Smart City: A Term Searching for a Definition

Cities Are Different. So Are Smart City Solutions.


Today, more and more cities are crossing their fingers in hopes of being dubbed a ‘smart city’. As cities start investing in new technology and building infrastructure to give their city a competitive advantage in attracting business and utilizing resources, the term ‘smart city’ has still not been clearly defined.


General characteristics of a smart city have been tossed around such as cities that incorporate smart energy, technology, mobility, science, healthcare, education, and infrastructure. Everyone has an opinion on what constitutes a smart city, however it’s not necessarily about choosing one opinion over the other – the focus is really on the implementation of new policies and procedures. The idea of new and improved is a consistent factor in the mix of characteristics. The combination of academia with the support of the public and private sectors provides new and improved policies, as well as benefits the well-being of the city and its citizens.




As people continue to congregate in cities, it’s essential that cities realign their efforts to focus on sustainability and efficiency. Demographic, economic and cultural dynamics are forcing cities to do more with less and be competitive in providing for the well-being of their citizens’ everyday life in a sustainable way. Cities need to start playing their cards. Smart cards matter. Efficient cards matter. The union of the two can really make or break your city’s movement to get to the smart city level.


As cities progress, one of the main aspects is the need for smarter and more efficient transportation mobility. The need to leverage existing infrastructure for transportation is a vital component to dealing with urbanization. Parking and transit agencies need tools that allow for a more effective and efficient way to manage their operations and support customers. A mobile transportation platform is one of the most essential aspects of a smart city. As more cities embrace smart mobility, the need to support infrastructure to support the platform and bridge the digital divide is necessary to move forward.


In March 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the finalist cities for the Smart City Challenge which is now down to the top seven.  The challenge was designed to award one city with up to $40 million in support of electric vehicle deployment and strategies to reduce carbon emission. At the heart of smart cities and the challenge is the need to fulfill smart and efficient mobility. After all, without a mobility platform the cities would not have been nominated for the challenge. Of the DOT’s Smart City finalists, Passport was at the center of most of the nominated cities infrastructure.

As cities apply for grants in support of being or becoming a smart city, it’s necessary to understand the broad breakdown of how cities are categorized:


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Rural City

Example: Tupelo, MS

These cities exist outside of urban clusters and are typically characterized by no formal transit system, taxi system, and very manual processes. Since these cities lack the existing backbone of larger cities, they will benefit tremendously from the connectivity of a sharing economy. A sharing economy is the ability for networked cities to share resources, goods and services, and even experiences. The idea of encouraging connectivity in all aspects of smart technology, justice, sustainability to solidarity is beneficial to the changing nature of sharing.



Small Urban City

Example: Asheville, NC

These cities are small, but mighty. They haven’t quite made it to ‘modern city’ status, but still have distinguishing urban amenities, infrastructure, and attractions that are often not found in even larger cities. They’re quickly adopting modern technologies to really set apart their city, as well as attract business and new operations. Although they’re far from being ruled a ‘modern city’, these community-based cities are giving larger cities a run for their money. As small urban cities begin taking precedence over dense populations, they’re still in the early stages of innovation and becoming a smart city.



Modern City

Example: Atlanta, GA

The modern city is well on its way of being a smart city. These cities have some sort of formal transit system, such as a light rail, bus, and taxi system. Modern cities like Atlanta have highly automated infrastructure and extremely efficient operations. Modern cities benefit from connecting all agencies making the city more ‘flat’, connected and coordinated. From the connected car reporting accidents to authorities to the lights automatically changing so they can get to the site as quickly as possible. These cities have adopted and are continuing to adopt the latest modern technology and building infrastructure to further progress innovations, however, these modern cities are still far behind cities like Seoul and Tokyo.


Progressive City

Example: Tokyo

Progressive cities push boundaries. These cities are the role models to other cities and they continue to advance, build, and innovate toward the greater goal of becoming a smart city. They’re highly populated, have built advanced infrastructure, and have an extensive amount of automation. Progressive cities have advanced in technology, science, mobility, healthcare and more. Their constant innovative nature has us always wondering what’s next. These cities are the closest cities to becoming a smart city.


Although solid smart city characteristics have yet to be defined, there’s a need for public and private sectors to work together to define a more sustainable and collaborative city. The competition of becoming the next smart city should ultimately not be the end goal, instead cities need to focus on how they can find common ground. It’s better to define what smart cities of the future might really mean – leveraging smart technology as an agenda of sharing and solidarity, rather than the approaches of competition, enclosure, and division.


Cities are different. Goals are different. The variety of challenges have caused cities to rethink their strategies and innovations in order to maintain service levels. If we can agree on key elements of a smart city, the real innovation will begin when public and private enterprises merge. Until then, ‘smart city’ will continue to be a term searching for a definition.