What is a Smart City ?

The smart and sustainable city in 5 questions

If you are reading this article, you have probably already asked yourself this question: what is a Smart City? If we were to ask each of our readers to give us a definition, no doubt many nuances would appear in their answers!

Smart City Main image large 
And for one reason: "It is an particularly difficult exercise as there is still no unanimous and official vision or definition of the Smart City. Nevertheless, we can identify some major trends" explains Professor Nathalie Crutzen, Director and Founder of the Smart City Institute.
In order to clarify the issue, our team has analysed this term and the dynamics it reveals through 5 questions. By going through its origins and dissecting the main objectives it is pursuing,as well as its main characteristics, the Smart City will no longer have any secrets for you.

#1 What is the origin of the Smart City ?

To answer this question, let's go back to the early 2000s.While South Korea was already beginning to realise its vision of the Smart City at the beginning of the new millennium with its U-Korea project (thus acting as a "precursor"), it is Bill Clinton, former President of the United States, who is generally credited with the first mention of the term "Smart City "*. In 2005, he challenged network equipment manufacturer Cisco to use its technical know-how to decongest cities and, in so doing, reduce CO2 emissions and increase citizens' well-being.
This challenge was quickly accepted by Cisco, but also by IBM, another American computer giant. Both launched vast programmes (worth tens of millions of dollars) to prove the potential of technology for connected cities. 
Hence, the informatisation of cities and the integration of information and communication technologies (ICT) set the pace for the beginnings of the Smart City - favouring a techno-centric approach. A vision that has now evolved.
* Although the concept of the "Smart City" has gained interest since the early 1990s.

#2 What is the purpose of the Smart City ?

Since then, many cities and towns have embraced the Smart City concept with a common objective in mind: to reinvent our daily behaviour as citizens (the way we consume, produce, move around, etc.) to provide, ideally, a sustainable response to the major challenges of our time. Among these, but not exclusively, the advent of new technologies and the resulting digital revolution. The Smart City also aims to provide a response to current demographic issues (increase and ageing of the population, growing urbanisation, etc.), to major societal challenges such as the climate emergency and environmental issues, immigration, poverty and health, but also to the growing competition between the territories themselves.

The notion of sustainability thus appears as the backbone of the Smart City:
How can one ensure not only the sustainability of the territory itself (at the level of a city/municipality or more globally of a region), but also the well-being and the quality of life of its citizens in the long term?

#3 Smart City : 2 complementary approaches ?

To meet this objective of sustainability and contribute to the quality of life of citizens, the Smart City dynamic integrates two essential aspects: technology and people.  

A city by and for citizens

Over the years, the image of the Smart City has gradually changed from a purely digital consideration (early 2000s) to a city centres around people.
The city is then designed for its citizens, i.e. it listens to the needs of its inhabitants and commuters and responds to concrete problems. It does so by by including its citizens in the decision-making process and by being more open to dialogue and transparent.
This being said, this image of an "open" city would be incomplete if it solely consisted of its citizens. Indeed, a Smart City includes in its approach all the actors active on its territory - whether they are public entities, industries, local and multinational companies, start-ups, independents, universities, research centres, but also NGOs, the associative sector, or citizens. 
The Smart City is therefore paving the way for a more inclusive and collaborative society, using new technologies when it is relevant.

Technology as a facilitator

Although the human factor is gradually taking on a central role in Smart Cities dynamics, technology is still the most often anchored aspect in people's minds to characterise the Smart City.
There is a consensus that the Smart City is a city that should be able to take advantage of the agility of digital technology in the name of more efficient urban management. 
The many technological advances of the last 30 years - such as the explosion of the internet and high-speed connections, the widespread use of GPS technologies, and the advent of connected objects, artificial intelligence and virtual/augmented reality - have not only revolutionised and modified the relationship that citizens have with their environment, but have also enabled the deployment of new innovative services for them.
While it is undeniable that digital technology now plays a key role in the sustainable transition of our territories, it should nevertheless be nuanced: technology should be used, yes, but under the condition that it actually contributes to a more efficient urban management, and in a thoughtful manner. This is why the Smart City uses technology to achieve its sustainability objectives
Therefore, one should not considere these technological solutions as an end in itself (i.e. "doing technology for technology's sake"), but rather see them as a real asset for developing liveable cities, for creating connections and improving social inclusion. In the end, this is also what being "Smart" is all about: using new technologies wisely, and in an informed and responsible way.

#4 Smart City : just a story about cities ?

What if it was only a question of semantics...

Historically, it is true that the emergence of the Smart City is due to a combination of two major developments: the explosion of ICTs, but also the growing urbanisation of the beginning of the century. Since its beginnings, the Smart City has therefore always been associated, quite logically, with urban landscapes and with large cities or metropoles.
Nonetheless, this vision is considered too restrictive by many experts. As we explain at the Smart City Institute through our vision of the Smart City : "other names have appeared over the last decade, with the aim of overcoming certain territorial "barriers". For example, in Belgium (and even more so in Wallonia), we note that the Smart City term is often assimilated with the urban landscape, and that it is therefore not always in phase with the territorial realities of our municipalities (nearly 50% of Walloon municipalities are located in rural areas). Moreover, the activities of a municipality do not stop at its administrative border, since it interacts with neighbouring entities. In order to correspond more closely to these realities, new concepts are emerging. Hence, we speak of Smart Rurality, Smart Village, Smart Territories, or even Smart Region."
The Smart City dynamic is therefore not just a matter for cities: it is a fantastic opportunity for all our territories to move towards more sustainability and a better quality of life, regardless of their size or degree of urbanisation, and this at all levels (whether at the level of neighbourhoods, municipalities, provinces, regions or even at the national level)

In order to overcome these problems of names, it may therefore be interesting to talk about sustainable and smart territory. This allows us to tackle the preconceived idea that this dynamic is exclusively relevant for cities.

This confusion is primarily due to a question of semantics. There are many different names for the Smart City and everyone has their own interpretation: connected city, green city, digital city, sensitive city, sustainable city, etc. This leads us to the following question.

#5 Is there a universal standard Smart City model ?

Let's start with an observation that you probable won’t have missed: in discussions or in the literature, we usually talk about "The" Smart City. This could imply that only one model prevails.
Nevertheless, the Smart City concept has been developing in different forms and programmes, giving rise to multiple interpretations depending on their location. This is for a good reason: a city is unique because of the configuration of its territory, its history, its inhabitants, its culture and its ambitions. 
Each Smart City project is therefore different as it responds to the territorial planning and development ambitions of the area in which it is located. It would therefore be illusory to think that” one size fit all Smart City" exists, and that it could be duplicated indefinitely, regardless of the location :
Singapour, Helsinki, Barcelone, New-York, Amsterdam … Each city or metropolis in the world has its own Smart City model!
Instead of considering it as a "ready-to-use" solution, the Smart City should be considered as an ideal to strive for, a "leitmotiv" to guide territorial policies towards more sustainability, in a logic of continuous improvement and resilience.

In conclusion: what to retain about the Smart City ? 


A Smart City


  • an ecosystem of stakeholders
  • engaged in a process of sustainable transition and improvement of the quality of life
  • on a given territory (urban or not)
  • which uses digital technologies to carry out related actions.

Much more than just a passing fad that would imply speeches or political slogans without substance, the Smart City is a relevant and sustainable response to current issues, while adapting and taking advantage of the latest innovations available.
The Smart City dynamic reflects the desire of our territories to deal with profound issues, with a broad and long-term vision, but also through a federative approach. Whether it is perceived as an inspiring or frightening concept, the Smart City has many solutions to offer!
Now, it is your turn to take a stance! After having taken stock of these 5 major questions, how would you define the Smart City?

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