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Smart cities: What it takes to build one

Smart city initiatives promise to attract people and businesses to cities, modernize infrastructure, reduce costs, increase accessibility, and protect the environment. But to move from concept to reality, investment and shared commitment are key.

Smart cities: We've been hearing about them for years, but what exactly constitutes a smart city, and are there any out there for real yet?

According to Smart London Board member Jen Hawes-Hewitt, smart cities are built on four basic elements: use of data and emerging technology, integration of technology across multiple verticals, innovative models of service provisioning, and cross-sector collaboration.

In short, while the concept of smart cities originated as primarily a "tech push," today's smart city architects "tend to take a more holistic view," says Michael Bird, host of this episode of Technology Untangled.

Please read: Where are all those smart cities we were promised?

And, yes, there are cities moving toward such a model, the experts say, using technologies to solve a wide range of problems and thus improve the quality of life for residents—from guiding commuters to available parking spaces or the least congested routes to increasing energy efficiencies via electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind farms.

"It's about taking lots of different sources of data and bringing value from those for the citizen," says Ian Henderson, a chief technologist at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. The challenge, however, is to "take lots of disparate sources of data and share those in a secure way that's accepted by the citizen as well."

Why smart cities?

While smart city initiatives aim to make cities more attractive to people and businesses, modernize infrastructure to meet growing populations, and reduce costs, they're also increasingly about the need to reduce cities' carbon footprints by lessening the environmental impact of transport, heating, lighting, and other services.

Please read: Three starting points when building a smart city

What determines whether a smart city effort gets off the ground? Investment, say the experts, pointing to Dubai as an example of a top-down approach in which the government invested in installing an overarching smart city platform and then adding to it in increments. In contrast, other initiatives start with small projects and build up over time.

The tech behind smart cities

Smart city projects can include smart lighting, traffic management, and even the ability to identify the sound of gunshots—and what makes such things possible are technologies like 5G, augmented reality, and, of course, the Internet of Things. But it's not just about IoT sensors, Henderson says, noting those are harder to install and maintain than, say, a camera on top of a lamppost. "Actually, it doesn't matter how you get the data," he says. "As long as you get data, you can do something with it."

Please read: Smart cities: Who owns the data?

Hawes-Hewitt agrees: "It's not like there's one emerging tech, but I think it's almost the approach a city has to embracing tech, seeing it as a growth opportunity, seeing it as an opportunity to innovate, seeing it as an opportunity to have a discussion with their citizens about how they can maximize the upside of that tech in their day-to-day lives."

Smart city success

In London, smart tech is doing everything from monitoring air conditioning, escalators, and trains to proactively keep them running to collecting anonymized Wi-Fi data to better understand how citizens use the network as they move about the city, enabling government agencies to offer new services based on needs, says Hawes-Hewitt.

Another success she points to is Invest Ottawa in Canada, which is providing a test bed for private-public collaboration on a wide range of projects, including autonomous vehicles, smart agriculture, last-mile delivery via drones, smart intersections, and many other initiatives.

"It's been a great success," she says. "It has proven that it can become a real opportunity to bring to life some of these concepts that have been living on a drawing board and actually test and trial them in the build environment."

Please read: Designing smart cities we want to live in

But smart cities are not just about pushing the boundaries of technology, the experts say. Central to the idea is addressing social and environmental issues such as accessibility and sustainability. And being able to sense and control resource supply and demand to create greater efficiencies is a big part of that, says Kirk Bresniker, chief architect at Hewlett Packard Labs.

"It's not just a technical question. It's also a culture and society question," Bresniker says. "If it's not sustainable, we can't afford it for everyone to be able to use it. And that's not an equitable solution."

Listen to other episodes:

What AI means for you and your business―now and in the future

As-a-service: What it is and how it's changing the face of IT and business

Sustainable tech: Good for the planet, good for business

The edge: Data wherever you need to be

The IoT: Where real-time insights drive real-time action

Digital ethics: The good and bad of tech

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.