clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

"Smart" Cities and the Urban Digital Revolution

Last year, Los Angeles became the first city in the world to synchronize its traffic lights -- all 4,500 of them.

Smog, sewage and congestion are three of the hallmarks of contemporary urban living. But these downsides to city living are gradually becoming things of the past. City planners are finding new ways to address these inefficiencies, leveraging connected technology to create smarter hubs that work for city dwellers.

Welcome to the era of “smart” cities. Advances in wireless sensor systems, information and communication technology (ICT), and infrastructure allow cities to collect and curate huge amounts of data capable of sustaining and improving urban life thanks to the new and ever-growing web of connected technology: The Internet of Things (IoT).

Last year, Los Angeles became the first city in the world to synchronize its traffic lights — all 4,500 of them — reducing traffic time on major LA corridors by about 12 percent, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. In Singapore, city authorities are testing smart systems for managing parking and waste disposal to adjust to daily and weekly patterns. In New York City, mobile air pollution monitors help city leaders pinpoint those neighborhoods most affected by smog and pollutants, so residents can modify their commuting paths and preferred modes of transportation to avoid exposure to higher levels of pollution.

And cities across the U.S. — including Chicago, Seattle and Washington, D.C. — are hiring chief technology officers to oversee broad implementation of digital systems and technologies. As more and more city functions evolve from analog to digital, it makes sense for municipalities to put the improvement, functionality and security of those systems into one department. These city CTOs will quickly become indispensable cabinet positions.

So what does it take for a city to earn the “smart” moniker? Smart cities around the globe have many differences but importantly they share a few common traits. These cities invest in infrastructure and people in ways that lead to a more connected, better-informed and more-efficient environment. The dynamic use of knowledge to improve both the utilization of scarce resources and a higher quality of life for its citizens is the hallmark of a smart city.

Since the first Industrial Revolutions fueled the explosion in urban population growth, municipal governments have looked for ways to efficiently run services for densely located networks of people. The challenges of urban life have historically produced results that are less than adequate. But as sensors become more affordable and more ubiquitous, city officials have access to systems that their predecessors could never have imagined. Today, sensors are being used to monitor and dynamically adjust important public services, from parking availability to public transportation to snow removal to security.

IoT promises to put cities across the globe on the fast track to becoming “smart.” But we’re not there quite yet. The evolution of IoT involves three distinct phases. First, physical objects facilitate access to digital information. Second, physical objects are embedded with digital sensors to capture and transmit relevant information. And finally, physical objects receive digital prompts and cues which then alter the state of the physical object. This final stage will result in a seamless physical-digital sphere that holds tremendous promise in the building of smart cities.

As a society, we’re barely in the middle of phase one — most of our physical objects are not yet connected, though connection alone is not enough. Cities must also have the infrastructure for efficient data transactions: How information flows from Point A to Point B. Indeed, all city services are based on a calculation of where to expend precious resources. The more data available for these calculations, the more sophisticated and tailored they become. An example, driverless cars alone won’t solve a city’s traffic problems — but driverless cars that signal street sensors will give city officials the appropriate data to improve traffic patterns. This will require city governments to work in tandem with private companies, whether they manufacture cars or operate garbage dumps.

The challenges facing cities on the path to being “smart” are large and varied. It will require a new way of thinking — akin to mastering a new language. Nevertheless, modern cities everywhere are moving in one inexorable direction: Toward a future where city governance and urban living will be as connected as the functions on your smartphone.

Shawn DuBravac is the chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the author of the forthcoming book “Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live and Communicate.” Follow him @ShawnDubravac.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.