Here is a quick review of smart city evolution over the past years, and how different approaches have panned out…

Over the years the definition of the term “smart city” has been ever-evolving.

Even today, it is difficult to narrow down an all-encompassing definition of a smart city.

However, we will attempt to explore what defines a smart city or what makes a city smart — in the year 2023.

A smart city approach, as defined by the United Nations, “makes use of opportunities from digitalization, clean energy and technologies, as well as innovative transport technologies, thus providing options for inhabitants to make more environmentally friendly choices and boost sustainable economic growth and enabling cities to improve their service delivery.”

Alternative definitions exist

Other definitions coined by various corporations and stakeholders of smart city projects are floating around, including the following:

  • a city that leverages digital technology to establish connectivity, safeguard its inhabitants, and enrich their lives. It operates by utilizing Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, video cameras, social media, and various other sources of information, acting as a sophisticated nervous system.
  • A city that makes optimal use of all the interconnected information available today to better understand and control its operations and optimize the use of limited resources
  • An urban area that utilizes advanced technologies and data-driven solutions to enhance the quality of life for its residents, optimize resource efficiency, and improve overall urban operations

Acknowledging the debate over how smart cities are being defined, the OECD has highlighted that, in most cases, smart cities are defined as initiatives or strategies that employ digital innovation, including digital-enabled innovation, to enhance the competitiveness of a community and improve the efficiency of urban services.

The common overlapping descriptions found in many smart city definitions are:

  1. It incorporates some aspect of digital and  technological innovation
  2. Internet of Things (IoT) devices are widely utilized
  3. The quality of life of the city’s citizens is enhanced

The smartest cities in the world in 2023

Among the 141 cities evaluated by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in 2023, Asian and European cities dominated the top 20 rankings.

  1. Zurich 
  2. Oslo 
  3. Canberra 
  4. Copenhagen 
  5. Lausanne 
  6. London 
  7. Singapore 
  8. Helsinki 
  9. Geneva 
  10. Stockholm 
  11. Hamburg 
  12. Beijing 
  13. Abu Dhabi 
  14. Prague 
  15. Amsterdam 
  16. Seoul 
  17. Dubai 
  18. Sydney 
  19. Hong Kong

Zurich had been the top smart city in this ranking since 2019. Among Asian cities, Singapore had moved up from rank #10 in 2019 to #7 in 2023. Beijing’s position has risen significantly in the past four years — from #30 then to #12 now.

Hong Kong and Seoul have also made significant leaps in this list between 2019 and 2023.

Examining their evolutionary progress

Between 2019 and 2023, the cities listed above made strides in various domains, enhancing sustainability, efficiency, and quality of life for their residents, in the following areas.

  • Transportation: The use of autonomous vehicles has become more prominent, with numerous pilot programs and initiatives taking place worldwide.
  • Effective energy monitoring and management through its intelligent infrastructure: Songdo, a smart city in South Korea, has demonstrated strong citizen engagement and participation. Cities such as Helsinki have introduced innovative digital platforms that allow residents to participate in decision-making processes, contributing to the development of more inclusive and citizen-centric cities.
  • IoT technology: Barcelona’s extensive deployment of IoT sensors has enabled real-time monitoring of air quality, noise levels, and waste management, facilitating prompt action for a healthier environment.

What smart roads lay ahead? Here are some key aspects that will impact the future of smart cities:

  1. Connectivity and 5G: Withever-improving connectivity networks rolling out globally, smart cities will benefit in terms of faster and more reliable communication between devices, sensors, and infrastructure.
  2. Internet of Things (IoT): IoT devices are becoming smarter and more secure, leading to smart cities that are also cyber safe.
  3. Sustainable and resilient infrastructure: The increasing prioritization of sustainability will lead to more ground-up implementations of renewable energy sources, truly green buildings, and efficient waste management systems. 
  4. AI and data analytics: The vast amounts of data generated by smart cities will be utilized ever more efficiently by advances in AI/ML and deep learning. 
  5. Enhanced mobility solutions: Autonomous vehicles, smart parking systems, intelligent traffic management, and seamless multimodal transportation options will grow in sophistication and accessibility with advances in technology.
  6. Citizen-centric focus: Smart cities will continue to prioritize citizen engagement and participation, involving residents in decision-making processes through digital platforms and participatory governance initiatives.

Finally, advances in Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality technologies will enhance urban experiences, allowing residents to interact with virtual layers of information and services overlaid onto the physical environment. This can transform areas such as tourism, education, and entertainment.