Mark Cooper 10 June 2016

What is a Smart City?

What is a Smart City? image

I am constantly asked to 'define a Smart City' and I think the industry is agreed that there is not a unified definition of one, this is because a Smart City will be different to all people, based upon their perceptions, experience, geography and expectations.

Additionally, technology is moving so fast, that what was considered 'Smart' two years ago, is now surpassed and considered redundant, but more on that in another article.

Lets look at why Smart Cities before we can get to a definition of one - financial meltdowns, energy crisis and massive under investment in energy infrastructure. This, combined with greater understanding of the ecological need to save energy, means that LED light sources appear to have the edge over other forms of technology, especially when put together with additional control technology, this allows for the rollout of new infrastructure on our streets which will form the backbone of a Smart City.

LED street lights have provided the technological answer to the energy reduction problem faced by most local authorities, additionally with the instant control, dimming and reporting functions of a Central Management System (CMS) we have started to deliver a system of communication to each street light and along our road networks.

However, the price of electricity in the UK has almost trebled in the past 10 years and all predictions lead to an ongoing rise. Some of the reasons for this are that our planet’s natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, more difficult and expensive to access.

This, together with the lack of investment in cleaner power stations, the late delivery of new nuclear power stations, while older stations and gas turbines are being decommissioned, means that we are actually heading towards possible blackouts from 2017, as there won’t be enough energy in the grid to meet existing and projected demands. No wonder then, when faced with these ever-growing demands to reduce energy consumption and also reduce costs, streetlight switch off seems an attractive proposition and easy decision for the accountants.

But is it that simple? Well of course it isn’t – there are still ongoing costs associated with switch off and, while I agree that there are roads and areas that have been lit previously and now would not be, mitigating measures need to be implemented and a full risk assessment undertaken before the lighting is removed.

But even with this it’s not enough. We live in a 24-hour society where we all work hard and wish to play hard – that means we want entertainment and information, all of which consumes energy, and we want it now not in 30 seconds. The demand for electricity is growing as our populations and our cities expand, and the consumption of data increases. Governments all across Europe and around the world are investing in Smart Cities and the infrastructure needed to make them work, but what are they?

So what is a Smart City? Let’s imagine: You have a meeting booked in town at 10am today, your iPhone receives an early update to say that the train has been delayed by half an hour and so resets your alarm call to allow you an extra half hour in bed.

While you’re enjoying your breakfast, you check your route to the train station for traffic reports and confirm your pre-booked parking space via your parking app. You get in your Smart car, plug in your phone and the self-guided car takes you directly to your parking spot in plenty of time to grab a coffee, which you pay for by scanning your phone, and hop aboard the train for your meeting in town. On board the train, you connect to the free Wi-Fi, download your meeting agenda and notes, and dash off a few emails.

Meeting over and it’s off to the nearest hot desk facility to connect to your company’s network and carry on working for the day. These hotspots are owned and managed by facility companies and provide a convenient connected place to work in town. Best of all, as soon as you enter the premises the scanning technology knows who you are, where you like to sit, and what connections you will need. You are welcomed by the electronic assistant screen which guides you by way of an interactive map to your allocated desk, activates your account and sends the coffee request to the machine. All done with no interaction, just based on a scan of your connected device and previous choices.

You finish work late and decide to grab some dinner in town while taking in some shopping; making your way through the office complex, the lights are automatically adjusted as you pass by on your way to the exit. You glance outside and notice that the street lights are on dim as you leave the hot desk facility. Firing up your city app, you plot your route to the centre of town and start walking, the lights in front of you and behind light your way safely guiding you on the most direct path. You get to the shopping area where all the shopfronts are dimmed or dark. As you pass by the window of a shop you visit regularly, the new coat you were looking at the other night on the internet, a light appears above it and it is illuminated in the shop window. An automatic advert flashes on your phone, along with a click to buy it at a discount as you’re a regular shopper. You decide it looks good, the colours really pop under the lights and so swipe to buy it with your discount advert to have it delivered the next day.

Off to dinner, and you have already selected from the menu and booked your table, and so shortly after arriving and settling down with a relaxing drink, your meal arrives. Time to catch the train home, and the street lights guide you back to the station, automatically raising in level as you approach them and dimming back down when you pass by. Home to bed to start again the next day!

The energy benefits are there to see, not just the obvious lighting reduction but the connected world saving energy and carbon from heating, transport and commerce. The thing is this technology is available now and can be used to solve one of our issues today: to invest or switch off. There are benefits to switch off in rural communities, but the impact on the night-time economy, social activities and communities in the urban fringes has yet to be fully explored and understood.

So, this all sounds great: lower energy bills, less CO2 emissions, less light pollution, but greater safety and satisfaction along with investment and a vibrant night-time inclusive economy, but you still haven't given a succinct definition of 'Smart City' - and that's because I can't.

But I do know what it isn't - A smart city combines all of the elements described above - A Smart Home, Smart Office, Intelligent Transport, Connected Citizens and Intelligent Lighting - you need all of these and more before you can consider yourself SMART.

Mark Cooper IEng MILP is Director of Smart City Advice. He can be contacted at

We are holding a free webinar on the smart city revolution on 14 July. Sign up to attend here.

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