SMART CITIES Our Urban Future

SMART CITIES Our Urban Future

Authored By : Rupak Chatterjee

Man’s soaring imagination of futuristic cities has had magnificent visualisations in Hollywood movies such as Blade Runner, Minority Report and Fifth Element. While such utopian city concepts might still seem a bit radical and distant, our cities currently are experiencing significant transformations nevertheless.

Industrial revolution and its resulting innovations such as fast transport and even building-elevator systems have shaped the sprawl and rise of our cities since a century back. Today, we are at the beginning of another, more significant revolution – the digital age. This phenomenon will dramatically disrupt and re-shape our cities over the next decade or two – something we will witness within our very lifetimes! Change, today, is happening at a pace unimaginable to our preceding generations.

The drivers of the current radical urban change are two-fold. On one side, it’s the increasing and incredible advances in digital technology – with progressively faster and wider tele-communication infrastructure networks, IoT or Internet of Things connecting the ubiquitous gadgets (sensors, GPS, RFIDs, and smart phones), and Big Data with its exponentially increasing data generation, storage and analytics. On the other side are pressing urban issues to be resolved – growing urban congestion, increasing urban wastes resulting in water, air and ground pollution, limited fossil-fuels and non-replenishable resources, and the incessant land and resource-intensive urban spread.

The use of the rapidly advancing digital technology to improve our increasingly challenged urban sustainability systems – economic, social, and environmental – can be referred to as the phenomena of Smart Cities. With progressive digital technology touching every realm of human life, the over-arching disciplines of urban development – urban planning, transportation and infrastructure – are responsible for bringing these together cohesively to enable a coordinated transformation to Smart Cities.

Having a holistic Smart City strategy interconnecting all urban realms is not only a desirable, but a necessity. Let’s consider these broad urban realms supplemented by examples of some leading global cities.

Innovative Governance
Since Smart City strategies need to have a comprehensive, contextual and coordinated approach, these are effectively driven by city leadership or governance. Such strategies are often, being launched by way of city re-branding campaigns such as the ‘Smarter London Together’, ‘Smart Nation Singapore’, and ‘Smart Dubai’. City planning ahead is planning for Smart Cities.

Examples of Smart City branding – ‘Smarter London Together’ & ‘Smart Nation Singapore’ (Source: &

Smart City strategies of leading global hubs are now, widely publicised roadmaps to transform the respective urban centers into aspired ‘smartest cities’. The power and effectiveness of such city transformation strategies are dependent on ‘top-down’ Governance-led city-wide collaboration involving the various authorities along with ‘bottom-up’ inputs from business leaders, academics, and importantly, citizens.

Being ‘smart’ is about making digital technology application universal, accessible and user-friendly for improving efficiency of urban systems. This has entailed converting much of traditional physical interaction systems to online wherein government services and utility portals now offer convenient connectivity, coordinated services and e-payments – thereby increasing governance transparency and trust.

A common ‘top-down’ Smart City initiative is the city’s control and command centers keeping track of the urban, social and environmental aspects in real-time – overseeing government projects, services, roads, weather conditions, and emergencies.

Control and Command Centres are enabling city management to keep track of the urban, social and environment aspects in real-time and rapidly initiate remedial action to problem situations (Source: Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Jizuo)

Meanwhile, London’s key Smart City initiative focuses appreciably on user-defined services such as Talk London, Civic Innovation Challenge, and Civic Crowdfunding – all eliciting the indispensable ‘bottom-up’ participation and feedback from its city-users. Continual feedback from city-users help direct strategies and resources towards addressing the key urban challenges.

London, identified as the ‘Smartest City in the World’ by IESE’s Cities in Motion Index 2019, focuses significantly on user participation and feedback for improving its Smart urban systems (Source: Photo by Albrecht Fietz)

Catalytic Economy
In an increasingly economically-volatile global context, city governments have been keen to innovate and implement efficient business systems to promote entrepreneurship and employment. ‘One-window’ unified online services are becoming the norm for incentivizing, enabling and supporting entrepreneurship in cities.
With significant economic growth and expansion expected in, and a result of digital technology sector ahead, city managements are competing to promote their centres as hub of ICT oriented businesses for economic growth and progressive urban image.

Apart from creating ICT-industries oriented free-zones and business parks, cities are also making their ‘Big Data’ publicly available on their city portals, such as the London DataStore providing real-time data of its various urban realms – Jobs and Employment, Transport, Environment, Community, Housing, Communities, Health, and Tourism.

The LONDON DATASTORE providing real-time data of its urban aspects, free on its portal (Source:

Engaged People
Smart Cities are ultimately for city users – with the intent of digital technology making the lives of city users more comfortable and enjoyable. A key objective is increasing convenience and engagement for the people – as exemplified by growing public Wi-Fi, touch-less e-payments, smart travel cards, digital sensors and services for health, safety and environment, and real-time information on weather, traffic and pollution. Undoubtedly, increasing availability of city information and services on personal smart phones is obviously, making the user experience better.

However, new emerging digital technology systems and initiatives are only as successful as their acceptance and adoption. People’s feedback, and increasing public awareness of new digital systems and initiatives are paramount for Smart City strategies effectiveness. Through their portals, city government are progressively engaging public for their participation and feedback on day-to-day problems and service-bottlenecks that can then be addressed efficiently with digital technology.

Responsive Infrastructure
The evolution in cities’ utility and transport infrastructure is driven by considerations of limiting greenhouse gas emission to reduce climate change, increasing resource efficiency, reduce costs, and reduce management and maintenance time.

In terms of energy systems, with the rapid increase of de-centralised production of energy by often, small-scale renewable means in solar and wind, there is a widespread and increasing international trend of ‘prosumer’ households producing and contributing to the centralised electricity grid. This necessitates the transition to Smart Energy Grids capable of handling de-centralised energy production, intermittent generation and bi-directional energy flows.

Towards optimizing city-wide energy consumption, smart energy systems now incorporate smart utility meters that provide real-time information of energy use and carbon-footprint to owners and authorities, and smart street lighting that operate sensing user movements. Such advances are helping optimize energy consumption and maintenance costs.

Smart infrastructure also includes digitally responsive transportation aiming to optimize the ever-increasing transport demand while reducing costs-per-trip. Emerging transport technologies are progressively enabling Radio-Frequency-Identification (RFID) to identify vehicles and levy tolls, live traffic monitoring and emergency response centres, unified smart travel cards providing access to all local public transport modes, smart parking systems informing of nearby vacant parking spots, increased proliferation of electric cars and charging stations, and city-wide public bicycle hubs.

It only gets better with oncoming of autonomous cars and on-demand public transport, which promises to reduce private vehicle ownership globally. This will result in less traffic congestions, less parking space demand, less emissions, more cycling facilities, therefore an overall improved street and public realm experience.

Increasing public bicycle hubs accessed through smartphone apps are becoming a common sight in many cities (Source: Photo by Alex Israel)

Cared Environment
Improving natural environment as much as urban system is central to all city strategies – much more so in the context of increasing global urbanization, energy demand, traffic congestions, and pollution with all these threatening the quality of urban life. While technological advances in the various sectors of transport and industry are reducing emissions, Smart City initiatives involving sensors, cameras, RFIDs, and alerts are providing real-time pollution data on high-emission zones to city-authorities for redressal, and to city-users for avoiding such areas or polluting activities.
Smart waste management systems include large-scale vacuum-networks drawing in domestic solid wastes to centralised district recycling facilities to small-scale sensor-fitted waste collection public bins that inform central authorities on their due collection. Modern waste-to-energy systems, turning the inherent energy of wastes to energy sources, are also becoming more popular in progressive city infrastructure strategies.

Integrated ICT
The foundation of the Smart City movement is the progressive and increasing advances in Information Communication Technology (ICT). The complex and mind-boggling realm of ICT includes – communication networks (broadband, Wi-Fi and radio frequencies), devices and sensors (smartphones, cameras, sensors of light, movement and pollution), IoT or Internet of Things interlinking devices and sensors through communication networks, AI or Artificial Intelligence creating human-like responsive applications, BlockChain information management systems, and Big Data producing, storing, and analyzing exponentially increasing amount of generated data.

The increasing proliferation, integration, and applications of all these raises serious issues of legality, security, privacy and ethics related to the ownership, use and beneficiaries of individual and Government data, and ICT systems. As cyber-crimes become more prevalent and advanced, Smart City governance need to keep a step ahead towards improving and securing urban quality of life without compromising private data for malicious interests or corporate monopolies.

Disruptive Change is the New Constant

Traditionally, improvement in urban systems over previous decades have generally been incremental. With the rapid evolution of digital technology, the change ahead is going to disruptive to existing ways of thinking, industries and lifestyles. Visibly, industries and professions are facing dramatic choices: innovate and adapt – or become extinct.

Digital technology is re-defining the way we live, work and play in our cities. And as shapers of built environment, architects, planners, and engineers have greater responsibility to strategise, solve and advance urban issues, progressively integrating digital systems within infrastructural systems. Creating Smart Cities include a coordinated envisioning, planning, and orchestrating the implementation of digitally-enabled infrastructure and services.

The success of Smart Cities is ultimately, not only a measure of its technological advancement but how environment-conserving, infrastructure and resource efficient, liveable and enjoyable the city is for all its user groups – its diverse communities and varied age-groups.

Ultimately, Smart City strategies and initiatives need to address the core function of cities – making the urban and natural systems and experiences more sustainable, comfortable, enjoyable and memorable for its users.
(Images of Singapore Waterfront by Jason Goh & Dubai Waterfront by Teemu Jarvinen)

About Rupak Chatterjee

Rupak is an urban planner, master-planner & design manager – having led multi-disciplinary teams in leading international consultancies – Atkins, Ramboll, Parsons, and Urbis. Rupak’s wide-ranging planning and design project-portfolio includes – State-level framework / strategic planning, Government strategic assets master-planning, new industrial cities, city-centre regeneration, new master plans, urban design and public realm development, community planning, housing, and institutional developments. Rupak is based in Dubai, UAE.