What is a Smart City and How Can a City Boost Its IQ?


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Earlier this month, the World Bank hosted a Smart Cities for All workshop in Washington, DC which convened experts from the United Nations, academia, government agencies, non-profits and industry. The purpose of the workshop was to share insights and experiences of equipping cities with the tools for intelligent growth. Additionally, the forum established a public-private partnership for collaboration in pursuit of shared goals for global sustainability. But what does it mean to be a “smart city”? Is this distinction only reserved for cities starting from scratch? Can an established city boost its IQ?

First, we must take a step back to reflect upon what it means to be a “smart city.” While there is no official definition, many have contributed to this debate. Industry leaders, such as Seimens and IBM, believe that stronger use of technology and data will enable government leaders to make better informed decisions. Whereas others, including the Sustainable Cities Blog’s very own Dan Hoornweg, consider the social aspects as a component of what it means to be a smart city. In his blog, “Smart Cities for Dummies,” published last November, Dan contends: “At its core a smart city is a welcoming, inclusive city, an open city. By being forthright with citizens, with clear accountability, integrity, and fair and honest measures of progress, cities get smarter.” Though I agree with both the data-driven and socially-conscious approaches, I’d like to propose my own definition of a smart city.

At its most basic level, a city is comprised of a government (in some form), people, industry, infrastructure, education and social services. A smart city thoughtfully and sustainably pursues development with all of these components in mind with the additional foresight of the future needs of the city. This approach allows cities to provide for its citizens through services and infrastructure that address both the current needs of the population as well as for projected growth.

Source: Clearing the air in Atlanta: Transit and smart growth or conventional economics?, Alain Bertaud, 2002. http://alain-bertaud.com/

Many of today’s largest metropolises are an organizational and infrastructural nightmare. Take the city of Atlanta, for example. The greater metropolitan area of Atlanta supports a population of about 2.5 million people and spans 137 kilometers between its two furthest points. By 1990, this sprawl had established a density of six people per hectare. Now, compare Atlanta to a city with a similar level of population, Barcelona. The furthest distance of built up area in Barcelona is 97 kilometers with a density of 176 people per hectare (World Development Report 2009, 211). The contrast between the densities of Atlanta and Barcelona can be observed in the diagram left from Alain Bertaud, 2002. The respective densities of Atlanta and Barcelona greatly affect the cities’ ability to serve their citizens. For example, in order for Atlanta to accommodate as many people as Barcelona’s public transit system, Atlanta would need to build an additional 3,400 kilometers of track and about 2,800 new metro stations. Atlanta could then support 30% of trips through mass transit which Barcelona accomplishes with only 99 kilometers of tracks and 136 stations (World Development Report 2009, 211).

Of course hindsight is 20-20. It’s easy for us to tell the City of Atlanta should have predicted its population boom and planned for it appropriately. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Are well-established cities, like Atlanta, doomed to fail in the race to be a smart city? How can a city boost its IQ and make the decisions of a smart city moving forward? City governments should create policy incentives for developers to build high-density housing with a small building footprint. In the U.S. many local governments have a similar policy, awarding developers of LEED certified buildings a height or density bonus as an incentive to build sustainably. This is a positive first step but we need to go one step further in order to combat urban sprawl in our cities around the world. In order to plan for population trends in a city, data and technology play a critical role in understanding and predicting the needs of its citizens. Knowledge and data-sharing platforms, including the World Bank’s Urban Knowledge Platform, are empowering cities and citizens, alike, to change their consumption and development patterns in favor of smarter and more sustainable habits.

As for Atlanta, the USGBC Atlanta Branch of the Georgia Chapter has done a stellar job on this front, including facilitating the passage of a LEED green building policy for public sector buildings. The City of Atlanta has since signed up to be one of the three pilot cities for the President’s Better Buildings Challenge, which charges cities to make commercial buildings 20% more energy efficient by 2020 and to accelerate private sector investment in energy efficiency.

Of course it’s easier and more cost effective to “go green” and develop intelligently from the get-go. Emerging economies and developing countries have that advantage. However, it is not only doable for an established city to rise in the ranks of smart cities, but it’s already been done, and cities like Atlanta are paving the way.


Join the Conversation

Rod Stevens
April 05, 2012

Your article gets down to the core meaning of sustainability: is it meaningful to put the LEEDS designation on a fancy second home in Aspen that is only used a few weeks a year, after being accessed by jet?
Cities need both the right configuration and the right context. One key issue is the definition of "city" People outside a given region will think of that place in terms of the urban region. People from there will think more locally, especially those with ties to a given municipality. They might be thinking about smarter operations for their municipal services, but in the overall context of sustainability, their city may be located in a "dumb" place. The author is right to look for a few key measures, such as transit cost, that bring all these considerations together. There might even be one or two key summary measures that can sum up the convenient and efficient delivery of public services.

Ryan McKibben
April 05, 2012

I understand and appreciate the main point of your article, but I would think that an article written just three days ago could have found more recent population statistics then 1990. The current Metro Atlanta population is double what you are reporting. I believe that if you were to re-run your density figures you would find that the Atlanta area has greatly densified. The growth of Intown areas since that time has been impressive and pockets of Atlanta, notably Midtown have become quite urban and much less auto centric.

Maggie Comstock
April 06, 2012

Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely right. A LEED certified second home that is used once or twice a year is not helping us achieve a more sustainable planet. The greenest building is the one that isn't built. Our focus to "green" the built environment should be on existing buildings, since the vast majority of buildings in existence today will be around in 2050 (and will be here to see whether we meet or fail to meet our climate change mitigation goals).
I also agree that the definition of a city is hard to nail down, because a "city" means different things to different people. Rather than debate on the definition of a city, we should focus our efforts to make sure every definition includes sustainability and smart development. As is the case in the LEED example, green building will not have a lasting impact if we treat it as a fad for the "haves." We need to make green building and smart development the norm for people everywhere.

Maggie Comstock
April 06, 2012


Thanks for your comment. I used the data that was readily available data (and was also used during the Smart Cities for All Conference by an external partner, not the Bank). Could you please share your sources with me? I would greatly appreciate it.

The point of the article was to demonstrate the concept of smart development and I don't think that the old data defeats this intention. The 1990 example shows us why we need to think about development in a new way. As you indicated in your comment and as I explained in the later paragraphs of my article, the City of Atlanta has made many positive steps to reduce its physical and environmental footprint in recent year. I agree that my concluding argument would have been much stronger with recent data that showed this transformation. Thanks!

April 09, 2012

Note that the population figures you all are citing are for the Atlanta metro area--the City of Atlanta population is about 425,000. One of the reasons it's difficult to plan for this kind of growth in Atlanta, as in most metropolitan areas, is that it's happening in many many jurisdictions.

Maggie Comstock
April 10, 2012

You make an excellent point. Thank you for your comment. Yes, the figures are for the Atlanta metro area; however, unnecessary sprawl (in future cities) is one of the things we are trying at address through smart growth. Data can assist city planners understand the needs of their community and predict future demand. Policies that promote high-density, low footprint development can also alleviate some of the pressures which lead to sprawl. Again, Atlanta (and surrounding regions) didn’t have some of these tools at their disposal during its initial development but have been working diligently to move forward as a smart city.

April 19, 2012

While your statistics may be correct, I think it pays to much heed to the physical aspects of the cities and lose sight of the more important social-economic issues that affected the cities.

Maggie Comstock
April 19, 2012

Thank you for your comment. Are you referring to the negative socio-economic effects of urban sprawl? If so, I agree. Well-planned, high-density communities provide greater accessibility to local amenities and also foster community engagement. This is why the LEED Green Building Rating System includes incentives for site selection, development density and connectivity, proximity to public transportation and more. While these strategies certainly have the environmental benefit of using preexisting infrastructure, they also have several socio-economic benefits.