IoT and Smart Cities

Smart Cities and IoT

The term “Smart Cities” is nearly mainstream. However, whether you live in an international tech hub or not, most people don’t really have a clue as to what’s going on that is all that smart. In this IoT Industry Spotlight we’re going to look through the window dressings and peer into the inner works of the modern day smart city. We’ll discuss how IoT facilitates these advancements, and then point out some innovations and insights. So buckle up for this incredible journey through the industry that is the Smart City.


What Makes a Smart City?

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At the core of smart cities is a commitment by a local government to improve the city’s quality of life, economic viability, and it’s sustainability. Smart cities are urban areas where infrastructure and daily operations are monitored through a distributed network of sensor technologies (aka. IoT sensors or edge-nodes). These nodes connect to an information management system via the internet. [ 1 ] They provide real-world data to better automate and respond to conditions on the streets, to improve municipal services, and to predict and prevent failures or hazards.

If you take a look at the list of the World’s Top Smart Cities, it’s clear that the criteria are varied and that the assessments are complex and somewhat subjective. [ 2 , 3 ]  But here’s the catch: everything is still under development, so it’s hard to say any city is a full-blown smart city just yet!

 Smart City scoring systems reflect the complexity and subjectivity of assessment. Above shows a sample scorecard for the city of London, ranked #1.


Smart City scoring systems reflect the complexity and subjectivity of assessment. Above shows a sample scorecard for the city of London, ranked #1. published by Eden Strategy Institute and ONG & ONG Pte Ltd. [ 4 ]

Why Build Smart Cities?

It’s difficult to understand if the growing wave in smart cities is a response to a practical need or just an obsession with digitizing everything in our world. Is this trend just greenwashing, a utopian dream, a waste of money, or is it a practical solution to a real need? 

Smart cities aim to better integrate, regulate, optimize, and control the city’s impact on communities and the natural environment. Motives and implementations vary but typically focus on improving sustainability, efficiency, reliability, safety, and quality of services in relation to public operations, amenities and assets. For many cities, however, smart cities are a means to unlock the potential for economic growth. [ 5 ]

Urban management is a tricky, bureaucratic, and costly business. City governments are responsible for an incredibly diverse set of responsibilities. These include public relations, strategic development, daily operations, and to some extent, socioeconomic happiness. A city is trusted to provide and manage essential services such as clean water, sewage treatment, waste collection, schools, hospitals, traffic control, transportation, roads, ports, libraries, parks, policing and public safety, and the list goes on. The work is inherently complex, difficult to deliver, highly siloed (managed vertically rather than holistically) and thus even harder to scale. [ 6 ]

The Big Picture on Why Smarter Cities Matter

It’s a simple fact that populations in urban are soaring. According to a variety of sources, today’s urban societies of 4.22 billion people account for over 50% of the world’s 7.63 billion population. By 2050, that figure will increase by 50% to 6.6 billion out of a global head-count of 9.77 billion, for approximately ⅔ of the world’s population. [ 7

With today’s cities already under considerable stress, keeping pace with this growth rate is a major global predicament. Compound that with the increasing challenges of sustainability, public health, safety, social justice and climate change and you have an even more significant problem. It is becoming apparent that IoT and smart cities are among the most formidable solutions that city governments can implement.

Smart cities attempt to affect and improve a number of areas to deliver a better experience for residents, businesses, visitors, and the environment. A city’s infrastructure, modes of transportation, communication systems, public spaces, and services serve as the substrate for transformations and improvement. The Deloitte smart city framework shown in the figure below provides a visualization of the interaction of constituents, domains, infrastructure, and goals of a smart city. [ 8 ]

Deloitte’s smart city framework depicts the complex interactions within the smart city. Source : Deloitte


Deloitte’s smart city framework depicts the complex interactions within the smart city. Source : Deloitte

What Kind of Tech Goes into a Smart City?

Smart cities are highly complex ecosystems. The leaders in the field are finding ways to analyze and layer data from a multitude of sources to better understand and manage operations. IoT is undoubtedly one of the primary ingredients, but leading implementations work to leverage that and more. Here are some of those other elements that make up this rich and complex recipe.

  • IoT Sensors and Actuators – IoT sensors (a sensor connected to the internet) collect real-time data such as traffic conditions or storm water flow rates. IoT actuating systems (e.g., a relay or indicator connected to the internet) can dynamically control traffic lights or flood gates based on IoT sensor readings and other data. IoT sensors and actuators are diverse and can perform a number of functions.
  • Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence(AI) – Analyzing massive data sets (much of it from IoT nodes) and using statistical and artificial intelligence models can help predict and optimize city operations and infrastructure. AI is used to drive real-time automation and decision making. Data sources such as climate and weather forecasts, stock or commodity prices, or holiday schedules inform intelligent and dynamic control of the smart city.
  • IoT Edge Computing – Localized computing at the edge is used to streamline data and provide low latency data analysis and system control.
  • Cloud Computing – Virtual infrastructure used to store data, execute business logic, and serve user interfaces over the web.
  • Blockchain – Increasingly considered for procedures requiring a chain of custody, asset tracking, supply chain management, regulatory compliance, and payment processing.
  • Drones and Robots – Autonomous vehicles can carry imaging payloads used to map conditions and identify problems. They can also be used to automate daily operational tasks.
  • Social Media and Personal Devices – Individual and institutional social media accounts and personal devices can be used as a data source and a means of conveying emergency alerts, public service announcements, and advisories.
  • Geospatial Data – GPS is used to track vehicles, city assets, and even employees to increase operational responsiveness and efficiency. Satellite mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) are combined with data analytics to optimize traffic flows, development planning, or to understand social or environmental issues better.
  • Wireless Connectivity – 4G/5G and Low Power WAN are critical to cost-effective deployments of thousands of IoT nodes.
  • And that’s just the start!

The Impact of Smart Cities

Smart cities embrace a new paradigm where government moves away from unilateral management. Taking its place is greater collaboration between agencies, municipalities, businesses, citizens, and other stakeholders to better tackle current and future urban challenges and opportunities. To a large extent, this is due to improved data collection and digital connectivity. According to Deloitte, it all boils down to smart cities’ focus on improving people’s quality of life, environmental sustainability, and local economic competitiveness to attract talent. [ 9 ]

Perhaps one of the most intriguing impacts that a smart city has is to allow a diverse set of stakeholders to gauge the issues it faces based on real data. This collective understanding allows for better, more informed decision making, smarter solutions, innovation, and community collaboration towards urban needs and problems. 

Implementation Challenges

Just like most industries implementing IoT and other smart solutions, there obstacles and areas for careful implementation. However, in the realm of smart cities the challenge might be more significant.


Smart cities encounter issues with security, hardware and software interoperability and compatibility, system adaptability, data connectivity, and scalability. Getting all of these spot-on requires extensive understanding and coordination with numerous internal systems, 3rd party systems, partners, institutions, and agencies.

If we approach smart cities’ complexity from an IoT-only standpoint, there are already hundreds of products out there. These do various things like measure leaks, clock-in and out employees, open doors, control HVAC or lighting, etc. Each device may have different protocols, interfaces, and security standards, making integration and interoperability a massive feat. 

Smart cities aim to integrate these publicly and privately owned devices to make better decisions on how to operate and develop the city. This a major reason why public-private partnerships are central to the smart city strategy — in part so that vendors understand the best ways to design and build their products. 

Data Privacy and Security

Smart cities will require greater access to data from the streets, offices, factories, ports, schools, and even personal devices to optimize city operations. This level of access introduces serious issues concerning malevolent threats of cyber-terrorism, data privacy and security, data ownership, regulation, and compliance. Smart cities may be the largest and most complex of the industries dealing with these challenges. New ways to firewall, anonymize, authorize, track, and secure private data and devices will need continuous innovation. Budding technologies, like blockchain and quantum computing, may be part of the solution.


According to IoT-Analytics Research, funding is considered the most significant major barrier to the realization of a smart city.[ 10 ] Scaled IoT architectures bear a high cost in implementation, capital equipment, and overhead. It takes a solid strategy and execution to chip away at the various projects and facets which create a holistic smart city that delivers tangible value. Public-private partnerships and collaboration are perhaps the greatest tools to define requirements and fund implementation.

Politics and Bureaucracy

City politics and siloed municipal bureaucracies make implementing smart cities a major social task. There must be a clear business case and value proposition combined with demand from the public and private sectors to spur progress and investment. Furthermore, the practice of hoarding data and programs in siloed offices conflicts with the implementation of a working smart city. Aside from funding this may be the most difficult challenge area.

Future-Proof Design

Smart design is critical for a smart city. Security and future-proofing must be built into the architecture. Keeping up with the latest technologies and vulnerabilities is essential, as is a way to “easily” integrate improvements and updates. As with any scaled IoT solution, remote upkeep and maintenance of the network’s firmware, software and protocols is a must. Finally, selecting suitable sensors that can collect reliable and accurate data in the required environmental conditions is critical.


The scope of a smart city is so much larger than just about any other smart industry. Because of geography, specific constraints, and requirements, smart city implementations vary greatly. This complexity has also slowed the process of design standardization. Currently, standards are just being released. Examples are ISO 37112 and ISO 37120, but they only provide guidance on the indicators for a smart city. [ 11 ] While just the beginning, it’s certainly a good start!

Application Areas

Smart cities are a systems of systems… of systems. We’ll cover some of the major application areas which are industries unto themselves.

Environmental Health and Public Safety 

Smart cities offer an improved capacity to report emergencies, hazards, and other conditions that impact people’s health and safety. Data can be shared with commercial mobile applications and telecom providers to better inform people. Our emergency report systems, 911 and 311, which allow citizens to report emergencies, hazards and non-life threatening events, are being integrated with IoT and communication networks. Doing so will enable them to alert the appropriate first responders and dynamically reroute traffic or control particular safety systems. This also reduces strain on the human resources required to deal with life-threatening emergencies. Cities like San Jose, California and Boston, Massachusetts are some of the cities leading the way.[ 12 , 13 ]

Using an IoT system, gas and water pipes can be monitoring to detect leaks, blockages or other faults. The data collected by IoT sensors can also be used for preventative maintenance to reduce the cost and severity of repairs proactively. This provides benefits in safety, public health, operational costs, and sustainability.

Water and air quality can be actively monitored in a multitude of indoor and outdoor locations with IoT to improve the environment and public health of a city. IoT-based monitoring will also be important to understand problem areas, track progress, and determine if goals are being reached.

Smart buildings

Perhaps buildings define the urban landscape more than anything else. They house people, businesses, hospitals, shops, transportation hubs, factories, schools, public infrastructure, you name it! There are smart technology niches for just about any building out there. 

Automating their functions and tying them in to a smart city using IoT is a significant component of the smart city strategy. The design space in a building can cover a variety of systems, often including heating and cooling, fire and security, electric and gas metering, and lighting. Smart buildings allow for more efficient, reduced carbon footprint cities. They collect real-time data to make better daily operational and policy-level decisions. Honeywell and Nest are big players in this space. 

Smart Utilities

Efficiently and safely providing reliable gas, electric, and water is essential to the success of a city and its people. The implementation of IoT smart utility meters in buildings, for example, allows electric utilities to get real-time load measurements and thus prevent costly brown-outs with dynamic load-balancing. Future HVAC systems may someday accept smart city commands to temporarily reduce power draw in order to keep a city online during peak periods of demand. Smart buildings and the IoT devices within them can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save building owners money. Companies, such as Smartmeterq, manufacture IoT smart meters.

The increase of rooftop solar and smart meters has allowed for microgrids to supplement utility-scale power generation. Smart meters provide utility operators with real time data that allows them to reduce power generation with gas or coal when conditions are right. This reduction saves money and lowers emissions.

Smart Street Lights  

Street lights consume up to 40% of the city’s public electricity budget. Upgrading to smart street lights is considered a low-risk, high-return project for the emerging smart city. This is perhaps one of the more developed niches in the industry, with a multitude of industrial solutions providers like Itron, Tvilight and Intellilight. 

Smart street lights use sensors to detect ambient light and vehicle or pedestrian motion and then turn on or off as needed. These lights become IoT when they connect to a central management system. The system will be able to analyze data better and more effectively control individual lights or groups of lights depending on activity and strategy. According to Itron, smart street lights provide a city with up to a 50% savings on electricity! [ 14 ]

Smart Mobility and Transport 

Getting people and materials rapidly and reliably from point-to-point directly impacts the quality of life, the productivity of businesses, and the environment. We are seeing electric vehicle offerings, smart mobility, and ride-sharing applications beginning to have a prominent role in society. When integrated with an overall smart city and it’s existing transportation system, these can reduce traffic, pollution and save money. Smart transportation allows public transportation routes to dynamically adjust based on demand, capacity, and traffic conditions. IoT is critical for the monitoring and control of this interconnected system.

Roads, bridges, railways, and ports are vital components of what makes cities work. IoT is used to monitor the health and usage of these arteries. Sensor data can be used to detect damage before catastrophic failure. They can also monitor traffic, accidents or hazards and provide early alerts for commuters and first responders. 

Smart traffic control allows for traffic lights to adjust dynamically based on real-time conditions. Road signs can even dynamically update with detours or advisories. Companies, like Ericsson, are currently working on smart traffic control solutions.

Smart Parking

Parking a car is never fun or easy in most cities. Smart parking systems are being used to monitor the available capacity of parking lots and locate spots for drivers on the road. This allows drivers to quickly find and reserve a spot and get to their destination faster, and thus save gas, reduce emissions and ease traffic congestion. 

IoT plays an important part in detecting empty spots and sharing that information with applications and management systems. The technology also allows parking lot owners to sell their service more easily, so it’s a win-win. There are several smart parking companies like Parkify and Smart Parking Ltd., which currently provide solutions ready for use in smart cities.

Final Tips and Thoughts to the IoT Innovator

It’s becoming clear that providing for security, protocol flexibility, and APIs to better integrate with the evolving smart city ecosystem is a winning strategy. Smart cities represent a fascinating vertically integrated market and are perhaps one of the biggest opportunities out there. As mentioned earlier, with an ever-growing world population and over 70% of people living in urban areas by 2050, there is an urgent need for solutions to make living in cities sustainable and enjoyable.

It seems safe to say that smart cities are not just another excuse to sell microchips and cloud services. They have a legitimate and somewhat lofty ambition to put people and the environment at the center of how and why cities work. While we haven’t been able to deem this a utopian dream just yet, there seems to be an incredible potential to provide real value. As a bunch of embedded engineers and enthusiasts, we’re just pumped knowing that IoT is one of the major enablers of this exciting new world!

We’d love to hear from you, especially if you are lucky enough to live in one of the leading smart cities around the world. 

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