What is a Smart City? A Quick Guide

The idea of the smart city has been around for a considerable amount of time. It has been explored in works of science fiction, political theory, and cinema, but usually as a distant possibility, in a future world marked by rapid and radical technological progress.

However, smart city ideas and technologies are already at work in many urban environments across the globe. Here, we take a look at what a smart city actually is and how it’s affecting city-dwellers’ everyday lifestyles.

A working definition

On a basic level, a smart city can be defined as a city that

‘incorporates ICT technologies to enhance the quality and performance of urban services… to reduce resource consumption, wastage and overall costs’ (Techopedia)

Essentially, a smart city is one that utilises modern digital technologies to create an environment in which information is readily available to citizens, waste is reduced through the use of digital planning tools, and costs are driven down through greater efficiency. However, this is a relatively simplistic definition, and there are other, more complex and often conflicting, definitions of what constitutes a smart city.

Conflicting definitions

city skyline what is a smart city

As there is no ‘official’ definition of a smart city, different individuals and organisations have taken it upon themselves to create their own interpretations. Though this is a natural phenomenon, as people are always going to shape their immediate environment to reflect their worldview, perspective, or interests, it has meant that the concept of the smart city is confused and could be considered a little vague. The 3 following definitions best exemplify this.

  1. ‘The effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver sustainable, prosperous and inclusive futures for its citizens.’
  2. ‘[A city] that makes optimal use of all the interconnected information available today to better understand and control its operations and optimise the use of limited resources.’
  3. ‘[A city] where citizens have all the information they need to make informed choices about their lifestyle, work and travel options’

Each of these three definitions originates from a different perspective. The first is from the British Standards Institute (BSI), a governmental agency and a public body. It balances concern for the citizenry with an emphasis on prosperity, sustainability, and organisational systems.

The second is a corporate definition from the multi-national company IBM. Its language reflects the importance of data, control, and resource efficiency – its entire wording is formulated in terms of business.

Finally, the third definition comes from the Manchester Digital Development Agency and takes a citizen-centric approach.

As you can see, the definition varies depending on who you talk to. While we’re all talking about the same concept and have similar ideas, there’s still some way to go before we reach clarification on what constitutes a smart city.

End goal or process?


Along with the confusion surrounding a definition for the smart city, there’s also a critical discussion taking place on the subject of whether smart cities are an achievable goal (in the sense that they are something you arrive at or are an objective that you can ‘complete’), or whether the term denotes an ongoing process that will evolve as our cities do. Is a smart city something you live in? Or a set of ever-shifting goalposts – a concept that ensures we keep on seeking improvements and progress?

There are also many issues with the language used to define smart cities. We often utilise vague and abstract terms, such as ‘sustainability,’ ‘liveability,’ and ‘inclusivity,’ to define the concept, even though these terms are poorly defined and open to interpretation themselves.

The distinction between top down and bottom up smart cities

One of the most significant differences between the way in which smart city policies are implemented is the distinction between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches.

The top-down approach generally involves the collection of data from across the city into a central, digital control system. This centralised control system is then responsible for driving efficiencies and using the accumulated data to make decisions about energy usage, traffic routes, and other important issues. A good example of this is Glasgow’s Integrated Operations Centre.

Top-down is also the approach taken by new cities, such as Songdo in South Korea, that attempt to build smart technology and philosophies into the very fabric of the city.

The bottom-up approach focuses on the use of widely available digital technologies, such as social media platforms and mobile apps, as a grassroots means of providing citizens with the information and technology required to drive improvements and greater efficiency in their own lives.

How it is being implemented


There are considerable differences between the top-down and bottom-down approaches, meaning smart cities may end up looking radically different from one another in the future.

In the UK, local government are focusing on introducing more AI technologies into their operations. Greater use of technologies like IVR, chatbots, and channel shift tools, has resulted in more efficient service provision and information becoming more widely available.

In Songdo, the city’s transport infrastructure has been designed to be monitored and manipulated by digital systems to ease the flow of traffic and reduce bottlenecks. In Bristol, smart meters have been introduced to monitor energy consumption and lower usage. In this respect, the idea of the smart city could be considered a philosophy. Digital technology has the potential to influence and touch every part of our lives – there isn’t a specific aspect of the urban experience that it doesn’t have the power to alter. Consequently, it’s more of a process than a particular place.

What next?

The idea of the smart city has been around for a considerable amount of time. The digital utopians who were so instrumental in the early development of the internet and other modern technologies dreamed of a world made more efficient, free, and fair by digital technologies. This was occurring as early as the 1990s, if not before.

However, now that suitably powerful technology is available, the smart city is not so much a matter of abstract theorising but implementable public policy. We have made the jump from what could be, to what is. However smart city technology ends up altering our lives, there can be no doubt that it’s going to play a fundamental role in how we order, organise, and inhabit the cities of the future.

Inform Comms has been driving digital transformation through omnichannel technology for over 25 years. Talk to our expert team about how we can help incorporate Smart City thinking into your business. Call us on 01344 706111 or drop us a line.

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