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We Talk a Lot About ‘Smart Cities.’ What Does that Even Mean?

What exactly is a smart city? The European smart-city model notes that a smart city performs well in six characteristics, “built on the ‘smart’ combination of endowments and activities of self-decisive, independent, and aware citizens: smart economy, smart mobility, smart governance, smart living, smart people, and smart environment.”

Fast Co.Exist recently indicated that European cities tend to be smart-city role models: densely populated but still able to focus on sustainability solutions, engaged citizenry as common practice and innovative transport systems. The article noted that North American cities must follow the European example and “demand 21st-century solutions to accommodate their growing populations in ways that not only maintain the quality of life, but also improve it. In short, smart cities are innovative cities.”

Fast Co.Exist then conducted a study and determined that North America’s smartest city is Seattle, followed by Boston, San Francisco, D.C. and New York. The study considered 28 indicators, which were drawn from resources like the Metro Monitor for the Smart Economy, Green Building Councils for Smart Environment, Digital Governance Rankings and open-source municipal data.

Global tech companies the world over are stepping in to aide in this smart cities movement. IBM, Cisco and Siemens have implemented large-scale smart city initiatives, according to The Atlantic Cities. Estimates of the market size of this initiative place the numbers around $100 billion through 2020, reportedly.

Smaller companies may soon follow suit in gaining a foothold in this blossoming market. Anthony Townsend, research director at the Institute for the Future, told Atlantic Cities that the future’s smart cities likely will “look much more like the web, where there’s going to be a lot of things deployed by individual decision. … You build an open grid, you allow people to customize the pieces of it that they have jurisdiction over, and you get this fine-grained, resilient, vibrant kind of system with a lot of complexity.”

Those individual, customized pieces of the larger web represent an opportunity for specialized small businesses and startups to contribute expertise to the smart city movement. An entrepreneur doesn’t have to be IBM to develop a piece of the puzzle that reshapes city infrastructure for the better.

Liz Elfman

Liz Elfman is a writer, editor, and content strategist.