The world's top 10 smartest cities - and what makes them so smart

By Phil Goldstein

The trend toward "smart cities" has been ongoing for the past several years, but it is expected to accelerate in the years to come as wireless connectivity becomes ubiquitous and 1 Gbps wireless speeds become commonplace.

Concurrently, cities are speeding the development of automated processes and services in an effort to better serve residents.

As a result, according to a recent report from research firm Gartner, there will be an estimated 1.1 billion connected things used by smart cities in 2015. That figure is expected to jump to 9.7 billion by 2020. Healthcare devices, smart commercial buildings, smart homes, transportation systems and utilities are among the items that analysts believe will be connected to networks in smart cities of the future.

Already, a number of major cities across the globe have jumped into the "smart cities" concept with both feet. The IESE Business School, the graduate business school of the University of Navarra in Spain, ranked these smart cities. Researchers at the school studied 135 cities based on 50 indicators along 10 different dimensions, including governance, public management, urban planning, technology, the environment, international outreach, social cohesion, mobility and transportation, human capital and the economy.

IESE's full report can be found here (PDF), but the school's top 10 ranking is:

  1. London
  2. New York City
  3. Seoul
  4. Paris
  5. Amsterdam
  6. Vienna
  7. Tokyo
  8. Geneva
  9. Singapore
  10. Munich

But what does it even mean for a city to be considered "smart?" How does one assess how much progress a city has made in becoming smarter?

MachNation co-founder and CTO Dima Tokar noted that smart cities are still an "evolving trend, rather than a predefined concept."

Based on interviews with top experts in the field, here are the three top criteria that define smart cities:

Adoption of connected applications
There is a wealth of different smart cities applications. Almost any service or piece of infrastructure can be made smarter and more efficient, especially when connectivity is applied. The list of smart city applications runs the gamut, from parking services that more efficiently allocate and track open street parking spots, to efficient street lighting that collects data and turns off when there is no foot traffic nearby. It includes garbage collection that is more proactive and public transportation systems integrated with real-time traffic data.  

"I think the more the merrier," Machina Research analyst Alex Chau said. "Basically, the more services [cities] adopt, and the more impact it has on the citizens, then the more the service will be recognized as a success."

Chau said that upgrades to street lights, traffic management and transportation can significantly impact how citizens interact with cities. For example, Chau noted that Singapore has adopted what it calls "Intelligent Transport Systems," which includes toll collection and congestion pricing monitoring. "ITS' sophisticated traffic and control systems maximize road network efficiency capacity as well as monitor and manage traffic flow," the city says.

A favorable political structure
Chau also noted that many cities around the world still deliver services with a siloed mentality, with each city department working independently from other departments. "Right now, it's not really an IoT solution," he said. "It's sort of like an M2M, siloed solution."  

Some cities, Chau said, are moving to what he calls "subnet solutions." In those instances, certain departments are connected and can communicate with each other.

There are certain pairings that make more sense than others. For example, pairing public transportation with traffic management would make sense, especially in cities where such systems use the same roads and infrastructure. Additionally, marrying security systems and cameras with the city's public safety response centers and services makes sense, allowing police and firefighters to respond to incidents more quickly. Another partnership, Chau said, could be between a public works or an environmental department and a public safety system--sensors used to detect flooding could also send readings in real-time to emergency alert workers, for example.

"A city is made up of different networks right now," Chau noted. "But certain networks can be combined to become a subnet of a major network."

There are few cities that have engaged in centralized management of systems and networks. One of them, Chau said, is Rio de Janeiro, which in December 2010 opened its Operations Center in conjunction with IBM. The center consolidated around 30 city agencies into a single system in one building.

Source: IBM

Chau added that sometimes it takes a major catastrophic event like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to wake a city up to the need for better coordination. "A lot of people won't take action unless there is some disaster or tragedy to wake them up," he said.

The goal of most such efforts, though, is to make cites more responsive to the needs of citizens. "Smarter cities show excellence in modernity, efficiency and resourcefulness in infrastructure; services available to the population; and innovation that leads to improvement in quality of life of its residents," Tokar said.

Further, the goal of any centralized management system should be to make a city more self-reliant. "What you don't want is to have to get a systems integrator in every time you want to splice together a couple of functions (e.g. for giving ambulances a green light through the city)," Machina Research analyst Matt Hatton said. "You (as a city manager) want to have a platform in place to do that. But that depends on having the right political structure."

A centralized platform
Chau said he thinks the role of a city's Chief Information Officer (or Chief Innovation Officer) is going to grow in importance over time. If a city doesn't have one already, it needs to get one, he said.

"A lot of these so-called platforms will require a lot of engineering, IT and knowledge to make it work," Chau said. "That's why the big platform vendors are excited about IoT."

Cisco Systems, IBM, Ericsson and Jasper are among the companies coming up with their own platforms to help cities become smarter. They want to provide analytics and other tools to help cities make sense of their data, Chau noted. He also said cities should be pushing for open standards so that they are not tied to one vendor.

"Smart cities also take advantages of ubiquitous sensor data to make iterative improvements to make the city a better place to live," Tokar noted. "Such examples improvements city can make to become smarter are studying automobile accidents to improve roads so that that they are safer for pedestrians, or the use of usage data to improve energy grids, improve sanitation and increase safety for citizens."

The world's top 10 smartest cities - and what makes them so smart