Smart Cities: Critical Components for Building the City of Tomorrow, Today

Authored By: Barry Gillespie National Smart Cities Director

Today, cities across the United States are not only growing but changing rapidly. It is estimated that 83% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, and that number is expected to increase to 89% by 20501. To best meet the needs of this growth and prevent strains on infrastructure, cities are turning their attention toward providing enhanced security, efficiency, and environmental stewardship and looking more holistically at becoming smart cities.

Smart Cities, Defined

So, what is a smart city? Recently, the term has been a catch-all buzzword to describe technology-driven enhancements that provide cities with real-time analytics to increase operational efficiency and share information. More specifically, Dr. Jonathan Reichental, author of Smart Cities for Dummies and a professor at several universities, maintains “a smart city uses innovative technologies to enhance community services and economic opportunities, improve city infrastructure, reduce costs and resource consumption, and increase civic engagement.”

In practice, this includes integrating digital technologies into city networks, services, and infrastructure. For example, some cities are implementing broadband through networked LED streetlights, while others are implementing Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) solutions to improve their water utility efficiency and reduce unbilled water. Moreover, these improvements don’t just benefit cities. They can also positively impact local citizens. In the case of AMI and SCADA solutions, residents can access their water usage data in real-time, set alerts, and monitor their usage to reduce water consumption and, ultimately, their water bill.

Smart City Components

Many components fall under the umbrella of smart city infrastructure. When used singularly or in conjunction with multiple initiatives, improvements can significantly enhance operational efficiencies and the quality of life for residents. There is no one model for a smart city, but key aspects include the following:

  • 01

    Citizen Engagement

    Citizen engagement is crucial to large-scale infrastructure projects. Local citizens need to be aware of and prepared for any changes. When citizens and municipal governments work together, positive community changes are possible.

  • 02


    Improving the efficiency and capabilities of government services is key to preparing for and maintaining sustainable growth. Critical infrastructure services include city-wide facility management, wastewater treatment, and water distribution.

  • 03


    The internet has become an essential service—similar to electricity. As a result, there is a critical need for information communication technology and public Wi-Fi. High-speed internet connections allow for economic development and the growing remote work trend.

  • 04

    Public Safety

    In terms of technology, many tools can help sense, analyze, and act on potential public safety threats. For example, smart cameras can detect accidents and call for EMS and microphones can identify gunshots, triangulate a shooter’s location, and relay that information to the closest first responder.

  • 05


    Cities need to be resilient to any challenge they may face, particularly concerning critical infrastructure services that citizens rely on. If faced with rising water, inclement weather, or extreme conditions, technologies like renewable energy, smart grids, centralized building automation, communication redundancy, and asset efficiency can help cities avoid critical failures.

  • 06

    Energy Efficiency

    Increasing energy efficiency isn’t just good for the environment. It’s also good for a city’s bottom line. Connected buildings, LED lighting upgrades, smart street lighting, building envelope improvements, HVAC equipment upgrades, and energy dashboards can deliver financial benefits to public budgets through increased income and decreased operating expenses.

  • 07

    Healthier Communities

    Enabling healthcare access for all and nurturing the social, economic, and environmental factors contributing to residents’ overall well-being is a common goal for most cities. Telemedicine opportunities for homebound individuals are an excellent example of how digitized cities can better serve citizens.

  • 08


    Enabling intelligent transportation systems or using traffic management centers is vital for cities’ growth. For example, traffic management centers can monitor and coordinate large networks of sensors to improve traffic congestion. Additionally, with the expected surge in all-electric vehicle (EVs) ownership, cities will need to increase charging station availability to make charging easy, accessible, and equitable. Not only will this benefit citizens, but it will help cities reduce carbon emissions, meet CO2 reduction goals, and reduce harmful pollutants.

  • 09

    Data Analytics

    Access to better data management and an understanding of the 3 Vs (volume, velocity, and variety) will enable cities to make better, faster decisions. With actionable data insights, policymakers can improve operations, reduce resource consumption, monitor security risks, and better manage budgets.

Budget-Neutral Financing

Public officials understand that every smart infrastructure improvement they want to make has a funding obstacle to overcome. What many smaller cities and towns don’t know is that budget-neutral financing is possible in most states. With state-enabled legislation and federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), many cities and towns can make these smart infrastructure improvements with little to no up-front capital required.

Bringing it All Together

With strategic planning and commitment to innovation, local governments undertaking improvement projects in these areas will undoubtedly take a step toward becoming smarter cities and towns. Doing so should yield positive outcomes, not just in terms of growth, but will help provide sustainable economic development opportunities, improved government efficiencies, healthier environments, better traffic flow, increased safety, and upgraded infrastructure.

1Source: University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, U.S Cities Fact Sheet

Ready to Become a Smart City?

Are you interested in exploring smart city infrastructure, and what steps your city can take now to prepare for the future? Our team is here to help! We can evaluate your unique challenges and opportunities and develop a roadmap for implementing critical improvements today that will better prepare you and your citizens for tomorrow.

Barry Gillespie National Smart Cities Director

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