Defining the ‘Smart City’

With an expected $124 billion to be spent this year on smart city technologies (source: International Data Corporation (IDC)), it’s clear that more cities are trying to leverage data and data sources in the hopes of becoming ‘smart’.

With that said, the IDC also predicts that ten to thirty percent of smart city internet-of-things (IoT) projects are going to fail as a result of poorly organized frameworks for the effective deployment of these new technologies.

As a result, stakeholders have started to rethink their goals for smart cities moving forward asking themselves if “smart technologies” are necessary for creating truly Smart Cities.

As part of Connect’DX, our first virtual tradeshow, we were fortunate enough to be able to speak with city experts Captain Jeff Jordon, city of San Diego, Sameer Sharma, Intel Global General Manager for Smart Cities and Intelligent Transportation, and Bob Carter Genetec Commercial Head of the cities practice, about what exactly is meant by ‘Smart Cities’, and what stands in the way of public and private stakeholders when it comes to achieving this vision.  

It’s not just about technology

It’s crucial to acknowledge the importance of technological advancement in defining the ‘smart’ city, but what the experts agree on is the idea that ‘smartness’ itself comes from a city’s ability to innovate in a way that benefits communities as well as public and private businesses, regardless of technology. 

What this means is that technology itself is not an end, but rather a means to achieve innovation. So it’s important for city stakeholders to first define clear actionable goals, and to then use technology as a powerful means to achieving those goals, rather than having technology just for the sake of it. 

Prioritizing interconnection

A ‘smart’ city is one that openly shares data across all jurisdictions, both public and private, to better serve the needs of a community as a whole.

To put it into context, picture a private business owner being able to quickly share digital evidence of a crime that occurred near their place of business with their local police force. The local police force can then correlate other nearby sources of data to speed up the investigative process and find the culprit(s). 

This benefit of interconnectivity was exemplified by Detroit’s Project Green Light which led to a 50% decrease in crime as a result of the collaboration between private gas stations and local law enforcement. 

Interconnected city graphic

The idiosyncratic city

From the perspective of Captain Jeff Jordon, who’s been in the police force for 26 years, each city has its own unique needs, and, therefore, each city will have its own deployments of innovative solutions. What separates a city from a smart city is its ability to identify those specific challenges and adapt accordingly.

For the city of San Diego, this was the Smart Streetlights Program. To reduce energy consumption and promote innovative solutions among communities, the Smart Streetlights Program deployed sensors in multiple streetlights across the city, giving its citizens, businesses, and public agencies open access to the data.

While this initiative made sense for the city of San Diego, other cities need to identify their own sets of challenges to prioritize issues that need to be solved.

However, achieving this vision can be challenging. Some of the key challenges identified include siloed data, lack of scalability, and the movement toward transparent use of data.  

Cities without silos

One of the biggest challenges facing the development of smart cities is data silos. Data silos make it difficult for cities to achieve true interconnection and data transparency.

After all, the goal of a smart city is to benefit all stakeholders, from public to private. This means that collaboration and data sharing between these parties is a crucial aspect of establishing a smart city.

The openness of information and unification of data essentially allow for widespread use of data among several parties, covering the whole city infrastructure. With the openness of data, each stakeholder can contribute to, and derive insights from data lakes, repositories of structured and unstructured data.


Scalability is a crucial factor to consider when taking into account the dynamic nature of our cities. As Sameer Sharma, who has been working with Intel for over 20 years, puts it, “Our workforce is dynamic, it’s mobile, so people are moving in and out, people are growing up. Kids are growing into adults, new jobs are coming in, lots of changes are happening. How does your technology infrastructure keep up with it?” 

Cities are inherently dynamic and ever-changing. The challenge smart cities are facing now is their ability to establish a network and infrastructure that can remain relevant and adaptable throughout the coming years and decades. 

Data transparency 

The goal of smart cities is not to accumulate vast amounts of data at the expense of community privacy. Rather, the idea is to educate the community on how certain types of data can be used to benefit their well being.

As privacy concerns and regulations rise to the top of everyone’s mind, how can city stakeholders communicate their intentions when it comes to data usage, and how can they ensure data privacy and data transparency moving forward? 

By next year, the IDC predict that 75% of public safety technologies will have policy-based regulatory and ethical specifications as a result of pressure from citizens and advocates for data transparency and acceptable use.

Coupled with the idea that entire networks will have to be secured to ensure no data leaks take place, cities have much work left to do when it comes to securing infrastructure, networks, and communities. 

While these challenges pose a threat to the overall adoption and deployment of smart city technologies, our experts have provided some words of advice for these stakeholders seeking to achieve this vision within their own cities. 

Advice from city experts

Since the vision for the smart city is to have it be connected, and beneficial to the entire community, input from various stakeholders will be necessary for defining exactly what the goals should be.

Given the number of important factors involved with the creation and deployment of smart city initiatives and technology, ranging from open access to data to cybersecurity, and transparency, it’s likely that a host of experts will need to chime in to establish a solid framework. 

The key piece of advice Cpt. Jeff Jordon provides on this insight is simply to remember that this process isn’t a quick one, but rather a lengthy and demanding one, as he puts it, “[…] this is a marathon. This is not a sprint to the finish line…”.

Engagement with key stakeholders such as law enforcement representatives, city planners, business owners, and citizens may take a long time, but it will be crucial in establishing a resilient plan that can effectively leverage technology. 

Goal definition

After conferring with expert stakeholders, the next step is to properly define a framework to tackle some of the more important issues facing a city, which would require immediate attention. The advice Bob Carter, commercial head of the cities practice at Genetec, offers is to not try to be everything to everyone, and not to try to solve all problems. 

It’s likely more insight is to be gained by approaching the solution iteratively—as your expertise grows in deploying smart technologies to solve issues, it’s likely your frameworks to solve those issues will also strengthen.

This same idea is the central theme of Ben Green’s The Smart Enough City: Putting Technology in Its Place to Reclaim Our Urban Future, where, in a nutshell, Green describes the smart enough city as one that has specific outcomes as goals, and uses technology to reach those goals, without deploying technology as an end-all solution.

Employing the right technology

While technology isn’t meant to be the central part of what defines a smart city, some technological solutions are more adaptable and scalable, meaning that they can be more easily manipulated to solve a wider variety of problems. 

A key piece of advice agreed upon by the experts is that deploying an open-architecture based, unifying technology has greater potential for adapting to concepts such as open data sharing, data lake contribution, and exploitation, as well as scalability for the uncertain future. 

By opting for this kind of technology, stakeholders can remain at peace by knowing that their current architecture won’t become irrelevant as soon as an inevitable, unanticipated event occurs. 

Cities should seek to be safe, innovative, open, resilient. So is the goal for smart cities really to be smart? The roadmap seems to suggest otherwise—while being smart is a desirable outcome, the concept of smartness itself is inherently misled. The smartness of the city should be defined by how it achieves a meaningful goal, and not how much technology it’s deployed. 

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About the Author

Brandon Huard-Nicholls, Industry Marketing Analyst, Genetec Inc.

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