts that 68% of the world’s population live in urban areas by 2050. Urbanisation is an ongoing trend, cities are constantly growing, and more and more people live in urban areas. This poses many challenges for cities, urban planners, and governments. Societal, environmental, and economic hurdles must be overcome to enable a good quality of life. Smart city technologies can help successfully master some of these challenges – thanks to numerous technologies that are entering the economy that connect humans, technology, and cities in an intelligent, resource-saving way.

Examples of smart city technology

In a smart city, modern technologies from the areas of energy, mobility, urban planning, administration, and communication are networked with each other so that the data collected helps to better decision making and improve certain aspects of the quality of life.

The driving force behind smart cities are trends such as machine learning, automation, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, or autonomous vehicles. In theory, any part of a city can be incorporated into a smart city initiative. However, what all smart initiatives and applications have in common, is that they require robust security and privacy services when gathering and analysing data for better-informed decision making.

Benefits of smart cities

In a study, Management Consultancy McKinsey has evaluated the potential the implementation of pioneering concepts has in the light of facing challenges as a cause of urbanisation.

Applications such as smart surveillance, home security systems, or gunfire locators have the potential to enable a better law-enforcement response. According to McKinsey, adopting various applications could potentially reduce incidents like homicide, fires, and road traffic by 8 to 10 percent. It is needless to say that the adoption of sensors is not a way to fight crime actively. Still, real-time information makes it possible to map crime, run analysis to spot patterns, helping to deploy personnel efficiently.

Make daily commutes faster and less frustrating

Cities that adopt smart-mobility technologies are predicted to potentially cut commuting times between 15 to 20 percent on average. This can become a reality through applications that ease road congestion, intelligent syncing of traffic signals, real-time navigation alters, and smart parking apps that will point the driver directly to a free spot.

Smart cities can help to improve health

Through the collection and analysis of data, cities and public service officers can identify demographics with a tendency of being exposed to a certain type of risk and intervene more effectively. This way, residents can get targeted information about sanitation, safe sex, vaccinations, etc. Moreover, smart applications can help doctors monitor patients’ chronic conditions such as diabetes remotely and send alerts if needed.

Greener Cities and a more sustainable environment

Automation, systems, dynamic electricity pricing, and some mobility applications have the combined potential to reduce emissions up to 15 percent. A way of encouraging the resourceful use of water is to install metering that provides digital feedback messages to households. This area of innovation is fast growing across many countries and cities. Beijing deployed air quality sensors to detect the source of pollution and consequently reduce pollutants by 20 percent. Hello Lamp Post introduced a project in Canada that helps monitor the air quality on UBC’s campus to become more sustainable and foster a healthy campus environment.

Enhance Social Communication

Analysis suggests that digital channels can triple the residents’ feeling of being connected to the local government and double the feeling of being connected to local communities.

Offering channels to have a two-way communication between residents and local governments can increase responsiveness to community issues and help develop the city further. One of Europe’s leading cities, Paris, has introduced a participatory budget that encourages anyone to pitch ideas where the community can then rate and decide which project will be taken on.

The top 10 smart cities in the world

“It is of course too early to draw the lessons from COVID. However, it is clear that we are at a critical juncture, where the sanitary crisis is still very much with us, while the economic and social crisis that it will entail has hardly started. This year’s Smart City Index suggests that the cities that have been able to combine technologies, leadership and a strong culture of ‘living and acting together’ should be able to better withstand the most damaging effects of such crises.” Bruno Lanvin, President of the IMD Smart City Observatory.

1. Singapore

Singapore was elected the smartest city in the world. Singapore is considered to be the city of tomorrow for many reasons. Since 2020, the city has been home to the first industry-led smart city lab in Southeast Asia. The Smart Urban Co-Innovation Lab consists of more than 30 companies, such as Amazon Web Services, Cisco Systems, and Schneider Electric, collaborating with local tech start-ups and international partners to further develop smart city technologies. Singapore introduced many smart city projects in all aspects of life, for example, by:

– Using an autonomous fleet to help older people or those with limited mobility move around

– Adopting robotics and AI-powered chatbots talk to the elderly to provide relevant information and reduce loneliness

– Digitising the healthcare system that, amongst other things, allows for TeleHealth video consultations and TeleRehab

– Providing apps that enable to hail self-driving vehicles, access information tailored to specific demographics, and receive location-specific environmental alerts

Gather citizens perceptions and insights using Hello Lamp Post’s communication participation technology

2. Helsinki

The capital of Finland became the second smartest city in the world. Mayor of Helsinki Jan Vapaavuori said that Helsinki attracts many pilot projects because of its open data policy. Furthermore, Helsinki offers:

– A waste management system that transports waste via an underground pipe system

– A large amount of data analysation that feeds into upcoming planning and construction projects in the city

Digital forms for more administrative procedures and matters

– An incentive for people to walk or use environmentally friendly transport, where people collect points which they can exchange for a free sauna visit

3. Zurich

Switzerland’s city Zurich focuses on three main areas in its smart strategy: Future forms of integrated public mobility, digital city, and smart participation. Thereby, many smart projects are carried out, such as:

Pikmi – an on-demand taxi service that uses car-pooling to transport more than one passenger at a time that wants to travel in the same direction

LoRaWan – a Long Range Wide Area Network that lays the ground for IoT sensors in public spaces that can help to measure pollution, water values, and free parking lots

HoloPlanning – With augmented reality glasses such as the “HoloLens,” future buildings, underground pipelines, and much more are made visible on-site as semi-transparent 3D holograms

4. Auckland

Smart Street Pilot – which utilises data in a real-world situation to improve operational effectiveness, efficiency, safety, and resilience across all transportation modes and services

Auckland Hospital Digital Twin – allows for troubleshooting quickly and tracking asset management, helping to reduce cost

– Scan & Go – a Covid 19 response to make shopping safer. New technologies were used to create this app that allows shoppers to scan, bag, and pay for groceries all from their smartphones, reducing contact between people

5. Oslo

The European Commission awarded Oslo with the title European Green capital in 2019. The cities efforts to become more intelligent and more efficient can be seen in multiple initiatives, for example, with:

Oslo Toll Ring – an automated toll system that offers incentive rates for zero-emission vehicles and generates revenues that help to finance the city’s mobility programmes

FutureBuilt – a programme that involves setting up 50 building and neighbourhood development projects, bringing together private and public partners to support construction projects that reduce carbon footprint by 50 %, compared to current standards

Smart Oslo Accelerator – a platform that makes it easier for local councillors and the private sector, particularly start-ups, to meet

6. Copenhagen

Copenhagen is working actively on making the city cleaner, healthier and smarter, tackling the issues that arise with a growing population. Many data-driven smart-city IT solutions are tested in Copenhagen’s Solutions lab, to ensure that the City’s needs are met. Besides that, Copenhagen provides free access to public data sources to drive innovations like the City’s tech solution that helps to predict free parking spots by combining historical data, real-time data, algorithms, and machine learning.

7. Geneva

“Transforming the territory, for and with its inhabitants” is the slogan with which the Canton of Geneva launched the Smart Geneva initiative. Geneva also prides itself in having a smart parking system that works based on a series of sensors that inform drivers directly on their phones, which can help to decrease traffic significantly. Besides that, Geneva offers modular lighting, more sustainable recycling services, and increased public safety.

8. Taipei City

Taiwan’s urban centres that collect data through sensors are the focus of the national digitalisation strategy. Taipei City offers multiple solutions that are designed to improve the quality of life for citizens, such as:

Taipei Navi – a mobile application that helps to find a vehicle’s location

Taipei City CooC-Cloud – a digital learning platform that is designed to eliminate the knowledge gap between the rural and urban areas and provide free courses

– Smart Public Housing – visualises residents’ water, electricity and gas consumptions to encourage resource-saving behaviour

9. Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of Europe’s most famous cities for many reasons, such as its universities, tourist attractions, and its vast number of cyclists. However, Amsterdam also made the top ten ranking as a smart city for reasons like:

– The fact that the city is an open data source. This means that everyone has access to information and data set collections

– The MijnBuur app, which is designed to help citizens build neighbourly relationships. The app allows neighbors to communicate directly to alert each other of dangers or point out things that need to be done in the apartment building

The Amsterdam Smart City Initiative (ASC) – uses statistics from insurance companies to find out areas with high levels of people with depression that did not have access to the necessary care-taking resources

More projects include: schemes like Repair Cafes or Tool Lending Libraries, which are often run exclusively by the public, for the public

10. New York

– Recycling old phone boxes and turning them into kiosks – this allows people to charge their devices and connect them to the kiosk to get fast, free WiFi

– Leveraging IoT using GPS trackers – keeps New Yorkers informed about when buses will arrive. The sensors on the buses are also able to communicate with traffic lights, which will turn green when a bus arrives. This enables buses to reach their destination on time.

– The BigBelly is a smart trash can – that is equipped with a wireless sensor to monitor trash levels which helps pick up services to optimise their routes


It becomes clear that innovation is happening everywhere, and cities are striving to increase the quality of life for their residents, while becoming more environmentally friendly. While technology and technological developments were the focus over the past years for many cities, innovation centred around the citizen is now a primary focus for smart cities. Communication participation technology connects cities and governments with citizens, which furthers communication, drives innovation, and highlights pain points – to help create the cities of tomorrow. You want to learn more about this? Have a look at our blog post about the 100 most relevant questions on Civic Tech, Citizen Participatory Technology, and everything in between.Back