Smart Cities For Dummies
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In June 2015, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced the Smart Cities Mission, an urban renewal-and-retrofitting program to develop 109 cities all over India to make them citizen-friendly and sustainable. The smart city mission recognized that considerable investment and a deliberate strategy are required to address the large number of significant challenges facing these communities. Without action, old, broken, and insufficient systems would continue to dominate the landscape and completely miss the mark in meeting expectations and improving the lives of millions of people.

In many communities around the world, some services are still delivered the way they have been for decades. A walk-in service that was designed for, say, 100 people per day 30 years ago remains the same, even though it now has to serve 1,000 people per day. The result? No one is happy. Crowding, errors, and insufficient processes cause frustration for both the service provider and the customer.

The challenges of old, broken, and inefficient solutions can be observed and experienced across the urban landscape. This list describes some problem areas:

  • Traffic congestion: Despite the addition of more lanes, congestion grows worse. Parking spaces are scarce, and traffic becomes snarled as drivers meander the streets, desperately looking for spots. This frustration, by the way, causes up to 30 percent of traffic in urban centers.
  • Flooding: After rainstorms, water floods the streets and, freshwater flows out to the ocean instead of being captured for productive use.
  • Public transport: The lack of options restricts employment choices for people who can’t travel to available jobs.
  • Internet access: Unevenly distributed access to the Internet creates a life-limiting digital divide. Even where access is provided, Internet speed can vary considerably.
  • Environmental damage: A dependency on carbon-based energy results in continued and potentially irreversible damage to the environment.
You know your own city’s issues because you know your city best. These aren’t hidden problems. Everyone experiences them in their respective communities every single day. The need for better solutions isn’t an abstract concept. Cities are our lives. More than many problems in the world, all city dwellers experience the challenges of urban life firsthand.

Ask anyone to specify what problems exist in their community and you’ll get a detailed answer. Residents know what their cities do well, but they know really well what their cities don’t do well. (That sentence is a tongue twister.)

Who would argue against the suggestions that cities need to function better and that more people deserve to have a better quality of life? Of course, no one would. To apply solutions, supported by new and existing technologies, to make cities function in a smarter way — that’s the case for building smart cities.

Small cities versus large cities

It may surprise you to read that most people around the world live in small cities — the ones with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants. Based on how cities are covered in the media, this statistic is surprising even to me. You might think that most people live in the world’s megacities, or in the many cities in China with well over a million people. The big, glamorous cities of the world garner all the attention while most of the people live in the smaller, lesser known cities.

This is an important point relative to smart cities: Large cities need innovation, and their challenges are definitely big and complex. Attention to these cities and their successes is welcomed because it does motivate further innovation and provides best practices for others. They also create benchmarks and indices that help frame and understand progress being made worldwide to improve cities. However, you must recognize that the smart city movement is applicable to all cities, large and small.

The problems experienced by cities large and small certainly have some overlap, but many are also distinct. For example, traffic congestion is an issue in any urban setting (there are certainly exceptions, but cities without back-to-back traffic at some point in the day are sadly too rare).

Where cities large and small greatly vary is in their ability to solve their challenges and the way they approach them. Smaller communities have more modest budgets, less access to specific talent, and not as much capacity available. However, on the positive side, they can also make decisions more quickly and get things done in less time.

If you live in or work for a small city, the smart city movement is as applicable to you as it is to the mayor of New York City. It’s vital to have better-operating communities and a higher quality of life for everyone in every city.

Smart nations and other smart things

You’ve probably noticed that the term smart has become quite popular. Who hasn’t heard of a smart home or a smart device? (Okay, Siri. Hey, Google. Hi, Alexa.) Many people own smartphones and buy products made with smart manufacturing at a smart factory. Apparently, people like the term. Marketers apparently do, too. It seems we’re using it liberally to suggest something that is innovative, connected, and technology-centric. That certainly fits for some of the aspirations of a smart city.

Let’s look at a few other relevant smart items:

  • Smart island: Eleven percent of the world’s population lives on an island. Island communities are eager to become self-sufficient and reduce their carbon footprints. The nature of island life means that residents have always had to be quite innovative to sustain their communities. Islands are also experiencing the effects of climate change in advance of others. The need to innovate in this area is pressing. Energy costs have historically been high due to a reliance on imports, so a focus on renewables and smart grid technology has become a priority. Island communities around the world are collaborating to share their lessons with each other. You can consider a smart island a microcosm of a smart city. The image below lists some islands that are pursuing a smart island strategy.

    smart island initiatives Eight examples of islands with smart island initiatives.
  • Smart nation: This term is most associated with the efforts of Singapore. (Learn more about this aspect of Singapore.) However, it’s being adopted by other countries to reflect a whole-of-nation effort to become more connected and more efficient, and to improve the lives of all people in a country. In Singapore, much effort is placed on digital services. Objectives include services that are digital end-to-end, score high in community satisfaction, and make use of artificial intelligence, data, and data analytics to improve government decision-making and reduce the time to deliver services.
  • Smart stadium: The purpose of a smart stadium is to improve the experience of fans. New stadiums are being built with technology deeply integrated, and many older, world-class stadiums are being retrofitted. These stadiums have fast Internet connectivity, provide additional real-time insights to the audience via big screens and smartphones, and use data to provide information on available parking spaces and the length of bathroom lines.
  • Smart factory: This type of highly connected manufacturing facility uses artificial intelligence, robotics, analytics, data, and the Internet of Things to largely run autonomously. Production lines can self-correct and learn in order to become more efficient and flexible. Data from a smart factory can improve the supply chain and the design process, resulting in increased production optimization and higher-quality products.
  • Smart hospital: The concept and implementation of a smart hospital is beginning to gain traction, although most of the goals are still aspirational. Using data, artificial intelligence, and connected devices, hospitals can become more efficient and increase positive outcomes for patients. In addition, robots can deliver routine services 24 hours a day with predictability and at a lower cost than their human equivalents.
Other smart domains include smart regions, smart villages, smart airports, and smart campuses.

United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2015, after several decades in the making, 193 countries signed the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda is made up of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that contain 169 targets. These include ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, making cities more sustainable, combating climate change, and protecting oceans and forests. The goals are focused on these five broad areas:
  • People
  • Planet
  • Prosperity
  • Peace
  • Partnership
The participating countries committed to meeting these goals in 15 years by 2030.

At the signing ceremony in 2015, UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-moon said, “It is a roadmap to ending global poverty, building a life of dignity for all and leaving no one behind. It is also a clarion call to work in partnership and intensify efforts to share prosperity, empower people’s livelihoods, ensure peace and heal our planet for the benefit of this and future generations.”

In short, the 17 SDGs are the world's plan to build a better world for people and the planet by 2030.

Here's a listing of all 17 SDGs; see the image below for a graphical representation:

  • End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  • End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.
  • Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  • Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  • Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  • Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  • Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.
  • Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.
  • Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.
  • Reduce inequality within and among countries.
  • Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.
  • Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
  • Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  • Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.
  • Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
  • Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  • Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
UN Sustainable Development Goals The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

There’s a clear intersection between the SDGs and cities. With over half the planet living in cities already — and up to 70 percent by 2050 — if countries are going to make good on their commitments, a lot of the work will require efforts within cities.

Take a moment to review each of the 17 SDGs again, and consider them through the lens of urban efforts. It becomes glaringly obvious that action must happen at the local city level to achieve these macro outcomes. They’re not all city-based, but many of them are. Out of 17 goals, numbers 6–16 clearly have a direct or indirect city alignment, and goal 11 is a central city challenge.

The intent of smart cities and all 17 goals overlap in important ways. Many of the themes — such as inclusion, the environment, resilience, sustainability, innovation, and health — are areas that smart

If you needed more justification for your sustainable smart city strategy, beyond the specific requirements of your community, you don’t need to look much further than the SDGs. It seems well aligned and supportable that if your goals are to improve the quality of life for your community, you’re likely directly contributing toward the intent of the SDGs. The topic can help with your project planning and with shaping the dialogue around your smart city strategy.

Integrating aspects of the SDGs into your smart city strategy can add credibility and increased value to your efforts. Introduce the SDGs early in the process, and determine what areas are good complements and targets.

Elevate your knowledge of your city’s smart city work to your national SDG leadership so that the contributing efforts can be captured and recognized.

Finally, the ambitious targets of the SDGs can’t be achieved by cities working in siloes. Exploring regional efforts will not only increase the chance of better results but also may provide opportunities for smart city strategy and urban innovation knowledge and cost sharing.

Check out additional details and all 169 SDG targets and current progress.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Dr. Jonathan Reichental is a multiple-award-winning technology and business leader whose career has spanned both the private and public sectors. He's been a senior software engineering manager, a director of technology innovation, and has served as chief information officer at both O'Reilly Media and the city of Palo Alto, California. He also creates online education for LinkedIn Learning and others.

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