What it means to be a ‘smart city’ in 2018 — and why we should consider another name

From railroads to sewers to paved roads, cities must improve their infrastructure to avoid fading away. "Smart city" upgrades add a different dimension to the story.

In 1911, Baltimore’s then-new sewer system was the envy of engineers and city planners around the world. At least that’s how the local papers described it. Finally, buildings could run their wastewater through underground pipes rather than open-air gutters, and a treatment plant would separate waste from stormwater, freeing Baltimoreans from noxious, debilitating odors that permeated their city.

“Experts have come thousands of miles to see it, and probably every sanitary engineer now living, no matter what his race or nation, is familiar with the system,” the Baltimore Sun gushed. “It is, of course, the latest planned project of its kind, and no similar work of the same magnitude is going on anywhere else. Engineers have come from all over the world to inspect the system.”

The system’s chief engineer, Charles W. Hendrick, was celebrated with lavish profiles the likes of which city project managers almost never enjoy. “He has not yet reached the age of 46, but when it is considered that he held down big municipal positions just about the time he was casting his first vote, it can be seen that his years are outweighed by his experience,” the Sun wrote.

The Baltimore sewers’ admirers visited from Europe, South America, Japan and Australia, along with many U.S. cities, possibly leaving inspired to upgrade water treatment procedures in their hometowns. Baltimore’s early-20th-century modernization, which was credited with relieving the city of what had once been described as a “2,000-horse-power” stench, seems mundane and ordinary in 2018. But at the time it was on the cutting edge of infrastructure progress.


These days, if you hear about a city making a great leap forward, it’s likely to involve streetlights, specifically LED bulbs that can be adjusted remotely and mounted on poles that can also sport surveillance cameras or equipment that detects environmental changes. In the past year, big cities like Chicago, Cleveland and San Diego and small ones like Yuma, Arizona, and West Hollywood, California, have trumpeted their plans to install hundreds or thousands of new streetlights.

All of these projects are inescapably touted under the banner of each community becoming a “smart city,” an increasingly catch-all term for any city that’s applying technology to any number of functions typically expected of local government. But smart city projects run a gamut that can be as simple as switching out light bulbs to complete overhauls of how municipal agencies function. Becoming “smart” is a trendy — and strategic — thing for cities to do. But when a city can claim that mantle for itself with a project as basic as replacing sodium lamps with LED bulbs, it begs asking just what it means to be a smart city.

“Outside-in” and “inside-out”

“I think it’s kind of jumped the shark,” says Gabe Klein, a former transportation director in Washington, D.C., and Chicago who now advises city governments on modernization projects. “If you asked 10 people in a room what a smart city is, you’d probably get at least five different answers.”

To Klein, smart city adopters can be divided between places that view technology as the end point and places that have actual strategies for what they want to do with all those new toys. The cities that have most successfully answered the existential question of what it means to be “smart” might be the ones that are several years into implementing technology-driven solutions that citizens don’t perceive as tech taking over their lives.


“One of the first things people saw in D.C. that they could really get their heads around, was [Capital Bikeshare],” Klein says of Washington’s 8-year-old bike-sharing network. “I don’t think people think of it as smart cities. They think of it as this great feature that adds to the flavor, character and lifestyle of the city. But the reality is that it uses RFID, geolocation, solar power, modular design and componentry. It’s an example of good smart city technology.”

But with more than 120 bike-sharing systems around the U.S., having one isn’t as special or “smart” as perhaps it once was. And the list of potential smart city projects seems to have no end. At a recent conference in New York, tech-industry executives and city officials from around the world discussed how to make concepts like artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency and self-driving vehicles work for cities. But so many potential applications for all these new civic technologies makes defining “smart city” that much more difficult.

Jesse Berst, the chairman of the Smart Cities Council, a research group that advises city on how to get smarter, says it’s easy to get caught up in slick new hardware like police body cameras, connected bicycles, electric-vehicle charging stations and, yes, streetlights.

“Cities are at the intersection of two massive technology trends that are affecting everything else in the world,” he says. “I think of them as outside-in and inside-out.”

Outside-in, Berst says, is the so-called Internet of Things — internet-connected devices that collect data and can be adjusted remotely. The inside-out is just as important to a modern city’s livelihood, if not more so. A city can’t really call itself “smart” unless it’s doing something with all that data its new devices are harvesting.


“That’s the digital transformation,” Berst says. “You can’t find a company bigger than 10 people that isn’t in the middle of its digital transformation. Same with cities.”

Along with LED streetlights, open-data portals are another staple of any basic smart city program. Consolidated data websites tend to please good-government types, but Berst says they’re also essential for making governments work more efficiently.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, for instance, launched a website called “ABQ View” in 2010 with a limited glance of salary information about the city’s 250 highest-paid workers. A year later, it expanded to include all 6,000 city employees. Since then, it’s been expanded to include city contracts, ongoing construction projects and audit reports from municipal agencies. By 2014, Albuquerque estimated it was saving $180,000 per year from its 311 call center, with locals able to go online to find information rather than jam a city-hall switchboard.

Saving taxpayer dollars and offering operational transparency are things people expected of their local governments long before anyone started using the term “smart city.” And digitization of city operations, instead of being as novel as smart-city evangelists like Berst say, are perhaps framed better as the natural progression of capitalist civilizations.

Getting smart to get rich


In an Atlantic essay earlier this year titled “There Is No Such Thing as a Smart City,” the cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling wrote that cities will install the hardware whether or not there’s an official smart-city movement afoot.

“The digital techniques that smart-city fans adore are flimsy and flashy — and some are even actively pernicious — but they absolutely will be used in cities,” Sterling wrote. “They already have an urban heritage. When you bury fiber-optic under the curbs around the town, then you get internet. When you have towers and smartphones, then you get portable ubiquity. When you break up a smartphone into its separate sensors, switches, and little radios, then you get the internet of things.”

Sterling’s upshot of all that deployed tech is pretty cynical: “The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital,” he wrote.

That’s already happening across the United States, as cities chase tech firms and the high-income workers they bring in. And those companies aren’t looking to expand to cowtowns. Klein says the contest for Amazon’s second headquarters — a project the digital commerce giant says will bring 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in investment to the winning bidder — has been a great motivator for cities and regions trying to modernize themselves.

“There’s good and bad about it,” Klein says of the “HQ2” bidding war, which has largely become a measuring contest for local governments to show off the tax incentives they’d offer Amazon. “Cities that were firmly against new money in transit, all of a sudden, they got religion.”


After years of being divided on the issue, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia — all of which are finalists in the Amazon bakeoff — recently acted to create dedicated funding sources for the Washington-area’s subway after years of clashing on how to pay for the chronically underfunded system. Klein is not alone in attributing this change to the region’s chances to land Amazon, and he says similar phenomena are underway in other places angling for the HQ2 project.

Indianapolis, one of the 20 finalists on a shortlist Amazon revealed in January, is aiming to land the project by highlighting the solar array at its airport and Blue Indy, an electric-vehicle-sharing program modeled after a similar operation in Paris. Those improvements helped the city reel in companies like cloud-computing firm Salesforce, which has its second-largest office there.

Even if Amazon picks one of the other 19 sites on its shortlist, Indianapolis — a long shot, at least according to oddsmakers — is unlikely to ditch its investments in solar power, electric vehicles and data collection. There are other potential corporate deals out there.

“You may not win Amazon,” Klein says. “You might get 10 more 2,000-person Salesforce deals. What you have to do is follow through on what you committed to on HQ2, because all these companies want the same thing.”

The HQ2 scenario, though, fulfills Sterling’s indictment of the smart-city movement as a series of corporate inducements. Yet the tier of cities big enough to pursue an Amazon-sized investment is small, while the need for greater connectivity is global.


That means cities of all sizes have to look at ways to stay current with how government functions and how government’s end users — residents and businesses — use technology in their lives. That’s been a challenge for cities well before the internet or computer ages.

It’s all infrastructure

“Two hundred years ago, there were a bunch of narrow-gauge railroads,” Berst says. “The railroad would stop just short of the Massachusetts-Vermont border, and they would unload all the cargo, carry it a few hundred yards, and load it onto the next train.”

Railroad designers eventually realized tracks couldn’t connect without a standard gauge. Similar standards exist across nearly all modes of transportation. “Today, if a developer wants to do a new subdivision,” Berst says, “streets have to be a certain width, signs have to be a certain way. You can’t make up your own stop signs.”

Instead of rail ties and stop signs, cities now need fiber-optic cable and cell towers to keep up. But it all still falls within the big tent of critical infrastructure. That doesn’t mean every community needs to barrel head-first into new streetlights or replacing every car in town with a self-driving Tesla, but there is a minimum of what local governments should be investing in, Klein says.


“If you don’t know as a city what to do, enable the ground-level infrastructure,” he says. “Meaning you gotta have enough fiber and small-cell densification so other people can build on top of that.”

The mandate for cities to build out the infrastructure to survive in an increasingly digitized culture and economy is a contemporary echo of previous waves of modernization. Standardized gauges made transcontinental railroads possible. The invention of the automobile caused roads to be paved with tar and asphalt. Baltimore was choked by the stenches of human and industrial waste before its sewer upgrades.

There’s no guarantee any of these decisions is a permanent path toward success, but not modernizing is almost always the less attractive option.

“It goes back to infrastructure,” Berst says. “Whether it’s a canal to Lake Erie or interstate railroad or electrification or a telephone network. It’s the same for smart cities. You might think of it as infrastructure for prosperity.”

Still, the term “smart city” gets bandied about so much, it could be a brand name for a very specific set of implementations, despite the fact that the word “smart” could mean one thing in Albuquerque and something else in Washington. A citywide promotion of electric vehicles like Columbus, Ohio’s might not be feasible yet in a place where the power grid is still being upgraded.


So what, then, to call all these communities that are investing in new technology and automating more government functions? Klein suggests “connected cities.” Or maybe in a few years, what we currently call “smart cities” will just be known as typical cities.

“Ten or 15 or 20 years from now it’ll be so obvious, just like it’s obvious looking back at 1868,” the year before the first transcontinental railroad was completed, Berst says. “It’s not obvious when you’re in the middle of it, but it’ll be apparent the cities that made the transformation will be the winners.”

This story was featured in StateScoop Special Report: Smart Communities (2018)

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