What Does the Smart City of the Future Look Like?


The city of the future is closer than you might think. Technological breakthroughs in recent years promise to transform the urban landscape as we know it. It may not be time to expect flying cars quite yet, but the era of “smart cities” is beginning right now.


Smart cities run on an infrastructure of interconnected technologies that work to improve the quality of life and prosperity of everyone living, working, or visiting the metro area. The key features of smart cities are like the separate but closely linked features of the human body: Roads act like the circulatory system; sewer and water stand in for the digestive system; police and fire departments work like the immune system; and the government entities that run everything represents the brain and its vast neural network. Because in smart cities the central brain has a much bigger capacity, all the other systems under its purview work better, too.


Smart cities get this high capacity and intelligence from technology, specifically internet-connected devices collectively known as the Internet of Things. These devices are installed throughout cities in the form of cameras and sensors, which then transmit vast amounts of data over wireless networks and into cloud-based data management systems for analysis by human decision makers and artificial intelligence. By tracking data points that urban planners have never tracked before, smart cities create a resource-efficient ecosystem for all to benefit from.


Technically, all the key features of a smart city already exist; they just haven’t yet coalesced into a functional smart city because of a few significant obstacles. By 2022, IoT devices will produce 77.5 exabytes of data per month — more than all the data produced in human history so far. Turning this data into actionable insights will be an ongoing challenge, especially given the limited capabilities of today’s AI. Collecting it will be difficult, too, until cities can feasibly install networks that enable large-scale wireless data transmission through 5G in smart cities.


Paradoxically, the same thing that powers a smart city can make it vulnerable. Cyberattacks, especially the deeply interconnected systems running a smart city, pose a real threat to an entire ecosystem built on technology. Cybersecurity challenges in smart cities don’t yet get enough attention from developers and city leaders, but it’s an issue they must address now — waiting won’t be an option. Cyberattacks could potentially disable smart cities and put entire populations in danger.


Though high-tech cities certainly face more risks, those risks are outweighed by the rewards. Imagine a place where smart traffic lights make traffic jams impossible, smart garbage collection keeps the streets clean, and smart power grids help us combat climate change. Everything is organized for convenience and comfort, saving residents up to 125 hours a year while improving public health and extending access to economic opportunities.


Considering that nearly 70% of the global population will live in cities by 2050, the way we manage population-dense areas must evolve and improve. Smart cities make that possible.


The Building Blocks of Smart City Infrastructure


A number of building blocks go into creating a smart city infrastructure, some technical and others not. On the technical side of the equation, digital infrastructure must have expansive cybersecurity measures in place. That means assessing the security risks of IoT devices and submitting these devices to rigorous security testing throughout the design, production, integration, and performance phases. Technical resources must also integrate with one another and with existing infrastructure as seamlessly as possible. Cities will also need to make data management and storage mechanisms a priority so they can collect, transmit, store, and manage the immense amount of information necessary (and available) to make smart cities a reality.


Critical as technology may be, it’s not the only asset smart cities need in order to thrive. People are also a vital part of the effort, especially in these early stages when there exists strong opposition to new, tech-driven approaches to local governance. Smart cities need advocates throughout the ranks of both the local public and private sectors, advocates who are enthusiastic about the potential but also realistic about the risks and roadblocks in the way. Smart cities won’t create themselves — they need smart citizens, too.


Building a smart city also requires versatility. Every smart city will look different in terms of the tech infrastructure it runs on and how the city manages that technology. Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, smart city infrastructure must match the strengths, weaknesses, and unique features of the existing city. And instead of adopting a set-it-and-forget-it mentality, it also must constantly adapt to reflect emerging trends and best practices.


Funding is another building block in the way of smart city creation and is sometimes even the linchpin in the effort. The more funds a city has on hand, the more advancements it can make. However, those funds could be hard to secure from lenders or voters who are unfamiliar with, and therefore wary of, smart city initiatives. Local advocates will need to support funding requests with business models, revenue models, and asset recycling plans to clearly demonstrate the value of smart cities and the quality-of-life benefits they offer.


Some building blocks will come from unexpected sources such as blockchain. This distributed-ledger technology offers the privacy, security, and integrity necessary to send massive amounts of sensitive data through wireless networks. Securing smart cities using blockchain technology promises to address the largest risks without cybersecurity becoming a massive drain on funding or time. Artificial intelligence plays a similarly fundamental role. It can turn massive amounts of data into insights that decision makers can actually use. Further, it can also handle much of the ongoing work of adapting the smart city, such as changing and updating traffic lights on the basis of traffic patterns.


With all these building blocks in place, smart cities can meet and even exceed the most optimistic expectations. If just one block is missing, however, particularly one that jeopardizes cybersecurity, the smart city can collapse.


Learn more about Smart City Planning and check out, “A Road Map for Secure Infrastructure.”


Privacy and Security in a Smart City


More technology creates more risks. Smart cities with thousands (and, someday, millions) of interconnected devices offer hackers plenty of targets to attack, any of which could permit access to the network as a whole. And once inside that network, hackers could disable key pieces of civil society — everything from police dispatch to water sanitation — and cause overwhelming chaos.


This has already happened in some cities experimenting with smart technologies. In one instance, hackers took control of weather alert sirens in Dallas and set them off in the middle of the night, sending the public into a panic. In another, researchers from the University of Michigan took over every streetlight in one city as part of a test, resulting in traffic problems of significant magnitude.


While the security of the IoT devices controlling important aspects of urban infrastructure is one concern, the security of the data flowing through local wireless networks is another. People will likely need to turn over their personal data in order to “interface” with smart cities. This information could be as basic as name and address or as sensitive as medical and financial records. As cities begin collecting personal information on millions of people, hackers will make this data a prime target — one that’s valuable and vulnerable. That said, if local leaders can’t manage the cybersecurity challenges in smart cities effectively, it puts everyone’s privacy and well-being in jeopardy.


Overcoming Cybersecurity Challenges in a Smart City

The good news is that the best time to secure smart cities is now, in their earliest stages. City planners can (and must) make smart city security challenges a key concern during the planning stages and continue to emphasize them in every stage that follows. A proactive approach now leads to infrastructure that’s secure by design, rather than one in need of endless patching.


Starting early requires participation from all stakeholders: governments, local businesses, software providers, IoT device makers, energy providers, network security providers, and more. Each must take cybersecurity seriously and approach it in a coordinated way across the physical, communication, database, and interface layers of the smart city.


Unfortunately, best practices and good guidelines don’t exist yet for smart city planners to follow. To a large extent, each smart city will have to build its own cybersecurity strategy from the ground up. That starts with performing due diligence on specific IoT devices to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and approaches to handling data. It also requires exploring all the potential risks and outcomes should private data fall into the wrong hands or should hackers take control of infrastructure.


Above all, though, it requires a willingness to change. Cybersecurity challenges in smart cities will constantly evolve as hackers devise new kinds of attacks. The early defenses won’t endure, so IoT systems must be continually audited and updated.


As long as stakeholders inside and outside government treat cybersecurity threats in the smart grid infrastructure as a top priority and an ongoing practice, they can secure their smart cities with confidence. Once that happens, the opportunities to live better only increase.


Reaping the Rewards of the Smart City


One of these opportunities comes economically. The economic benefits of smart cities extend far and wide. Rarely, if ever, has one infrastructure project made such a positive impact on so many people across locations, classes, and backgrounds. When done well, smart city technology can produce prosperity for all.


The technology accomplishes those gains by improving connectivity throughout and between the public and private sectors. Connectivity between businesses facilitates trade, improves efficiency, and maximizes local productivity, which in turn attracts investment from outsiders eager to support companies pioneering a new kind of competitive advantage.


Singapore is currently on a quest to become a “smart nation” and is already enjoying some economic uplift as a result. Mapping shipping routes with a geospatial intelligence network, for example, allows for dynamic route planning and bolsters the trade economy. Singapore has also installed a nationwide public transport network and fiber optic cable network, facilitating the movement of people and information. Collectively, these measures position Singapore as a technologically advanced nation, ripe for further investment.


New York City has taken similar measures, implementing a free high-speed Wi-Fi network to make internet access closer to universal. Thanks partly to steps like that, NYC is fast transforming into a tech hub. Unsurprisingly, smart companies want to operate out of smart cities. Estonia has taken the concept of smart governance to perhaps its furthest extreme. The nation is securing smart cities by using blockchain technology to track citizens and secure online government services, making them more accessible to all and pioneering new forms of digital governance.


No matter where they’re installed, IoT technologies for smart cities promise to spur business activity. First, by giving entrepreneurs more data about how cities work and where gaps for goods and services exist. Second, by creating demand for smart city technology and support, an emerging industry with immense potential: The market is projected to reach $2 trillion by 2025, spread among firms across the country that will then pump those funds into their local economies. The smart city aims to spread prosperity for all, and it has multiple ways of creating economic benefits for large corporations, small businesses, and individuals, too.


The economic benefits of smart cities are important to keep in context because they serve as a counterargument against those who think smart city security challenges make connected cities too risky to be realistic. Granted, those security challenges are huge and constant, and they threaten cities in serious ways. But when they’re used as an excuse to maintain the status quo and leave cities disconnected, they wipe out tremendous economic potential in the process.


As IoT technologies improve in computing and processing power, the potential of the smart city grows, too. How enthusiastic cities are about implementing these technologies — and managing all the cybersecurity risks this brings — says a lot about how they see their own futures. Those moving to become smart cities are taking bold steps to address systemic problems, unleash a flurry of economic activity, and distinguish themselves from cities stuck in the ways of the past. It’s an ambitious — even audacious — effort, but it’s one any city can and should take on. The infrastructure we build today creates the foundations for the smart cities of tomorrow.