Smart City Initiatives

Leading examples of smart cities across the globe

Smart City Challenges: What Stands in the Way of Smart Cities?

Smart cities are a dream that can affect the lives of billions worldwide and is rapidly coming true. Smart cities promise to improve quality of life, reduce the environmental impact of large urban areas, make citizens healthier and more productive, and boost local economies. 

However, smart city initiatives are complex and challenging, in several respects. The technical and logistical complexity of transforming a large metropolitan area into a smart city can be mind-boggling. But beyond the difficulties of implementation, smart cities raise far-reaching questions. 

How will citizen privacy and security be safeguarded, in a future where IoT sensors cover every square meter of a city’s surface? How can city governments coordinate their efforts with national authorities, the private sector, and their citizens? Read on to understand these and other challenges affecting smart cities, and how to overcome them.

In this article you'll learn about:

What Is a Smart City

Smart cities are cities in which a framework of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is used to improve city management and encourage economic growth. ICT interacts with a network of connected objects, the Internet of Things (IoT), which receives, analyzes and transmits data about current conditions and events. 

The IoT includes any device that can be used to make a city more efficient or accessible, including cellular phones, smart vehicles, security cameras, sensors embedded in roads, and more.

Why Do We Need Smart Cities?

Over four billion people live in cities, and it is expected that two-thirds of the world’s population will move to cities by 2050. There are many negative effects of urbanization, but one of the primary challenges faced by city governments and residents is traffic congestion. According to an INRIX study, congestion causes $300 billion of financial damages every year in the USA alone, and in many large cities, drivers spend over 100 hours per year sitting in traffic.   

A smart city’s ability to adapt processes and city structures, responding to the needs of the population, provides increased comfort and productivity for citizens and businesses and enables efficient use of physical resources by governments and communities.

Smart City Features

There are three main identifying features of smart cities: physical and technical infrastructure, environmental monitoring and responsiveness, and smart services for citizens.

Smart Infrastructure

Smart city technology is literally built into the fabric of the city. For example, lighting systems can adapt to their surroundings using connected sensors, increasing or decreasing illumination according to time of day, in response to human or vehicle traffic, or in response to events or other city activities. 

Connected roads can provide information on traffic patterns and road hazards through cameras or road sensors. Data can be used to inform public transportation routes, make traffic enforcement more efficient, and help emergency vehicles get to their destination faster.

Parking inventory can be monitored via sensors, made visible to drivers, and managed centrally by city governments. Advanced parking systems can help optimize parking spaces, efficiently collect payments, and enforce parking restrictions like handicap parking spots. Managed parking can also be integrated with electric charging stations, to encourage the use of electric vehicles.

Smart Environment

Environmental monitoring via weather, temperature, and air quality sensors can predict the occurrence of natural disasters, such as avalanches or earthquakes, and inform authorities and citizens of environmental hazards like gas leaks, floods, or dangerously high pollution levels. 

This data can be used to alert of events that can affect public safety, pinpoint the origin of contributing factors, identify individuals violating safety or environmental standards, and help reduce damage to citizens and city life. 

Smart Services

Smart kiosks can be used to provide wi-fi access, conduct 24/7 surveillance, and display public announcement information. They can serve as city guides for residents and tourists by providing information about public facilities, events, and businesses. High crime and accident-prone areas can be monitored and data on events can be used to help authorities respond, and improve safety precautions taken by citizens. 

Smart mobility systems are another type of smart service, which provides citizens easy access to multiple modes of transportation. Smart mobility platforms help commuters identify the best form of transport to reach their destination, which can include public transit, taxis, carpooling, ride-hailing, micromobility, and more - optimize their route, and conveniently book the required transport methods.

Learn more about smart city initiatives in our guide: Barcelona Smart City: By The People, For The People

Smart City Challenges and Solutions

Smart city projects are enormously complex, and suffer from numerous challenges, at the implementation level, at the governance and administration level, and at the level of cooperation between citizens, private organizations and city governments. 

Privacy and Security

The idea of Big Brother monitoring or controlling our environment is a significant fear for many people. Trust is key to the success of smart cities. Building a smart city requires high standards of transparency and oversight, to ensure that data is being used legally, responsibly and in the interest of the public. Measures like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can be used to ensure privacy is maintained without sacrificing the benefits of efficiency or public safety.

Inherent vulnerabilities in IoT devices, which are often connected to public networks and may have unpatched software vulnerabilities, make them appealing targets for attackers. Compromised IoT data can be used for financial gain, or to create civil distress and advance political or hacktivist goals. Cities must protect IoT devices to prevent breaches, and ensure systems are resilient to cyber attack to avoid disruption of critical services.

Data Issues

Another smart city challenge stems from the massive amounts of data that must be constantly collected, analyzed and shared. The physical resources required for storing this data, and the processing power needed to make use of it, consume a significant amount of electricity and space and create significant carbon emissions in doing so.

Currently, smart systems are heavily reliant on visual data, which is costly to collect, difficult to scale, and not always reliable. For smart cities to be truly functional, technologies that collect and process additional types of data, such as audio or physical phenomena, need to be developed.

Effective use of the large amounts of data smart cities require demands extensive wireless coverage and fast transfer speeds, but the necessary infrastructure doesn’t typically exist. 5G coverage is being rolled out but does not yet offer consistent speeds. Effective network coverage will require the addition of millions of new cellular towers.

Governance and Funding

Political cycles and their dynamics have an effect on the development and management of smart cities. Changes in leadership or government perspective can cause projects to be delayed or restructured. Government departments and authorities that can help advance smart city projects often work independently of each other, making it difficult to make progress when a unified perspective is needed. For example, deciding who is responsible for oversight of data privacy or how to allocate access to smart systems.

Developing and maintaining smart cities requires huge investments, and adequate funding requires the collaboration of private and public resources on local, state and national levels. This further complicates the structuring of budgets, and issues of responsibility and access, as more parties have financial and intellectual stakes in smart projects. 

Furthermore, the reluctance of government agencies and private sector organizations to share data or resources can prevent meaningful collaboration and stall smart city development.

Learn more about smart city initiatives in our guide: London Smart City: Tackling Challenges With 20 Initiatives

The Human Angle

Smart city innovation is everywhere, and almost every large city has adopted at least some smart city attributes. However, not all cities will become smart cities. A successful smart city project requires years of determined effort, involving cooperation with the public and private sector, and close involvement of citizens to ensure their support and usage of smart projects.

The roadblock to successful smart cities is not technology. Smart city tech exists, is widely deployed and rapidly advancing. There are thousands of successful projects to learn from, in order to overcome technical and logistical challenges and make projects a success. 

At the end of the day, smart city projects rise and fall on the human aspect. Determined leadership, effective policy decisions, and meaningful collaboration between all stakeholders to drive a city to success. Technology, bricks, and roads will all follow suit.