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The smart way to build smart cities

By 2050, 66% of the global population will live in cities, according to data from the United Nations. Connectivity is also growing. By 2020, there will be a quarter billion connected vehicles on the road, according to Gartner. By 2019, 2.6 billion people will use smartphones worldwide, according to Statista. And between 20 and 30 billion things will be connected by 2020, according to McKinsey.

With people around the world moving into cities and living increasingly connected lives, cities themselves will quickly need to get smart. But how, exactly, does one go about making a city smart?

One might argue that the only way is to construct the city from the ground up, allowing individual sectors and entities within those sectors to become smart one by one — from transit improvements to commercial building upgrades to connectivity in public recreational spaces. This is a more organic approach that arguably demands less planning, time and money upfront.

However, the aforementioned method ignores the very core of what it means to be a smart city. A smart city should be an ecosystem in which components of all sectors seamlessly integrate. If this doesn’t sound simple, that’s because it’s not. In order to achieve this feat — to achieve a truly connected, integrated city — an approach prioritizing holistic design and planning is critical.

To build a house, you need a solid foundation, and a city is no different. Planners must establish a cohesive design to serve as the core that will stabilize the other features of the city. Some key guidelines should inform this approach:

The user experience needs to take priority. The city itself must be structured to complement the priorities of its citizens. This means city governments and planners (designers) must engage with local residents. It’s critical to think about their user journeys and stay close to what would improve their lives and make them happy. The core of a strong and truly smart city is to crowdsource ideas from locals. Their feedback should be melded into an infrastructure that will boost not just city revenues, but the long-term health and happiness of the community.

Not every component of a city can or needs to transform at once — but bear in mind the long game with each step. However, each step forward should be taken mindfully and keep in mind the bigger picture. You can build a smart city in fragments so long as you don’t design it that way — that way each piece fits into the same puzzle and unfolds into one overall vision.

Integration is everything. There are downsides to building a city piecemeal; it can prevent integration and compatibility of various components and sectors within that city down the road, potentially hindering rather than improving efficiency. We’re seeing the importance of integration on a personal scale — for example, we’re just seeing how your refrigerator can tell your car that you’re out of milk, so you know to head to the grocery store after work. Or how you can listen to the same song uninterrupted from your car speakers and your home speakers. This same degree of seamless integration needs to apply to everything from public transit to roads shared by cars and cyclists to office buildings and public spaces to achieve the full advantages of a smart city. And thoughtful, intentional design is the only way to orchestrate that web of various components.

Daily inefficiencies need not persist. As people migrate to urban areas, they increasingly face the burdens of long commutes, full metro cars, and delayed trains and flights. These challenges can lead to larger, more dangerous inconsistencies, like long hospital waits and system glitches leaving people without power or phone signals. If cities choose to integrate their methods across systems, the result can be a harmonious network of homes, cars and offices working together to streamline the daily experience for everyone. Things like real-time notifications for traffic congestion, public transit delays or safety alerts, as well as smart streetlights for open parking spaces, could all provide alleviation of the unnecessary stresses of urban living. The same goes for analytics-based insights to help city residents make smarter decisions based on data reflecting conditions specific to a city.

Ultimately, planners must think long term when instating any new frameworks within a city. Their mindful and careful deliberation may seem tedious at the start of the planning process, but will deliver the ROI of a truly smart city. By thinking things through, keeping an eye toward the future and investing time and resources into planning now, we will see the lasting potential of a truly smart city.

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