Smart cities run on data. Before a city can deploy applications, it has to be able to generate, capture, and analyze enormous volumes of data in complex infrastructure systems and settings that are often teeming with millions of people. The technology base consists of three elements, all of which support the applications of today as well as those to be added in the future.
First, cities need a layer of sensors and devices throughout the physical environment. Smart phones are an important element; they act as mobile sensors as their owners move through the city with them. Phones generate location and other data, and they are the most common means for users to interact with applications. Other crucial elements include air and water quality sensors, surveillance cameras, and waste receptacle sensors. Our analysis looks at sensor density per household or per capita.
Second, cities need robust communication networks. These include broadband and mobile networks with high down- and upload speed as well as low latency. Another aspect for residents and visitors is free public Wi-Fi coverage across a city. Lastly, as billions more sensors and smart devices need to be wired into the Internet of Things, low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN) with unlicensed and licensed technologies (such as LoRa and narrowband IoT) provide some of the necessary connectivity.
Third, open data portals are important platforms for innovation. City governments hold reams of potentially valuable data in their infrastructure systems, public records, and the environment. Many cities around the world now make significant amounts of their information public, from restaurant health inspections to school performance and neighbourhood crime statistics. Converting data sets into standardized, sharable formats and making them available on easy-to-use public portals gives external developers theraw material for making applications—and in particular, provides the fuel that “trains” analytics and AI systems, enabling them to perform more sophisticated functions.
Open data also supports greater transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. Among the cities with the most advanced technology bases are Singapore, New York, Seoul, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. All have ultra-high-speed communication networks and are in the process of launching 5G services. Seoul, for example, has some of the fastest Internet speeds in the world and an extensive LPWA network. These cities have also expanded their sensor base beyond what most of their global peers have achieved. New York and Stockholm, for example, have rolled out smart water meters—an application that has yet to achieve the same penetration globally as smart energy meters due to lower return on investment. New York and Seoul were also early adopters of smart waste compactors.
The leading cities took different routes to build world-class digital infrastructure. Stockholm benefited from a national initiative to expand broadband and replace conventional meters with smart meters. Singapore has always made a modern, seamless business environment a national priority, and its drive to build cutting-edge communication networks was an outgrowth of that mindset. It was one of the first places in the world to be blanketed with free Wi-Fi. In other cases, cities have taken innovative approaches on their own. New York has forged creative business partnerships, such as the consortium behind its LinkNYC public Wi-Fi. These kiosks, which also provide charging stations and information portals connecting people to social services, offer a vehicle for advertising revenue to offset the capital costs.
Google funded free Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces across San Francisco and has recently expanded similar efforts in emerging economies from India to Mexico. Looking at each element of the tech base reveals other standouts. Santander has been installing thousands of RFID trackers on waste bins. Copenhagen is notable for taking an innovative approach to its open data portal.
Developed in partnership with Hitachi, the City Data Exchange makes it possible for businesses and residents to submit information to supplement available public data. It also serves as a marketplace, enabling the city to monetize some of the information it gathers. Users can purchase or subscribe to key data sets, then put them to work in building innovative city services. San Francisco has also managed to build a strong technology base, with a strong broadband and LPWA infrastructure and a dense network of smart energy and water meters.