Smart City, Next Generation

Macrotransformation through Microlocation

Across time, every burst of urban growth has been followed by a period of catch-up, in which we figure out how to manage our new, more complex reality. We are again experiencing this today, with more than half a million people sleeping on American streets every night and rents rising faster than income. In London, between 1997 and 2016, jobs grew 40 percent and population 25 percent, but housing capacity increased by just 15 percent. Commute times for the average American worker have hit new records, with an average of 225 hours—well over nine full days—a year commuting in traffic. 


Businesswoman looking out of a high office building window


As in the past, a critical condition for any city has been an understanding of the physical location that determines what it is and what it can become. That is why a city's sense of place is both its logistical platform and the social and emotional magnet that ties its residents together. 

The good news is that an explosion of embedded sensors, mobile devices, high-speed wireless connectivity, exponential data, and advanced analytics has built the foundation for a geospatial perspective to move beyond the back office. The result is the "smart city." McKinsey has found that smart city technologies can reduce fatalities by 8–10 percent, accelerate emergency response times by 20–35 percent, cut the average commute by 15–20 percent, lower the disease burden by 8–15 percent, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10–15 percent.


Map of city transportation systems


Despite retreats from modernity at national and global levels, progress has accelerated closer to the ground—in the world's metropolises, communities, and neighborhoods. Indeed, we are now witnessing the next generation of smart cities, where smart gets real. It's about intelligence not just in a city's macrosystems, but in its capacity to optimize microlocation for macrotransformation. 

A real smart city uses dynamic 3-D digital basemaps that provide real-time information on the condition of specific neighborhoods, blocks, and buildings—down to the floor, hallway, and room levels and up into the airspace above existing structures including rooftops. By making all that information available to managers; police; fire and other first responders; transit workers; health providers; grocers and shopkeepers; marketers; educators; social workers; and, most importantly, residents, anyone can know where the bus is and when it will arrive, where street repairs are containing a water main leak, where parking is and isn't available, where electric power use is surging, where air quality is declining, where planned construction will throw a beloved park into shadow, and where an office has detected the presence of coronavirus.

Older couple walking together on a city sidewalk


And as the pandemic crisis has shown, every resident can see where their neighbors in need are, and what they can do to help, becoming part of the city's collective solution. As International Data Corporation (IDC) analyst Alison Brooks puts it, "location is the grammar of smart cities." 

We see this playing out around the world, visible in four key pillars of what can be called the real smart city: 

  • Operational efficiency: Streamlining workflows and business processes to improve decision-making and locate resources for maximum benefit. The key tool here is the digital dashboard. 
  • Data-driven performance: Leveraging data streams from the Internet of Things (IoT), mobile devices, and sensors embedded in the city's infrastructure, vehicles, and buildings, analyzed with artificial intelligence. The results range from adaptive traffic signals to a broad shift from static to real-time decision-making across city and business services. 
  • Civic inclusion: Some first-wave smart cities ran up against cultural and societal roadblocks by rolling out technology without including residents. Real smart cities are engaging with communities from the start, identifying resident priorities, empowering groups with special concerns and needs, and working to improve social equity. 
  • Planning and engineering: Being transformed through human-centered design and digital, 3-D models to anticipate and minimize shocks and stresses, whether economic, environmental, or social. These maps—also known as "digital twins"—encompass buildings, infrastructure, vegetation, transit, and more, down to the individual floor and room levels. They are the underlying platform for the real smart city. 

The story of our species, of human civilization, is, quite simply, the story of the city; they even have the same Latin root. The city and its systems were the means by which we've concentrated our collective creativity, community, and enterprise and effectively taken over an entire planet. Now, with more advanced tools and a deeper understanding of the meaning of that triumph, we have the chance to reinvent those systems to achieve a smarter, fairer, and more sustainable harmony with our planet—and with one another.

By Richard Budden, a Europe-based expert in defining and developing smart city strategies for Esri.