How Cities Around the World Are Getting Smarter

Two hundred and fifty million Chinese citizens are packing up and moving in. As part of their country’s efforts to further bolster their economy through the Four Modernizations campaign, these people will be relocated to urban areas, raising the number of city residents to 900 million by 2025. This spike in urban population is bound to cause inefficiencies in energy consumption and waste management, among other issues. To address these challenges, the country’s public and private sectors have begun investing in smart technologies. This will make China one of the countries with the highest concentration of smart cities in the world.

But what does it take to build a smart city?

More than half (54%) of the world’s population live in urban areas, but not all of these locales can be considered “smart.” The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) refer to a smart city as the “system of systems.” It improves public services through the merging of critical infrastructure like energy and transportation systems, and new technologies such as sensor networks. Smart cities are designed to greatly benefit their citizens. Most have networked infrastructures that make people’s lives better, enable urban development, and promote overall sustainability.

A number of key issues have directly influenced the building of such cities. Governments aiming to improve their provision of services—such as communication, transportation, and waste management—as well as strengthen their public security measures are opting for smart cities. Energy conservation has also driven the need for smarter processes and infrastructure, particularly considering that today’s metropolises consume around 70% of the energy produced worldwide. A city’s energy consumption and waste production can have serious environmental effects like climate change. Smart technology can be employed on a city level as part of a nation’s preventive and corrective efforts.

A number of existing smart cities use information and communication technology (ICT) to address their respective economic and developmental demands. New York, for instance, has been conducting air quality surveys to monitor pollution. Boston, meanwhile, is known for the BOS:311 app. This tool links Boston residents to the rest of the Massachusetts population to allow them to report problems (potholes, graffiti, etc.) to the proper authorities.

Building a smart city entails generating vast amounts of data and making particular datasets more accessible to relevant organizations and government bodies. Consequently, generating big data to optimize a city can pose potential security and privacy issues that may stem from improper data analysis, sharing, and use. While attacks on smart cities are still relatively unheard of, it is clear that citywide smart technologies that handle and process citizen and infrastructure data have to be secured.

A Survey of Smart Cities Worldwide

The ways smart cities are implemented vary from region to region. Each one is designed to meet certain needs specific to their citizens or take advantage of technologies readily available to them. We have surveyed a number of currently existing smart cities and how they are adopting smart technologies to address challenges. Please note that the locations listed below are just a small sampling of all smart cities found across the globe.

Songdo IBD, South Korea

Songdo International Business District (IBD) is the world’s first smart city. It was built from the ground up with the aid of smart technologies. Its residents have access to real-time video communication that lets them remotely attend English classes, consult doctors, or even work from home. It’s also equipped with nearfield communication (NFC), both passive and active radio frequency identification (RFID), physical and biometric sensors, and 3-D and closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. It also uses standard protocols for data security like Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), firewall, public key infrastructure (PKI), and intrusion detection system (IDS), to name a few.

Songdo IBD developed three water networks—freshwater, sewage, and treated water—for its residents’ use. It also uses natural gases to generate heat and has a pneumatic trash collection system (an underground centralized vacuum-powered tube system).

Perhaps what makes Songdo IBD a prime example of a ubiquitous city is its use of smart card house keys that also serve as a means to pay for subway transportation and parking meter fees, watch films, and more. These cards are not linked to user identities and can be easily canceled and reset in case of loss. But such pervasiveness may raise privacy concerns–similar to how residents opt for fitted smart systems in every home and business, omnipresent CCTV cameras, and even using Global Positioning System (GPS) bracelets on children. As with anything involving the Internet of Things (IoT), especially on this scale, it is a matter of weighing convenience and privacy.

Yokohama, Japan

After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, Japan’s National Policy Unit defined a “Green Policy” to address concerns about national energy security and efficiency. These plans include the installation of home energy management systems (HEMS) in all households by 2030. And it’s not that far off. The Yokohama Smart City Project (YSCP)—Japan’s initiative to expand its smart grid—already shows a high preference for HEMS, almost 4,200 HEMS, 37 MW solar panels, and 2,300 electricity vehicles (EVs) have so far been installed, translating to a carbon dioxide reduction of 39,000 metric tons.

The introduction of HEMS allowed households and buildings in Yokohama to save power and spend less on electricity by throttling high-volume appliances at peak hours and optimizing the use of in-house energy through real-time data, resulting in increased energy and grid security. Despite that, there are still a few challenges to the centralized system. Based on a report by the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation, data security is not assured in such a system. So what happens when demand-response command is manipulated? Can it cause appliances to shut down? Can it be used to cause a citywide blackout? These are areas that need to be examined and protected.


Beyond its tidy streets and fast broadband services, Singapore is also set to become a smart nation. It plans to address its aging population and urban density through developments in big data, cybersecurity, urban logistics, and smart health assistance provision, among others.

On-demand mobility is at the forefront of Singapore’s plans, with efforts to provide autonomous vehicles like self-driving taxis. Its commuters can also book bus seats with routes generated by travel patterns and crowd-sourced suggestions. The National Research Foundation (NRF) also launched the Virtual Singapore project, an elaborate 3-D model of the whole country, that aims to help decision-makers, planners, and researchers develop tools that will address complex challenges in the country. Once Singapore truly becomes a smart nation, not only will connectivity be maintained throughout the city, sensor networks–comprised of security cameras and air quality, temperature, humidity, traffic, and speed detectors–will also be installed to give behavioral feedback (smoking in prohibited areas or where the most congested traffic junctions are) so issues can be readily addressed.

All of these projects rely on the smart city’s cornerstone―data. The data collected will let officials prevent crime, determine traffic density, and issue emergency alerts. A question remains though: How willing are citizens to hand over personal information for the sake of convenience? Under Singapore law, collecting resident data is legal and doesn’t require court orders. An empowering act must first be approved though before this can be done. This act must be specific to the type of data to be collected (e.g., installing CCTV cameras in specific locations.)

The Netherlands

Amsterdam is well on its way with its civil innovation efforts. The city boasts of food delivery services via solar-powered tricycles and crowd-sourced parking lots. Even better, three cities in the Netherlands already have noteworthy smart projects.

Nijmegen piloted the Smart Emission project aided by a low-cost citizen-sensor network. Partner citizens deployed sensors in public, from roundabouts and sidewalks to the front of houses. These sensors gather real-time data—air quality, noise level, humidity, and air pressure—which is then visualized on a map and readily provided to locals 24/7.

Rotterdam, meanwhile, installed a sustainable water management system called Rain Radar, which interprets how much rain has fallen in specific areas. This system allows the water board to store and/or direct excess water in playgrounds, underground water tanks, and canals to prevent flooding. Since the city is very vulnerable to flooding, being six meters below sea level and suffering acute rainfall that cause severe damage, small-scale facilities have also been developed. Green roofs, flood-control water plazas, and car parks with huge underground water storage aim to address flooding.

In Oosterworld, Almere lies an off-grid village called ReGen, where a typical day can mean harvesting salad greens from seasonal gardens, gathering eggs from a communal farm, and having food waste collected for composting. ReGen was designed to be a self-sustaining living space that recycles waste, produces its own energy and food, and does not emit pollution. It boasts of homes, greenhouses, aquaponics gardens, livestock, solar cells, and water storage, among others.

Jaipur, India

Jaipur will be one of the 100 smart cities set to be completed by 2022. Already, we are seeing active citizen engagement through dedicated sites, social media accounts, and face-to-face meetings. According to citizen polls, top concerns to address include transportation, mobility, heritage, and tourism. This has led to the deployment of routers and access points that provide Wi-Fi hot spots and video surveillance cameras, along with interactive kiosks and parking slots near shopping places and landmarks. Apart from free map and mobile phone-charging services, these kiosks also offer scanning, printing, and document uploading. The documents may contain sensitive information though, so development authorities should secure connections and data collection.


China plans to have 386 smart cities, with its Four Modernizations—agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology—integrated into their construction. Mobile apps developed by state-owned and private companies will play a major role in this process. These apps will be used for public transportation doctor appointments, and bill payments in the future. Citizens should, however, be wary of rooted mobile phones and malicious third-party apps as Google Play™ is not legitimate in China.

Urban planners in China also initiated an Urban Data Lab to collect government information, existing urban plans, mobile phone metadata from carriers, and behavioral data from location-based services. The information is used to analyze citizens’ spatial behaviors to help urban planners make more reasonable city plans and policies, like calculating typical commute times and recreational patterns.

Despite worries of possible sensitive data abuse, a project called City Brain aims to show how technological solutions can positively impact a densely populated country like China. The project involves more than 50,000 video cameras that require a continuous stream of computing power. Developers are expecting to eventually evolve each city into an artificial intelligence (AI) community later on.

Jun, Spain

Jun is a small town that has been running its municipal council on Twitter since 2011. It is a good example of a small city that addresses civic concerns through social media. All of its public offices and officials are thus required to have a Twitter account. Twitter can be used to report crimes, find lost dogs, book doctor appointments, and even touch base with local government officials.

Paperwork, so to speak, is also done via Twitter. Anyone can tweet about a broken lamppost so city officials can immediately respond by tagging the electrician. Once fixed, the electrician can reply to the tweet to say the problem has been addressed.

Twitter use also allowed the town to trim down its police force from four officers to just one. With free Wi-Fi access, citizens no longer have to physically file complaints, requests, or queries. Of course, it is possible that such social media use can be abused. Attackers may try to hack official accounts to either spam followers or intervene in public operations through misleading announcements or posts. Immediate countermeasures are required in case said abuses take place.

With the successful adoption of smart cities worldwide, we can expect similar metropolises to crop up in the future. Organizations and governments that are more involved in the creation of smart cities should be able to provide continued and sustainable developments that benefit citizens while maintaining the security of their cities’ processes, infrastructure, and data.

In the next part of this Securing Smart Cities series, we shall cover exposed devices and critical infrastructure in smart cities, particularly in the U.S. We will also talk about how organizations can better secure them.


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