Most "smart city" projects to-date are somewhat isolated and are not part of a more comprehensive network.

Plans for more wired, networked, connected urban areas face challenges if they fail to account for existing, local, non-digital elements such as government and socioeconomic conditions

This week, we learned that tech guru and mega philanthropist Bill Gates purchased 25,000 acres of land in Arizona with the intent to build a smart city from the ground up. The community, called Belmont, will “create a forward-thinking community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs,” according to a spokesperson for Gates’ real estate firm Belmont Partners.

This announcement comes on the heels of the release of 2017 Smart Cities Index by EasyPark Group, which highlights cities at the forefront of smart urban growth in such areas as advanced transportation and mobility, Internet connectivity, environmental protection, and several other elements. Given the global investment and public attention devoted to smart cities in recent years, critical explorations of their potential and challenges are worth discussion.

Somewhat of a catchall term for wired, ubiquitous, connected or networked cities, a smart city refers to the technological and data-driven urban systems designed for efficient, resilient and economic growth. They are supposed to be cities of the future that leverage technology and data to improve the lives of citizens and to become more proactive and responsive to the needs of the city. These goals are achieved, the theory goes, by running the city on an integrated operating system where ubiquitous broadband service and sensors master myriad city functions in real time.


The current reality of smart cities is that there aren’t any. At the end of the day, most so-called smart cities are just cities with a few or several standout smart projects. Such projects can take shape in a variety of ways. In Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is piloting a $30 million smart-signal system that utilizes adaptive traffic signals to read traffic conditions and make adjustments to keep traffic flowing. Kansas City invested nearly $15 million in a smart lighting project that will install 200 lights along its new streetcar line. The lights have built-in sensors and cameras that detect the presence of people and can turn off when no one is around to save 20–30 percent in electricity costs. Both efforts represent the potential of smart city technology, but they certainly do not represent the networked, end-to-end planning of an entire smart city.