The Road to Smart Cities: Technology, People, and Global Transformation

The Road to Smart Cities: Technology, People, and Global Transformation

Cities worldwide are quickly adopting 'smart' technologies, reshaping and improving urban life

At the core of the contemporary global transformation is a shift towards urbanization. In the United States alone, urban residents have increased from 64% in 1950 to an impressive 83% at present. Projections suggest that by the middle of the century, urban inhabitants will make up 89% of the U.S. population and 68% of the global population as people continue moving to the cities [link], which become smarter with every passing year.

A smart city uses technology to collect data from various sources, including people, devices, vehicles, and buildings, using this data for informed decision-making and control. Cities worldwide are quickly adopting 'smart' technologies, reshaping and improving urban life. By leveraging Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the Internet of Things (IoT), cities like Barcelona, London, Singapore, and many others aim to enhance living standards, economic competitiveness, and sustainability through innovations such as smart streetlights, electric grids, and traffic systems [link].

Economically, cities serve as powerhouses for the globe. For instance, U.S. metropolitan areas contributed over 91% of the nation's GDP in 2018, along with substantial wage income (91.8%) and employment opportunities (88.1%). Moreover, urban living offers significant environmental advantages. Despite U.S. cities having an average population density of 283 people per square mile, considerably higher than the national average of 94, this concentration can have eco-friendly implications. Research indicates that doubling urban density could potentially reduce CO2 emissions from travel and residential energy by 48% and 35%, respectively. Essentially, to promote the well-being of people, enhance the economy, and -- simultaneously -- contribute to environmental preservation, our focus should shift towards understanding and optimizing urban life. This underscores the importance of smart cities in our future. Yet, surprisingly, many remain unaware of the basics behind this pivotal concept [link].

At its core, a smart city is built upon an IoT foundation, segmented into four distinct layers, each possessing its own unique functions and components. Interacting seamlessly, these layers each play a crucial role in the integrated operation of a smart city:

  1. The sensing and actuation layer
  2. Data collection layer
  3. Data processing layer
  4. Application layer.

Data, the lifeblood of a smart city, flows effortlessly between these layers, enhancing the system's effectiveness with richer and more relevant information. However, this escalating demand for data is often at odds with mounting privacy concerns of those populating the city.

Branding technologies that modernize our cities as 'smart' has become both a trend and a marketing tactic. This 'smart' tag encompasses everything from electric grids, water meters, traffic lights, and buildings to even trash cans. But beyond the realm of infrastructure, the domains of medicine, education, government, and transportation are also embracing the 'smart' label. To truly earn this designation, however, there's a foundational criterion: technologies must be grounded in a) automated data collection, necessitating both sensors and connectivity, and b) decisions driven by analytics, which entails analysis, recommendations, and actions. Thus, being 'smart' underscores a commitment to data-driven insights, rather than just novel ways to save time, money, energy, or deliver a service.

For example, look at city streetlight upgrades. They can be as simple as replacing halogen bulbs with LEDs or as advanced as turning streetlights into connected hubs. These hubs can support features like wireless hotspots, cameras, noise sensors, air quality monitors, and even flood or fire detectors, among others [link, link]. While an upgraded LED streetlight clearly represents a smart choice, saving 50% or more on energy efficiency and reducing maintenance, it truly becomes "smart" when integrated with IoT functionality. Fortunately, many LED streetlights installed today are either already connected (smart) or designed for future connectivity [link].

This is a suitable point to discuss the disparity between what smart cities "want" and what people living in these cities want. In short, smart cities “want” to amass all available data concerning individuals and their surroundings. By their inherent design, smart cities’ connected technologies and services demand data. While not all technologies labeled as "smart" gather (and process) individuals' data, the majority do, and their level of data collection grows with their sophistication.

In terms of what people want, surveys [e.g., link] highlight a dichotomy: people desire enhanced quality of life and environmental sustainability yet are wary of the data privacy implications inherent in smart city designs [link]. While the aspirations for a safer, healthier living environment persist, so do fears of privacy invasion, exploitation, and manipulation by data-hungry entities. This apprehension underscores a broader societal dilemma: the trade-off between privacy and the allure of enhanced living standards. The crux of the concern lies in the potential of being forced to barter privacy and freedom for heightened comfort and convenience. Yet, an observable disconnect exists. The voiced concerns about privacy often give way to the enticements of technological conveniences. Actions speak louder than words, and the widespread adoption of technology (and the growth in the number of smart cities) illustrates a tacit willingness to overlook these concerns, leaning towards convenience.

For instance, Amazon has reported that it has successfully sold Alexa-enabled devices to over 500 million customers [link]. Many of these devices, equipped with the Alexa assistant and integrated microphones within Echo speakers, operate continuously within people's homes and apartments, listening to conversations, collecting data, analyzing user behavior [link], and storing this information [link]. However, these devices offer significant convenience to their users, and privacy concerns are largely overlooked. Similar behaviors are observed in many other areas, especially when using online applications. "Convenience" shapes our lives and influences decision-making in contemporary society [link].

A recent example that is pertinent to this discussion can be found in Colorado, where a large number of households willingly enrolled in an energy-saving program called AC Rewards, designed to remotely manage energy usage during peak times. This program is designed to ease the strain on the power grid during heatwaves and allows energy provider Xcel to adjust customers' smart thermostats remotely when demand is so high that supply may not meet it. While this system worked well for several years, it faced a significant setback on August 30, 2022. On that day, approximately 22,000 Xcel customers lost control of their smart thermostats to the company for several hours, resulting in extreme indoor temperatures [link]. Cases like this can only serve to increase resistance to smart technologies.

The points discussed earlier are critical to the unfolding narrative of smart cities. While companies and governments are enthusiastic in their plans and aspirations, it's the public’s response to data-collecting technologies that will ultimately steer this ship. If we take cues from history, a gradual acceptance of interconnected, data-driven, and remote-controlled smart technologies is expected, especially if the perceived benefits eclipse the associated risks.

In conclusion, the journey toward future smart cities is one of global transformation for both people and technology. It is both exciting and challenging. However, as long as smart cities and their technologies are built with people's interests in mind, the challenges will undoubtedly be overcome.


Andrei Khurshudov

Andrei Khurshudov

Dr. Andrei Khurshudov is a faculty member at Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he teaches about the Internet of Things (IoT). His academic and research interests are centered on Smart Cities, IoT technologies, artificial intelligence, and big data analytics.

Yale University, School of Engineering and Applied Science

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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