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The urban organism: Smart Cities

The urban organism: Smart Cities

Smart cities aim to provide their residents with improved public services and better quality of life by investing in digital technologies. They also emphasize community involvement in the running of the city. With the key stakeholders (citizens) participating more directly in matters of infrastructure, mobility, environment, sustainability and economy, their city functions better and serves their needs and desires more efficiently. Digital technology aids citizens by providing real-time monitoring of services and utilities, and the ability to respond to changing needs in real time. This makes smart cities much more agile, flexible, and sustainable.

A smart city is more than just a digital city. It brings together governance, society and technology to optimise the efficiency of its services. If cities are viewed as organisms, then, as academic W. Mitchell writes, “The intelligence of cities "resides in the increasingly effective combination of digital telecommunication networks (the nerves), ubiquitously embedded intelligence (the brains), sensors and tags (the sensory organs), and software (the knowledge and cognitive competence)".

Technologies used to date include the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud-based services, real-world user interfaces, RFIDs and other sensors, smart phones and smart meters. Examples of their implementation include:

  • In Jakarta, an issue-reporting app called Qlue, crowdsourced citizen flood reports, and a crowdsourced traffic management tool.
  • In Rejkjavik, 60% of citizens have actively used its web platform, Better Reykjavik. It is a collaborative web tool that enables them to develop and prioritize ideas and decide on which ones to implement.
  • A sensor-packed Smart Citizen Kit, given to city dwellers throughout the world, streams live environmental data to a central open hub,, providing live data on pollution and traffic from cities around the globe.
  • A modification of the game Minecraft called Block by Block that allows residents to build 3D models of their communities and have a say in how they are developed in the future. It helped a group of illiterate fishermen in Haiti who had never used a computer to visualise a new sea wall to prevent flooding, which was passed to architects. It has also been used in Nairobi to resolve a dispute over a road crossing a football pitch.
  • Initiatives in Seoul and Singapore that use apps to encourage people to share, lend and borrow rarely-used things instead of everyone buying their own, cutting down on delivery van congestion in the cities and reducing global resource waste.

Those seeking a career in the future development of smart cities have some good options for study. Here are just two (good) examples. An introductory course from FutureLearn, the Open University’s online wing, offers an overview of smart urban planning which includes debates on the challenges of ethics, privacy and security. Security certainly needs to be more firmly baked in to smart city planning, because smart city systems are not without their problems, as this recent traffic light hack shows.

A more in-depth course on edX is run by professors of Information Architecture, Cognitive Science, Computational Social Science and Technology & Design. Its sister course Future Cities takes a wider view of city design for the future, including which methods can contribute to the sustainable performance of a city, and how this can be taught to future generations.