What is a Smart City? A Look at How IoT Sensors are Transforming Urban Areas

October 18, 2019

With nearly 70 percent of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, it's no surprise that urban areas are starting to make plans to support this impending spike in growth.

But in order to responsibly allocate resources to accommodate so many new residents, cities need help. Urban planners, city leadership, and public works officials are turning their attention to the vision of a smart city—the “smart” part referring to the use of big data and new technologies to help municipalities define new standards of mobility, sustainability, and safety.

What is the aim of smart cities?

A smart city, a term coined by IBM in 2014 to describe an idealized city, refers to an urban area that uses Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)—like Internet of Things (IoT) sensors—to collect data that informs real-time decisions about the city and its residents and visitors.

Put simply, a smart city incorporates smart technology into a large part of its decision-making. This means using IoT applications to inform city planning, policymaking, public services, and urban programming.

This is of particular importance now as cities are responsible for producing over 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and on average, experience over 100 preventable traffic accidents each day. To keep these numbers down—especially as droves of new people move into urban areas in the coming years—it’s important for cities to increase their sustainability efforts and public safety initiatives to ensure a high quality of life for citizens.

And though these statistics might feel overwhelming to a city planner, it’s actually possible for cities to use smart city technology to make a significant impact.

How are cities using smart technologies?

Smart city projects can run the gamut but always have one central goal in common: to create a more liveable urban environment through the implementation of digital technology. To get a better sense of what these projects entail, consider these popular use cases and smart city initiatives:

Road safety:

Smart cities work to decrease accidents and injuries on roadways by implementing technology that helps increase road safety. For example, smart cities might use smart streetlights that automatically turn on when a pedestrian walks by to provide more visibility after dark, or can implement telematics to reduce reckless driving and speeding. Certain cities, like Florida’s City of Fort Lauderdale, have worked actively to reduce speeds within the city to achieve their Vision Zero goal–a city-wide movement to create safer streets for people walking, biking, or driving.

Waste management:

Sanitation and waste management can also be improved via smart technology by way of smart waste receptacles, or trash bins equipped with sensors that alert waste companies when they’re full and ready for pick-up. This added visibility eliminates the need for waste management companies to drive to remote locations only to find bins nowhere near full, improving the overall operational efficiency of waste companies while also helping them slash fuel use.

Energy consumption:

To help cut down on unnecessary energy consumption and costs that arise when processes are not properly monitored or automated, smart cities are turning to smart buildings and smart transportation. A smart building is any structure that uses automated processes to control building operations including heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, or security, while smart transportation aims to reduce fuel use by reducing traffic congestion.

Mobility:

Smart cities are also working to improve the mobility of passengers, civic servants, and goods by both private companies and public transit agencies. To accomplish this, municipalities are researching and understanding congestion patterns to create improved traffic management, while also ensuring residents have equal access to reliable public transportation. To support these initiatives and make sure city officials can deliver these city services, smart cities are also focused on the mobility of their own public employees.

How does a smart city work?

Examples of how smart cities are implementing this technology are already on the rise. Take Seattle, Boston, and City of Fort Lauderdale—three cities increasing the mobility, sustainability, and safety of their urban spaces to help pave the way for the smart city revolution.

Seattle is set on becoming a model for the new smart city, specifically by taking strides to effectively use smart transportation systems to help people and goods move faster and more efficiently. Through the use of open data, Seattle is committed to creating dynamic routing for fleets to ensure trucks are getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible—which would reduce fuel use and decrease traffic congestion on the roads.

And it's not just city leaders who have the opportunity to influence smart city outcomes. State agencies—especially transit—can also play an important role. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), a subset of the Massachusetts DOT, has helped make Boston and beyond more mobile for thousands of passengers. After noticing passenger reliability scores were low because of the MBTA’s inaccurate bus departure and arrival times, Boston incorporated smart technology to its transit system to regain the trust of its passengers. By implementing real-time GPS, the MBTA saw a 10% increase in its predictability. "Now, we can prove our buses’ locations down to the second, which helps us improve our service to our customers," said Siobhan Cunningham, the Head of Projects at the Customer Technology Department for the MBTA.

City of Fort Lauderdale, the largest city in Broward County, Florida, also employs smart technology to help support the 13 million visitors the city hosts annually. To make sure the city can support this large influx of people, the city has to prioritize mobility and infrastructure above all else. One way the city recently used smart technology was to better understand why a highly-trafficked bridge was experiencing frequent maintenance closures. To see if heavier city vehicles were causing these closures, the city used GPS technology to tag all city vehicles that exceeded the bridge’s weight limit and used a geofence to determine how often heavy city vehicles were crossing the bridge. Insights from this technology helped the city monitor and decrease the number of the city’s overweight vehicles crossing the bridge by 90% within five months.

Interested in learning more about how your city can incorporate smart fleet technology to become a safer, more sustainable, and mobile city? Read our guide on why Smarter Cities Start with Smarter Fleets or reach out to Samsara for a free trial or free demo today.

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