Over the past years, the concept of smart cities has been discussed among global leaders, European Institutions and prominent technology providers. Smart cities have now become more than a term; it is a concept has evolved into a multi-billion-euro market, accompanied by a regulatory battlefield. The end result: technology now has an additional, social dimension that fosters the contact between citizens and government.

In this dynamic view of smart cities, the term has come to be defined as “a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies for the benefit of its inhabitants and business,” according to the European Commission.

These are in effect cities that incorporate the Internet of Things (IoT) and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) into their digital strategy, where citizens are invited to experience the transformation of the urban environment. Their city will be a more efficient city in every way. Barcelona and Amsterdam are two of the leading European examples that give priority to “smart” urban growth, responding to challenges, and implementing a green policy that has spurred the development of local innovation clusters that include start-ups, research institutions and service providers concentrated in specific geographic areas.

Barcelona and Amsterdam

It is not a coincidence that Barcelona was the ‘Mobile World Capital’ of 2018. From the establishment of pilot projects for testing the 5G technology in different sectors to solar panels and smart sensors, Barcelona is one of the European cities that serves as an example, when it comes to being “smart”. One of the actions taken in order to significantly improve citizens’ quality of life are noise sensors. Barcelona’s fabrication laboratory developed sensor technology that residents placed on their balconies, showing that the noise levels during the night in Sol square, were much higher than the recommendations of the World Health Organization. Barcelona took action and now the locals enjoy noise-free nights and better sleeping conditions.

Amsterdam is also a good example of what a smart city looks like. As the most bicycle-friendly capital city in the world, it promotes an eco-friendly way of life. By creating a network of cycling paths and lanes, Amsterdam created a safe urban infrastructure which forces cars to drive slowly and gives cyclists more space in the city. It also introduced a new life style and transformed the citizens to eco-conscious travellers and consumers. Eco-friendly living is one of the core characteristics of a smart city that aims on urban innovation.

Putting humans into the equation

Community evolvement coupled with technology lead to a positive impact to the local community and the improvement of citizens’ quality of life. Smart cites have a holistic approach to the problems faced, and goals align themselves with the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, as set by the United Nations. Sustainability is a key element for a city to evolve. Smart energy meters, solar power meters, garbage and waste management, co-create a futuristic perception of services.

Human capital is significant in these kinds of cities, since citizens and entrepreneurs are involved in a co-creation model, where they have the opportunity to participate through their work and actions. Some of the problems that are effectively tackled by smart cities are transportation, infrastructure and mobility, aiming at the social inclusion of all its inhabitants. If there was a moto for these towns and metropolises, it would be “Alive and Connected”. IT connectivity, digitalisation and collective intelligence form a knowledge-based context, where creativity emerges.

Modern democracy is also based on the use of open data, control and transparency that enable citizens to have access to information and become involved in politics. The concept of open governance is based on digital technologies that facilitate the interaction between residents and politics. Open Government Data (OGD) refers to the government datasets available online, which increase transparency and further citizen engagement. 

All the above mentioned notions create a social context from which creativity and multifaceted solutions emerge. From the concept of bike sharing to the broader issues of the sharing economy and sharing cities, the smart cities increase prospects for the public good. Smart cities perceive society as a whole to better anticipate the future and drive the economic growth by enabling local development. In this framework, a smart city adopts a positive vision and accelerates urban revitalisation.

Making a city ‘Smart’

But how can a city be transformed to a smart one? The initial steps include not only the possession of technology, but also its implementation. Choosing how technology will be applied in different contexts paves the way to the city’s evolution.

Having more sustainable cities is one of the European Union’s goals, according to the 20-20-20 targets. To accelerate this process, the European Commission has launched the European Innovation Partnership to Smart Cities and Communities which aims to bring together small cities, businesses and civic organizations that will develop and implement innovative solutions. Some of the Partnership’s priorities are the sustainable urban mobility, the creation of knowledge-based cities and the focus on citizens. Furthermore, the EIP-SCC Marketplace is a platform that helps cities to become smarter and more sustainable socially, environmentally and economically. The attraction of investors plays also a key role for this change.

However, some of the challenges the smart cities face is the demand of spending a significant budget under a tight public financial plan and the fragmented European market that puts out of focus potential economies that can scale. To tackle these challenges, shared knowledge through cloud utilisation and open platforms are needed.

Smart cities are coming to transform our present, encourage us to envision a connected future and discover innovative solutions, based on shared knowledge and services. Aiming at the individuals’ well-being, they are eager to respond to the needs of the ageing population, the people in need, ameliorate our quality of life and raise the standards.