For the past few years, the “smart cities” concept has been transforming cities worldwide.

According to the Smart Cities Research Cluster (SCRC) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, “a city can be defined as ‘smart’ when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure promote the following four urban characteristics:

  • Sustainable economic development
  • High quality of life
  • Wise management of natural resources
  • Participatory action and engagement

Smart cities integrate many elements of urban infrastructure and communications technologies, such as transportation, schools, power plants, law enforcement, and so on. Sensors and data collection help to minimize inefficiencies and meet residents’ needs more effectively. Boyd Cohen, a professor, researcher and consultant in the sustainability and smart cities arena, has written extensively about smart cities. He is also the author of The Emergence of the Urban Entrepreneur: How the Growth of Cities and the Sharing Economy Are Driving a New Breed of Innovators.

Cohen has developed the Smart Cities Wheel, a tool that specifies six areas or aspirational goals, with three key points to achieving the goal.

Elements of the Smart Cities wheel are:

Smart people

  • Education
  • Inclusive society
  • Creativity

Smart economy

  • Opportunity
  • Productivity
  • Local and global interconnectedness

Smart environment

  • Smart buildings
  • Resource management
  • Urban planning

Smart gov (or government)

  • Open government
  • Infrastructure
  • Online services

Smart living

  • Health
  • Safety
  • Culture and happiness

Smart mobility

  • Mixed-modal access
  • Clean and non-motorized mobility
  • Integrated ICT

Recent comparisons often list the following as among the world’s smartest cities as defined by the Smart Cities Wheel.

Barcelona: As one of the leading Smart Cities in Europe, the city has set up more than 20 program areas for improvement, including becoming energy self-sufficient.

Copenhagen: The city has set up a robust green building program and aims to be carbon neutral by 2025. The city is, of course, also noted for its cycling culture.

Helsinki: Data is one of the most powerful forces in Smart Cities, and Helsinki is one of the world’s leaders regarding transparent and open data.

Singapore: With more than 2,000 certified green buildings, Singapore has made great strides in greening its infrastructure. The city has also delivers 98 per cent of government services online.

Vancouver: thanks to hydro power, 97 per cent of electricity in Vancouver comes from renewables. The city has also been a pioneer in green building, encouraging all elements, from builders to architects to producers of building products.

Vienna: citizens can invest in local solar projects with the local energy company. The city also has an ambitious Smart Cities plan going to 2050.

One of Australia’s top picks is Brisbane. Free Wi-Fi is a basic element of a smart city, while Brisbane’s bike- and car-sharing programs embrace the sharing economy. The use of geospatial data enables better management of city infrastructure, and a district cooling system should lower energy costs for buildings in the CBD.

Cohen has also broken down Smart Cities into three distinct phases, which he has labeled Generations 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. The phases represent an evolution from tech-company driven, to city-government driven, to citizen driven, which he calls “sharing cities.”

Not all smart cities have evolved; some have, and some have stayed at one phase. Cohen believes that, thanks to smart technology and ubiquitous smartphones, “the future is going to be in marketplaces of data whereby citizens, telecom operators, and cities are all contributing data for shared use.”

Currently, Cohen noted, most leading smart cities are probably Smart Cities 2.0, but many are rapidly evolving to 3.0.

“Asian cities are more 2.0 with a few exceptions like Seoul, which is embracing the sharing city concept and would be moving towards a strong combination of 2.0 and 3.0, which I think in most cases is the preferred model,” he stated.

European cities, Cohen wrote, “are more hybrid 2.0 and 3.0 and many are fastly embracing 3.0.” India is moving ahead too. Cohen noted that the country “seems to be between 1.0 and 2.0 at the moment but that could change as the reality hits that top down models have limited success in most cases.”

Latin American cities show a broad range.

“Medellin is strong 3.0,” Cohen said, “whereas Santiago and Rio have been more 2.0.”

As cities evolve into sharing cities, some technologies are replaced, or at least become less ubiquitous. Transportation looks like one of those technologies in smart cities.

“I hope the idea of single occupancy vehicles…eventually becomes obsolete, as what we need to do is design our cities to be car-free, especially city centers,” Cohen said.

Most smart cities grabbing headlines are large, cosmopolitan cities. Smaller cities, Cohen said, can improve, but face challenges.

“One thing small cities have is generally much smaller geographical areas, which makes implementing city-wide smart projects like sensors or public wifi much easier than vast cities,” he noted.

“Brain drain” to larger smart cities, however, offers challenges, Cohen said.

“I also think smaller cities in general need to find creative ways to attract and retain the younger generation of innovators and entrepreneurs because young smart citizens are crucial to smart cities,” he said.