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Building a smart city has the potential to improve lives in big ways.

Smart devices have been in homes around the world for years—60.4 million households in America actively use smart products like speakers, televisions, and thermostats. By 2025, this number is expected to rise to 64.1 million. Globally, the number of Internet of Things devices is expected to grow from 9.7 billion in 2020 to 29.4 billion in 2030.

I’ve always been interested in how IoT devices can make our lives easier and safer. My whole house is automated. When the kids return home at the end of the day, the garage door opens automatically, and the Wi-Fi is programmed to shut off so they can do their homework; if something can be connected to the cloud, I’ve connected it. In making my own home a smart home, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of digital transformation. As IoT devices become more affordable and helpful, it begs the question: Why aren’t our cities smarter, and what can we do to get them there?


Smart cities use technology and data to intentionally improve residential life. That means using innovations like acoustic sensors to transmit information about the location of a gunshot to the police or outfitting trash and recycling bins with sensors that alert the waste management company if a container is full.

Can you imagine how much better your commute would be if, instead of waiting for the light to turn green when you’re the only person at the intersection, the traffic light had camera sensors that automatically switched it to green? Although something like this may seem like a small issue, when that issue and dozens of others disappear, the increase in quality of life is noticeable. That’s what smart cities are all about.

Although some of these components might one day become standard issue, ultimately, no two smart cities will be exactly alike. A smart city’s development is driven by the specific needs of its citizens, such as optimizing utility payment processes or making traffic flow more efficient. Those needs can be influenced by everything from geography to cultural values and resources—urban, suburban, and rural areas will all be different.


The foundation for any smart city is digital transformation. This term doesn’t just refer to the analog-to-digital change process. It requires you to rethink everything you do, integrating different technologies to serve as catalysts or supports. Going through digital transformation opens everyone to new possibilities about how cities operate and serve people.

Cities should start with low-hanging fruit in the community—pain points that can be solved with relative ease but yield changes with a large, positive influence. Many cities start by putting common services online that are often a pain in the butt for everyone to do in person, such as bill payments and applying for or renewing licenses. Cities don’t have to digitize every available service—no one expects them to boil the ocean—but they need to start somewhere.

No matter what starting point is identified, have patience as the work starts. Building a smart city requires long-term investment and planning on the part of the government. Part of this process involves anticipating potential upgrades based on what legacy systems are already in place and how easy it is to integrate with them. Few technologies are “future-proof.” But over time, as more and more of the community’s smaller pain points are eliminated, bandwidth can open up to address larger problems, such as keeping air quality at a certain level or reducing crime rates.


Smart cities are holistic, meaning there’s no single thing that makes one: Waste management systems can reduce emissions, while smart lighting can deter crime. This spiderweb of connection makes it vital to carefully consider funding and potential ramifications.

Constant iteration is necessary to determine what to implement and when. Advances in technology may require reworking what’s already been done, but in the end, doing so can benefit everyone. When a new component or updated version is introduced, it’ll take hard work to get buy-in from citizens. If people can’t see how the part meets their needs or makes their life easier, it’s likely they won’t support it.

Of course, any new idea needs somebody to introduce and champion it to others, which is where leadership comes into the picture. Change can be scary and difficult. Building a smart city depends on someone who can lead the charge and assess and direct each step of the digital transformation process.

The first step in this citizen-centric approach is evaluating the needs of people in the community. Even in a community that has trouble envisioning what a digital transformation would look like, it’s still possible to get workable feedback from citizens.

I’ve spent most of my career listening to what others need or want, and it’s taught me that determining the first step toward digital transformation is as easy as asking citizens what they’re looking for. As a marketer, I’ve learned it is always about giving your stakeholders a seat at the strategic table. For cities, your stakeholders are your citizens.

You can make assumptions about what features or functions stakeholders want, but at the end of the day, there’s no replacement for the actual voice of the citizen. Take the time to slow down and really listen to citizens. It will make laying the foundations for a smart city much easier.


Building a smart city has the potential to improve lives in big ways. Even so, it’s something that should happen with intentionality. It takes someone who can spot the potential for change, then translate that potential into practical action.

Making meaningful change means everything is done with service in mind: What will best improve citizens’ lives and the city’s functionality? Both government and private sector players have an important role, too, providing regulation, funding, and resources for the process. Smart cities aren’t just about technology—they’re about collaborating for long-term social good, no matter what that means for the residents of a given community.


Autor(en)/Author(s): Jonathan Levitt

Quelle/Source: Fast Company, 09.03.2023

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