Everything you need to know about IoT smart cities

Learn everything you need to know about IoT smart cities and how they affect our everyday lives.
Maggie Murphy
February 15, 2022
Man using smart parking meter

As city populations grow, it has become increasingly necessary to harness technology in order to optimize city functions and improve the lives of their citizens. With the latest technology and data analytics tools, daily inconveniences like traffic jams, unavailable parking spaces, and sidewalks piled with trash before garbage pick up, will no longer plague urban residents. And other less obvious but no less dangerous problems like inefficient energy consumption or increased carbon emissions can also be improved.

With the help of the Internet of Things, clean, efficient cities using cutting-edge technology to operate at their peak performance will become the norm, improving the lives of millions.

Jump to what you need to know:

What is a smart city?

Think about your old landline compared to the latest iPhone. Can they both do the same basic function? Yes. Can one do it better with additional benefits? Also yes. That’s the difference between a regular city and a smart city. There is no official dictionary definition of a smart city (yet), but in essence, a smart city is an urban area that uses information and communication technology (ICT) to solve city problems.

Let’s break that down with a common issue most city dwellers are familiar with: traffic jams. In a regular city, traffic lights might be based on “pretty accurate” projections. A city planner collects data to know when streets are usually busy, when they’re clear, and where most backups happen. With that information, they’ll program the city lights to switch between red, yellow, and green.

While that certainly works better than a free-for-all, open-road system, imagine if all that data could be collected and analyzed in real-time. That’s what would happen in a smart city. Lights would adjust and change based on the real flow of traffic instead of what is essentially a guess (even if it is an evidence-backed one).

Not only would this make citizens happier, more efficient roads mean less standing traffic and minimized carbon emissions. A win-win for the Earth too.

What influence does IoT technology have on making cities smarter and cleaner?

While this all sounds great, you might be wondering how these cities are able to implement these positive changes. That’s where IoT comes into play. Smart cities are powered by a network of connected devices that can “talk” to each other. Advancements in IoT and connectivity technology allow smart meters, sensors, lights, and monitoring devices to collect and transmit data — whether between themselves or a cloud-based or other central control system.

Using IoT technology within urban areas allows their systems to collect, send, and analyze data in real-time. The data collected allows cities to improve infrastructure and services, ultimately making the city function more effectively and improve the lives of residents.

Recommended reading: What is IoT analytics?

Popular smart city technologies

An ideal smart city would deploy different technology and IoT devices across the urban area to monitor and improve various city functions. Though the list is always expanding, let’s look at some popular technology choices and how they’re used in smart cities.

Recommended reading: What is LPWAN?

1) Smart utility meters and parking meters

Because smart parking meters can connect to the internet, they can accept credit and debit card purchases, making it easier for patrons to park, pay, and be on their way. They may also transmit data to an app or website showing where open spaces are located. Similarly, smart meters attach to a building and monitor energy consumption. This data is sent back to utility companies and to the building owners and operators, who can then make better decisions about how they’re using energy.

Examples of smart meters

2) Smart vehicles and transportation

Smart vehicles and transportation are all about incorporating modern technology into transportation systems. This includes everything from tracking a city bus in real-time, so you know exactly when it will arrive, to renting and using scooters or bikes.

Examples of smart transportation

  • In NYC, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services uses IoT to track and manage 23,000 city-owned vehicles, like school buses, in real-time.
  • In 2019 and 2020 the city of Chicago conducted two e-scooter pilot program and found that micro-mobility programs provide Chicagoans an accessible and affordable mobility option that helps reduce congestion and supports public transit.

Recommended reading: What is Micromobility and How is it Changing Urban Commuting?

3) Smart grids

Part of the electricity sector, smart grids make energy consumption and distribution more efficient. Your typical power grid is an ecosystem of transmission lines, substations, and transformers, among other devices that move electricity from the power plant to a home or business. Smart grids do this, but with a two-way flow of electricity between producer and consumer, making them more reliable and self-healing if there is an outage. Smart metering along the transmission lines is often the first step to a smart grid. They also makes it easier to track and analyze energy consumption.

Example of smart grids

  • In coordination with leading private sector companies, the South Korean government is testing smart grids on JeJu Island as part of the country’s goal to eliminate carbon emissions by 30%.
  • Smart grids enable more effective management and distribution of renewable energy sources. For example, sensors on a windmill that gather information about the weather and environmental conditions could send this information along the grid to alert users to potential issues.

4) Smart waste management and smart garbage cans

Sensors, intelligent monitoring systems, and mobile applications can be used to improve waste management by providing information about waste levels and disposal needs.

Example of smart waste management

  • Smart garbage cans use sensors to alert waste collection companies or the city sanitation department when bins are full. Patterns in this information can make it easier for these organizations to map the most efficient collection routes.
  • In 2016, Singapore deployed a trial of smart bins that could alert collection agencies when full. The bins also act as WiFi hotspots, have compactors to crush trash, maximize space, and use solar panels for power.

5) Smart citizens

Many citizens already have the most important tool they’ll need to integrate themselves into a smart city: their phones. Using their phones, people can employ mobile driver’s licenses, digital credentials, mobile wallets, and more.

Example of smart citizens

  • Apple recently announced that eight US states would give their residents the ability to add the driver's license or state ID to their Apple wallets.
  • In New York state, residents have been taking advantage of mobile COVID-19 passes that allow quick and reputable information about vaccination status.

Why does society need IoT smart cities?

IoT technology makes cities safer, better managed, cleaner, more efficient, and is often cost-effective in the long term. It’s easy to see how a smart stoplight and smart trash bins would make city living a little easier and more enjoyable, or how a mobile wallet makes it easier to leave the house without forgetting any necessary item. But for argument’s sake, let’s put these desirable outcomes aside and focus on something slightly less obvious.

The air is something in every city — big or small — and it impacts the people living there every day. Over 80% of urban areas have air pollution levels above what is considered acceptable, and studies have shown that air pollution in major cities may reduce life expectancy by 22 months.

In a smart city, IoT sensors could monitor pollution levels to not only notify citizens where the most polluted areas are, where the cleanest air is, and trigger any necessary public actions, but also provide data that can be used when looking for long-term solutions.

Though IoT smart cities could improve various aspects of urban life, tackling climate change is arguably the most important. According to UN Habitat, cities account for less than 2% of the Earth’s surface and yet produce more than 60% of total greenhouse gas emissions and consume 78% of the world’s energy. It’s not good for the Earth, and it’s not good for the people who live there.

Cities are wonderful in many ways, however the simple truth is that if they continue operating as they do now, they will leave a harmful footprint on our planet. In short, IoT technology works to enhance the things people love about where they live while actively working to minimize both their small daily annoyances and global environmental impact.

Examples of smart cities in action

Though we’ve already talked about a few examples, let’s look at some of the biggest cities in the world and how they’re implementing and benefiting from IoT technology to make their community smart.

1) Paris

In Paris, smart park benches use Bluetooth connection points and IoT sensors to track traffic and allow residents to share how satisfied they are with park facilities. This makes it easier for city planners and the government to make key decisions that impact public spaces and outdoor areas.

2) New York

Among various IoT projects, New York City is developing a smart flood monitoring system for parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The project makes use of sensors connected through LoRaWAN Networks. The sensors get placed in flood-prone neighborhoods and measure the number and depth of flooding incidents. The data can be analyzed to make infrastructure decisions that will make the neighborhoods more resilient and safer for residents.

3) Amsterdam

In the Dutch capital, citizens are benefiting from smart lighting infrastructure that conserves energy and mitigates light pollution. Instead of operating on a timer or other similar mechanism, sensors pick up when there is foot or vehicle traffic around an area and increase the intensity of the lights. When no one is around, the lights dim. In Atlas Park in the Port of Amsterdam, runners, cyclists, and pedestrians can even control the intensity of streetlights themselves from an application on their phones.

4) Copenhagen

Copenhagen is aiming to be the first carbon-neutral smart city by 2025. It’s a big goal. While there are many initiatives Danes are taking advantage of to make this happen, smart technology is one of the largest. Copenhagen has started a smart cities incubator called “Copenhagen Solutions Lab,” where researchers are developing and implementing smart city technology within five major themes: digital services, data-driven operation and supervision, air quality, people and flows, and the environment and climate.

5) London

In 2018 the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, launched “Smarter London Together,” a roadmap that aimed to make London the “smartest city in the world.” Part of this plan included appointing London’s first Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, responsible for leading the city’s digital transformation. Among many projects, in one part of the city IoT sensors are available to improve parking for people with disabilities. The sensors will collect data on the usage, frequency, and duration for which a given space is used to help make better planning decisions.

6) San Francisco

San Francisco has been rolling out a pilot program called “Connected Corridor” to evaluate traffic signal sensors to evaluate signal timing adjustments. The aim of the project is to make streets safer for everyone on the road: pedestrians, cyclists, private vehicles, and public transit. The city has mounted sensors on traffic signal poles and transit platforms. The sensors can then classify objects by size, speed, and direction multiple times per second.

Recommended reading: The Ultimate Guide to the Internet of Things

Using Hologram to power smart cities

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