What Makes a City Smart?

Originally published on ReadWrite on July 17, 2017

After Mobile World Congress and IoT World earlier this year, buzz accelerated around 5G, smart mobility, IoT (Internet of Things) and smart cities. There is palatable excitement around what the future holds in these areas and the possibilities of tomorrow. The fervor is driving momentum on many fronts.

Unfortunately, there are many soldiers on the battlefield without a battle plan.

Smart cities need a guiding, orchestration framework.

The smart cities of tomorrow require more than simply deploying connectivity, sensors and devices. Incrementalism will not serve cities well. Foresight and planning are necessary to realize cities that are truly smart.

Here are 10 key elements that are required for cities to be truly deemed smart and for understanding any given smart city initiative in context.


It’s tough for a city to be smart without redundant, high-speed, low-latency wireless communications. That’s why 5G has so much attention and is so exciting.

For 5G to be maximally effective, the deployment strategy needs to bring 5G closer to the “action” than where a lot of 4G currently resides. To support real-time decisioning for autonomous vehicles, for example, 5G needs to live on the street. It needs to be directly paired with curbside cameras, sensors and processing that can, without a nanosecond of delay, support high-speed vehicles in motion. Or augmented reality interfaces. Or drone coordination.

Nevertheless, smart city architectures must also include low power wireless access (LPWA) that supports power-limited devices. For example, consider battery-powered devices floating in wells that report water level once a day, or devices of that ilk. An energy-efficient communication protocol is paramount in such scenarios.


Smart city solutions demand advanced energy networks that are sustainable, secure, dynamic and resilient. The Enernet. It’s part and parcel with a smart city.

You can’t grant a city the moniker of “smart” without resilient, advanced energy.

Consider this. There isn’t an IT engineer on the planet that would build a data center without a UPS (uninterrupted power supply) and backup power. Why would we plan for anything less with high-value city infrastructure?

If communications and intelligence systems are only available when the grid is up, we fail citizens during catastrophes and extraordinary events, when they need services the most.


Security of smart city platforms needs to be deeply considered and integrated upfront, not as an afterthought. Unsecure solutions are not acceptable. Access protocols and communications require an advanced security architecture that keep out malicious agents. Further, overrides and mandatory upgrade paths must be embedded into the architecture to prevent and mitigate the runaway impacts from attacks.

Security is about more than protecting systems and places; it is also about the privacy of citizens that pass near city equipment. Smart solutions must respect citizens. Even if the technology lives in public places, citizen privacy bears upfront consideration before we find ourselves over our proverbial skis.


Rightfully, a healthy amount of smart city work has been focused on data capture. Smart cities are instrumenting literally everything possible and continuously adding new data capture capabilities. Weather, wind direction and intensity, road surface temperatures and conditions, air quality, radiation, pollutants, foot traffic, vehicle traffic, wildlife, soil moisture, noise pollution, light levels, pollen, water quality, water levels, vibration, tilt, sewage flow rates, valve pressure, cameras and so on.

That’s important, but data alone is not enough to make a city smart. Smart requires a corresponding, tiered architecture for processing that data and acting on the derived conclusions.


In the cities of tomorrow, we will be dealing with volumes of data and needs around decision speed that won’t allow for sending everything back to centralized processing in the cloud. Things will move too fast for proverbial soldiers to wait for central command to tell them when to shoot. Just think about the coming dynamism needed for autonomous vehicles and drones, for example.

Municipal systems cannot be deployed as a set of dumb nodes tied to an intelligent core. High-value nodes must be built with local processing resources that operate seamlessly as a tiered participant in a distributed network. Our municipal infrastructure must coalesce into an incredible, distributed processing fabric: an extended, “living” system, connected and rich with data.

Smart cities must develop architectures that extend the processing capabilities to the sidewalk.

To support network-efficient, low latency, real-time decisions required for dynamic traffic management, augmented reality and beyond, smart cities need to deploy computational power at key locations and nodes. Curbside data centers.


Storage goes hand in hand with compute. To be smart, cities also need to deploy storage at the very most edges of our communications infrastructure as part of a tiered storage and caching network. The immense volumes of data we’ll accumulate each minute will require pairing with local storage to avoid needless, crippling network congestion.

Consider this. Each autonomous vehicle alone is projected to generate roughly 4 TB of daily data. Beyond vehicles, high definition video from multiple cameras at thousands of nodes across a city (to cloud centers) will be impractical and wasteful to ship in whole to central command. Local storage can be paired with local processing to dynamically extract insights and identify data for retention or for relay to cloud resources.

Local storage will also be needed for dynamic, curbside content delivery networking.

Caching is also important for delivery of next generation content. Augmented and virtual reality cannot withstand latency in delivery of assets. Media assets for such immersive content must be available instantaneously to make those capabilities reliably available throughout a city.

In short, smart cities must also develop architectures that extend storage capacity to the sidewalk. They must evolve to feature highly distributed and dynamic storage arrays embedded throughout the city.


Even the brightest minds fail in getting everything in complex systems 100% right the first time around. That will be true of both hardware and software for smart cities.

Thus, smart city infrastructure needs to be maintainable and upgradable. We simply can’t require ripping up of concrete and working through lengthy planning processes for every improvement to our city infrastructure. Technology moves too fast.

Cities need to standardize the street-side smart city “server rack”.

Deployed infrastructure also needs to anticipate maintenance, managed upgrades and future extensions. That will certainly require technical foresight, but also new agreements with municipalities and unions that define operating norms and allowances.


With distributed cache and compute, comes the natural question of development platforms for 3rd parties. Smart city technology vendors, in partnership with municipal leadership, and with security in mind, must identify ways to thoughtfully expose access to resources, data and APIs to create new intelligence, apps and experiences.

No company or individual has a monopoly on innovation.

Even Steve Jobs couldn’t have foreseen the diversity of applications that emerged atop the iPhone platform. Apple relied on 3rd parties and a broad base of development talent to create apps like Instagram, Lyft and Airbnb that weren’t even imagined on launch day for the first iPhone.

Of course, we can’t simply create a smart city “app store” that allows developers to self-publish. We need focused attention and an advanced approval processes to safely yet expeditiously determine what gets published to the “production” environment of our streets.


With consumer devices, we’re on a trajectory for interfaces from wired (PC) to wireless (smartphone) to ambient (Alexa). Similarly, truly smart cities will turn public spaces into interfaces.

Smart cities will define strategies around “ambient” interactions via voice and augmented reality. It’s about a future of smart cities as seamlessly interactive spaces. (It’s worth noting that the idea that “space becomes the interface” has profound implications for architects and urban planners.)


Being generous, municipal and utility infrastructure has tended toward unattractive. By definition, utilitarian. We can and must do better to make the public infrastructure that supports our daily lives beautiful, inspirational and engaging.

To be smart, city infrastructure needs to inspire and engage.

Smartphones didn’t ignite their rocket ship trajectory in adoption or capability until product design lit the spark of inspiration and imagination. We won’t realize the full potential of smart cities until design changes attitudes, adoption and acceleration.


Leave no doubt, creation of a cohesive smart city solution is an ambitious undertaking. We must demand nothing less than platforms that are flexible and well-thought out.

The future of our economy, national security, world standing and cultural evolution will be intimately tied to how our cities evolve in capability and sophistication. We need investment in cohesive solutions that avoid burning cash on incrementalism. We must focus on the platform, not simply adding peripherals.

It’s entirely doable. Everything described above had to be solved to bring iPhone and Android smartphones to market. Let’s take a similarly thoughtful and powerful approach to building the smart cities of tomorrow.