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How to build a
smart city from
the ground up

Author: Gary Hilson

Smart cities use applications, networks and sensors to gather data to optimize infrastructure, energy use, traffic management and emergency response. They also use technology to engage citizens to improve public services, such as transportation and utilities, and make cities more livable.

Understanding how to build a smart city is more than just figuring out how the systems work together. Smart city benefits lie in optimizing services that improve the lives of the people who live there: Smart cities have to consider how people will interact with technology so that the city remains affordable, sustainable and environmentally sound as it grows, and that it continues to provide its citizens with a high quality of life.

Smart cities, smart building blocks

Building a smart city from the ground up involves more than technology. The unique issues that a city is trying to solve must be the guiding factor.

Still, smart cities usually have a few things in common:

  • Buildings. Smart buildings use heating and cooling systems hooked into the Internet of Things (IoT) to maximize energy efficiency and occupant comfort. They utilize environmentally conscious technologies to keep their occupants and surroundings healthy, insulating businesses with green roofs, generating power with solar windows, optimizing energy use through smart sensors and using plant walls to recycle carbon dioxide. In some cases, multiple buildings can be managed remotely by a single dashboard.
  • Transportation. Smart cities use sensors to manage traffic optimization. They also use app-powered smart parking meters to help drivers find parking spots faster, reducing pollution by reducing driving and idling time.
  • Utilities. Smart cities use the IoT devices to monitor water and energy use and improve energy consumption patterns through smart outdoor lighting that's responsive to pedestrians and vehicles. Smart meters help citizens consume water and power more efficiently, and smart power grids help municipalities understand energy consumption trends citywide and optimize distribution and pricing.
  • Infrastructure. Smart cities improve the stability of buildings and roads by, among other things, deploying sensors to monitor regions prone to earthquakes or detect leaks in the city's water or gas system.

Because a smart city is ultimately about improving its residents' security, health and livelihoods, its infrastructure must always be created with people in mind.

The smart city, in stages

Broadly speaking, a city transitions to a smart infrastructure in three stages:

  • Vision. There should be agreed-upon priorities and a holistic perspective that considers the issues and challenges in building smart cities and what overcoming them looks like. There should be a roadmap for the city; realistic, actionable and measurable goals; and a framework for collaboration across city agencies.
  • Innovation. Pilot projects assist in identifying the potential benefits of technology that can help improve service delivery, city operations and infrastructure management. They should be aligned with the city's core challenges, required outcomes and operational needs.
  • Outcomes. Smart city initiatives should deliver results at scale, and they should have a long-term impact on the quality and efficiency of essential city services, such as public safety, transportation, health, social equity and environmental quality. Innovative technology and approaches to service delivery should boost key city metrics while reducing the digital divide and creating an equitable city.

There's no single blueprint for how to build a smart city—each city will prioritize different challenges, solve them in different ways and follow different timelines. Smart solutions can be whatever a city needs them to be, but their outcomes are often driven by citizen needs, data and municipal policies.

Say, for instance, that you want to improve street safety. Your goal might be to deploy autonomous vehicles to reduce accidents caused by human error. Achieving that vision involves many data-guided steps. Once you know what data you have and what data you need, you can devise a plan to collect what's missing. And you don't have to rely on just your own data—there are lessons to be learned from burgeoning smart cities worldwide.

A smart city in progress

Nestled in 17 square miles in the southeast corner of Orlando, Florida, is Lake Nona, a smart city where Verizon has set up one of the first 5G "living labs"—a place to develop the innovations on which tomorrow's smart cities will hinge. Lake Nona has innovated numerous pilot programs that can drive outcomes at scale and deliver long-term benefits to the community.

Autonomous shuttles run multiple routes through the neighborhood. The self-driving vehicles use sensors to map the area around them, improving navigation, route management and pedestrian safety. With a safe, reliable method of transportation, Lake Nona residents interact with more areas and facets of their community; those interactions are key to gathering data that helps city officials plan and deploy additional projects to further improve quality of life.

The city is also testing intelligent lighting solutions that double as sensor-equipped smart devices that collect, capture and transmit data in near real time. This provides centralized control and delivers insights into the state of Lake Nona's lighting infrastructure, as well as access to an array of lighting applications and services.

Lake Nona is a testament to the fluid nature of the smart city. When built correctly, a smart city is not simply a compilation of intelligent products. It's a living, adapting thing that can react to suit the changing needs and habits of the people who live in it.

Learn how Verizon is helping smart cities evolve and deliver on their promise.