Green Ovations: Smart Cities Address an Urgent Need

As urbanization grows, sustainable practices become crucial

One intriguing aspect of human nature is the knowledge that we can shape our own future. Yet failure to do so leaves us at the mercy of external forces and unintended consequences.

This is a critical issue today as populations grow and become more urban, while climate change, energy challenges and myriad regional trends threaten to overtake us. We have an opportunity – in fact, an urgent need – to discover and implement sustainable living practices in our cities.

As people around the world move from rural and sub-urban areas into urban centers, it’s clear that, collectively, we’ll need to apply ambitious levels of fresh thinking, long-range planning, and focused investment to maintain and even improve the quality of city life.

This will require people, government, the private sector and technology to optimize and coordinate myriad functions, from government to commerce, from mobility to security, from infrastructure to the arts. We’ll need to address how urban dwellers access education and healthcare, how (or if) they commute, whether they feel secure and, ultimately, whether they live fulfilling lives.

Accomplishing all of this will depend, to a degree, on Smart Grids and successfully leveraging the vast and complex network of devices and systems known as the Internet of Things. But these are just two components of a Smart Cities vision. This is not a utopian vision, but a matter of great urgency as the world’s population grows and becomes more urbanized.

The good news is that, today, we already have much of the technology needed to accomplish such a quest. The greater challenge, in my view, is making the needed cultural shift to succeed. Seizing the day is imperative.

Thus in this brief article, I would like to describe the IEEE Smart Cities initiative, which is our means to seize the day, and how it can address this global challenge.


As the world’s population grows – the current seven billion is 
 to double by 2050 – we’ll have to do more with less. Providing clean water, nutritious food and meaningful work for all is a perennial human challenge; population growth, resource scarcity and urbanization compound the challenge.

Today, half the world’s population – about 3.6 billion people – lives in a city. The number of city dwellers is forecast to increase to 6.3 billion by 2050. Half of all people in Asia will live in a city by 2020; half of Africa’s population will live in cities by 2035. The economic, environmental and cultural sources of competition and conflict that inhabit every day’s headlines will only grow in the future.

Today’s cities: big/small, old/new

The diversity of peoples, cities, infrastructure (or lack of it), resources, and priorities makes the effort to create Smart Cities a complex but promising challenge. The world’s largest cities, populated by millions, face specific hurdles due to population, the scale of infrastructure and the inertia of entrenched practices. But more than half of all urban centers contain less than 500,000 people. Smaller cities may have fewer resources but they may be more nimble in affecting change. Scale at both ends of the spectrum present contrasting opportunities and challenges.

Cities in the developed world will have to transform themselves through a hybrid of old and new. Think of modern Rome, where basements lie atop antiquities, first floors originated in the Renaissance period and upper floors were built in the 19th century. Incorporating intelligence in such circumstances will spur innovation. In contrast, new cities in the developing world may swiftly adopt the latest technologies and leap-frog ahead in competitiveness, shifting the balance of global economic power. Consider the potential for cities in India and Africa to rival or surpass the productivity of cities in the United States and Western Europe.

Defining the Smart City

Guadalajara, Mexico, with 4.2 million people in the metropolitan area, is Mexico’s second largest city, and the first city selected to participate in the IEEE Smart Cities initiative, based on the following criteria:
  • Guadalajara has a concrete plan and funds to become a Smart City (Ciudad Creativa Digital project)
  • It has a local constituency that welcomes IEEE’s involvement
  • Local authorities are willing to lead and share their experiences and lessons learned
  • The city has a local IEEE chapter and section to provide support and accountability
  • Local universities and industry are committed to supporting the initiative
Guadalajara will leverage existing strengths such as a high-tech sector that’s particularly focused on digital media and has launched the Ciudad Creative Digital (CCD) initiative, which could have Smart City-related implications. Besides high-tech commerce, Guadalajara is focused on improving many prosaic city services, including government operations, transportation, security and telecommunications, even parking and waste management.

I cite Guadalajara, but two new cities – Wuxi, China and Trento, Italy – were selected last July in IEEE Smart Cities initiative. Every city will approach ‘smarticizing’ differently, based on local resources, strengths and priorities, but they must apply for participation and they must meet our basic criteria to join IEEE’s effort.

Why these specific criteria? Because nurturing well-qualified efforts to create smart cities can plant the seeds of change on a global basis. Nothing persuades others to follow as well as success.
By selecting a diverse group of cities around the world we hope to develop a flexible tool kit of best practices. And IEEE will provide a platform for sharing these practices through its Open Data Framework to encourage other cities to follow suit. This effort will include the creation of online tools and courses for engineers, city planners and others who will put these concepts and technologies into practice.
The creation of metrics for performance in every sector of a smart city will be critical to demonstrating measurable value and quantifiable benefits in order to justify investments to ‘smartify’ a city.

Mobility ≠ transportation

Doing more with less in various urban endeavors requires new thinking. Consider transportation. One can optimize an existing system, but urban transportation, for instance, faces physical limits. A city can’t build itself out of congestion. Instead of moving people more efficiently, we’re thinking in terms of allowing them to access value by moving from ‘transport’ to ‘mobility.’

The result could transform ‘mobility’ into ‘de-mobility.’ In relevant cases, intra-urban teleconferencing could replace commuting. Or cars in the city – to the degree they’re necessary at all – could be communally owned and available based on timely need. Such fresh thinking could change a city’s approach to future infrastructure investments.

Smart cities, smart grids, the Internet of Things

In creating Smart Cities, the optimization and coordination of energy-driven functions, as well as the notion of networking devices and systems relies on aspects of Smart Grid and/or the Internet of Things.
Smart Grid and a Smart City, however, are not synonymous. Smart Grid is just one of many elements, though a fundamental one, that will create a more de-centralized, inter-connected energy platform for a sustainable city. Both ideas embrace the need for and the value of efficiencies. But, more importantly, both require coordination among myriad devices and systems and present challenges in data management.

Smart Cities and the IoT both rely on countless sensors, central and distributed processing for optimization and coordination, and actuators to match the needs of urban dwellers with their urban environment. Smart City, in a sense, is a microcosm of the more widespread, potentially ubiquitous IoT. These terms likely will become meaningless to people who rely on them. When you take a holistic view of connecting such complex systems, everything is related. And the technology itself should become invisible.


It’s important to understand that, based on developments in Smart Grid, the IoT and other areas, Smart Cities are possible based on today’s known, commercialized technology. Of course, challenges remain.
One challenge is also an opportunity: while the requisite technologies for Smart Cities exist, they need a focal point for coordinating and deploying them. Smart Cities can provide that focus. Still, complex systems – and systems of systems – need designing. We have yet to establish best practices in this endeavor. The next frontier will include designing value-added services that people need, based on the operations and resulting data of a Smart City. Apps will proliferate in this environment.

Many standards sensors, communication networks and control systems are already in place, but gaps are being identified and addressed. For instance, IEEE P2413 Draft Standard for an Architectural Framework for the Internet of Things is under development to define an architectural framework that will support cross-domain interaction, system interoperability and functional compatibility among devices and systems.

This will fuel the growth of IoT-related value – a direct boost to Smart Cities. Standards, of course, lead to the economies of scale that aid adoption and provide a platform for the entrepreneurial creation of new, valuable services.

Cultural shifts needed

Amid the technology talk, however, it’s critical to remember that Smart Cities are a human-centric endeavor. People will benefit from data-driven, optimized systems and the layer of services that ride atop them. In fact, people will provide data to an optimal Smart City through social media and other means. In exchange, they’ll receive quality-of-life benefits. In short, Smart Cities imply Smart Citizens.

The cultural shift to widespread adoption of Smart Cities will take time, perhaps a generation or two. Awareness of IEEE’s Smart Cities initiative may lead people to demand that their leaders pursue such an initiative, which can be incentivized by public policy. When people see, by example, the value in running an efficient, sustainable city with improved quality of life and the economic growth that goes with it, they’ll seek the same goal.


We believe that cities around the world will need to attract talented, productive people to create a vibrant economy and high quality of life that will further drive the trend toward Smart Cities. This is a daunting challenge. The hurdles cannot be underestimated. Yet it also promises a flowering of intelligent urban living that can become a model for the 21st century.

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