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How smart is the Smart City?

Innovation & Sustainability

2 January 2019

The prospect of the Smart City has been on the horizon for decades. And while a number of cities have made the leap and started making smart use of IT and data to address specific urban problems, the majority are still stuck on figuring out which approach to choose – top-down or bottom-up. The evidence suggests that the latter is the most viable in the long term.

Although the idea of the ‘Smart City’ has been floating around for decades, there is still no clear definition of the term. If you analyse the numerous articles, research studies and whitepapers that have appeared on the topic to date, you can only conclude that there are multiple definitions being used, and that it depends to a large extent on the vantage point of those involved whether a city qualifies as ‘smart’. Local governments, for instance, tend to emphasise the use of new technologies (including the latest IT solutions) and data to improve a city’s quality of life and promote community engagement, while major IT companies such as IBM and Cisco prioritise the more efficient use of scarce public resources at lower costs. The public, meanwhile, is likely to cite aspects such as ‘good public transport facilities’, ‘public safety’ and ‘public information’.

Although the Smart City concept ultimately encompasses all of these factors, there are several distinctions to be made. Smart City initiatives can be roughly divided into two main approaches: top-down and bottom-up.

In the top-down or technology-based approach, a network of sensors and cameras is set up in a city, or in certain neighbourhoods, which are then connected to a single virtual platform so as to facilitate more effective and efficient urban management. Glasgow, for example, is working on a ‘state-of-the-art integrated traffic and public safety management system’ under the name Glasgow Operations Centre.

The Spanish city of Santander has also embraced the top-down approach. The port city, situated in the Cantabria region on Spain’s north coast, has installed more than 12,000 sensors. Electric street signs identify free parking spots and direct nearby drivers to available spaces, waste bins indicate when they need to be emptied, and humidity sensors in public parks and gardens ensure that green spaces are watered only when necessary.

Let there be no mistake: there’s some serious money being pumped into Smart Cities. Cisco, for one, recently announced plans to invest an additional one billion dollars worldwide in smart technologies. Google and the City of Toronto are building a $1 billion smart neighbourhood, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates intends to spend 80 million dollars to create his own Smart City in Arizona.

Since implementing a comprehensive top-down strategy tends to be both technically complex and extremely costly, many cities are opting to address only certain specific urban problems using this approach. The City of New York, for example, is using a network of wireless pollution sensors called ‘NYC Breathe’ which are fitted to lorries, taxis and cars to monitor carbon emission levels in the city. The City of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, meanwhile, is introducing its own Smart City project, ‘Roadmap Urban Lighting Eindhoven 2030’, which involves the development of innovative light applications in public spaces, including connected LED street lights.

Improving quality of life

A comprehensive top-down approach is essentially only suited for all-new cities built from the ground up, such as Songdo in South Korea and Masdar in the United Arab Emirates. Given that both these urban projects have been facing major setbacks and are struggling to deliver on their promises, overly ambitious plans are more likely to hurt than help Smart Cities. Bill Gates would do well to take note.

That’s why many cities are choosing to take a bottom-up approach, with a focus on using modern communication technology (including social media, websites and mobile apps) and open data platforms to enable the public to solve day-to-day problems, communicate more effectively with local authorities, and maybe even pick up some new skills along the way. A bottom-up approach, in other words, hinges on getting the public more involved in their living environment in order to literally improve quality of life ‘from the bottom up’.

Both Tel Aviv and Amsterdam have adopted this approach to the Smart City. Tel Aviv residents can access a variety of municipal services through an online platform called the DigiTel Residents Club. The city’s mayor, Ron Huldai, is the driving force behind the Urban Innovation Project, which challenges individuals and businesses to share innovative and inspiring ideas that will improve the quality of life for the city’s residents and promote community involvement.

The City of Amsterdam has laid out similar plans to use technology and open data to improve the city’s quality of life and make it more sustainable. More than 100 projects have been rolled out with just that objective, some of which involve a partnership with a local start-up called Olisto. Amsterdam residents can use the Olisto app to locate free parking spaces and electric charging stations, as well as check the fill level of the nearest plastic recycling container.


It’s hard to predict along what lines the Smart City will develop over the next few decades. If the development of IoT will take off to the extent predicted by experts, cities are sure to take advantage of the solutions offered by this fledgling industry – provided they have access to inexpensive, error-free and energy-efficient sensors and advanced AI and Machine Learning capacity. The bottom-up approach, while requiring lower investment, only works if virtually all residents have mobile connectivity – which certainly is not yet the case for all large metropolitan areas worldwide. There are also still some issues regarding privacy, the ownership and use of public data, and the blurring of the boundaries between commercial and public duties and interests which need to be worked out for the Smart City to become the new standard.

Also read: ‘“Smart ecosystems” can give digital governments a boost’