What the heck is...

What the heck is… a Smart City?

By Oliver Smith 22 March 2016
Skyscrapers of the City of London at night. The UK's productivity remains unchanged from 2007 levels.

Explaining the buzzwords of the moment: What is a Smart City and why does it matter?

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… exists to shed light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Smart Cities’, it’s the favourite phrase of politicians like London’s Mayor Boris Johnson who is on a mission to make the capital more ‘smart’.

But don’t think artificial intelligence controlling our buses (or at least not anytime soon), instead Smart Cities is about better utilising a city’s assets through technology.

Watch: Smart Cities, the new zeitgeist

Like turning buildings into sources of energy by invisibly embedding solar cells into their windows, or building systems that let those buildings automatically detect water leaks and book their own repairs.

Pavegen used to produce renewable energy
Pavegen is turning footfall into free power with its tiles in Westfield and Canary Wharf.

Where can I find a Smart City?

There are already examples of truly Smart Cities popping up around the world.

The former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg was a strong proponent of collecting huge amounts of data on everything the city did in order to make the most informed decisions.

Read more: London needs a data tsar to become a smart city

He launched MODA, the Mayor’s Office for Data Analytics, which in one example managed to increase the effectiveness of the city’s housing inspectors by 233% by looking for anomalies across datasets of property ownership, utilities usage and crime rates to automatically detect illegal conversions of properties into rented apartments.

In London technologies like Pavegen are being trialled in Canary Wharf and Westfield shopping centre to generate electricity from people’s very footsteps, while also collecting data on the movement of crowds.

Watch: People Powered Smart Cities

Meanwhile, London Underground has a trial underway called Accelerate which could one day give them the ability to track each individual passenger’s journey through the underground by the movement of their smartphones.

Imagine underground stations of the future being redesigned based on actual data showing the flow of people and points of congestion.

Read more: How TfL is exploring the future of your commute

London Underground is testing a system to track each individual journey across London.

This is just the beginning

Smart Cities are the future.

Google is already exploring what it could bring to Smart Cities with Sidewalk Labs, a Google business which last week unveiled Flow.

The service promises to analyse the data already being generated by cities and identify traffic-prone areas or parts of a city which are underserved by existing public transport.

In January Boris Johnson revealed London would be partnering with cities across Europe as part of a €25m trial to pilot and pioneer solutions to solve the problems faced by all cities. From 300 smart parking bays in Greenwich to help drivers quickly find spaces, to exploring using the River Thames as a renewable source of energy.

Smart Cities are coming, and you probably won’t even notice their arrival. But slowly, and surely, our cities will start collecting more data than ever before, and using this data to shape the world around us.

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… exists to shed light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.