This article focuses on the definition of the smart city concept and identifies the different fields involved in this development. Triggered by a variety of factors (e.g.: urbanization, scarce resources, climate change and technology), the concept of smart city encompasses a diverse reality that cannot be pinned down by a single definition. In fact, it relates to actions taken in complementary fields like mobility, energy, governance, quality of life or environment.

What is a Smart City? —The “smart” seen through the lens of formal definitions

The “smart city” concept has gained wide attention across the globe. Despite the attention it has garnered, when it comes to defining what a “smart city” is, there seems to be much disparity. Today, it is possible to distinguish various types of “smart city” definitions:

  1. Data-driven definitions, which focus on the key role of ICT and technology in the city: 
    e.g. IBM defines a “smart city” as “one that makes optimal use of all the interconnected information available today to better understand and control its operations and optimize the use of limited resources”. (2009, IBM)
  2. Citizen-centric definitions, which focus on how a city should address its citizens’ needs/wants and improve their quality of life: 
    e.g. Caragliu, Bo & Nijkamp view a city as smart when “investments in human and social capital and traditional and modern infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life” (2009)
  3. The broader and more sophisticated definitions, which attempt to bring these two spheres together: 
    e.g. The European Parliament defines a “smart city” as “a city seeking to address public issues via ICT-based solutions on the basis of a multi-stakeholder, municipally based partnership” (Mapping Smart Cities in the EU, 2014)

The conclusion from these various definitions is that the truly “smart” city cannot be pinned down by one single definition; it is a city that is always thinking, listening and adapting itself to remain attractive, efficient and sustainable. Increasingly talk is centered around leveraging the “Internet of Things” to achieve this. Last but not least, all cities must be conceived in their unique setting. What might be “smart” for one city might not be for another. In this light, smart governance is a core part of the puzzle. It is imperative for leaders to understand the unique problems and opportunities of their own city if they are to go any way in developing policies and projects to create their personal “smart city”.

There may be no single definition of a “smart city” but many different words come to mind when we think of a “smart city”. These include:

Smart city definition                                            




To approach more accurately the smart city concept, a smart city acts in the following fields:

  • Smart mobility: Initiatives that aim to reduce transport CO2 emissions; improve public transport infrastructure and reduce congestion; make public transport safer, faster and more connected.
  • Smart Environment: Initiatives that aim to improve air and water quality and use resources in a sustainable way by reusing and recycling.
  • Smart Governance: Initiatives that encourage citizens’ participation; that makes governing bodies transparent and government services easy to use with the help of digital technologies.
  • Smart Energy: Initiatives that include producing energy from renewable and sustainable resources such as solar, wind and biomass; reducing energy consumption by making the urban sector more energy efficient; increasing citizens’ awareness about their energy usage.
  • Smart Living: Initiatives that simplify citizens’ experience in terms of health care and make cities safer and more inclusive; broader initiatives that aim to increase citizens’ quality of life either by providing access to higher-quality housing or advanced neighborhoods.
  • Fostering Innovation: Initiatives that encourage and support start-ups as well as efficient collaboration of start-ups with big companies and the public sector.

Why are they a focal point?

The rise in importance of “smart cities” in recent times is driven by a variety of factors, including:

  • Growing Urban Populations: The projected increase of the population forces us to conceive new ways of working. UN research shows that the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, posing a predicament for the world in terms of feeding, educating and caring for people. The increase in population will combine with the trend of urbanization to put further stress on world cities. World Health Organization estimates have the world’s urban population will have doubled by 2050, which is equivalent to 7 new metropolises with the population of London being created each year.
  • Scarce Resources and Threat of Climate Change: Increasing awareness and acceptance of depleting fossil fuel resources and damage to the environment caused by pollution have made smart cities an imperative issue today. To meet the target of just a 2 degrees rise in global temperatures set by the world community, only one-third of the world’s proven fossil fuel resources can be used by 2050. This means that there needs to be prodigious improvements in and proliferating use of renewable energy sources, as well as an abatement in the amount of energy consumed. Smart city initiatives are one way of doing this, because by improving the way in which individual households and cities as a whole work, energy consumption can be greatly reduced.
  • Recognition of Economic Growth and Social Improvement Opportunities: Whilst the prospect of rapid urbanization poses various challenges, it does also offer potential opportunities. Much of the smart agenda is also focused on how the advantages of urbanization can be realized. What is more, with cities increasingly competing on a global scale, there is a realization that “smartness” is almost a requirement to drive investment and attract the smartest citizens.
  • Growth of New Technological Phase: Whilst the notion of using technology to improve urban life is by no means a new concept, never before have the prospects looked so bright. Current technological progress (in particular, concerning The Internet of Things) now make it feasible to put the smart city concept into practice. Improvements in technology have given us the ability to create smarter systems for every aspect of city life. Combining this with the emergence of big data, and cities can be smart in how these systems are created and used.

From an Imperial College & BearingPoint study