Cities around the world compete for the smallest environmental footprint, the largest GDP, and the fastest Internet. In the United States, the White House is getting in on the action, rolling out a $160 million “Smart Cities” initiative to deepen collaboration across sectors and tackle common city challenges such as traffic, crime, and pollution.
So what exactly qualifies as a smart city? Ask anyone who has worked closely with these urban development projects and they’ll tell you that the definition is constantly changing. Overall, however, smart cities provide an integrated approach to improving the efficiency of city operations, sustainability, quality of life for its citizens, and growing the local economy.
It isn’t surprising that the cities demonstrating this outlook are also among the most entrepreneurial and innovative. Even in emerging economies, a significant majority of the population will be living in urban centers by the end of this year, according to World Health Organization estimates.
From Silicon Valley to Singapore, looking at smart cities across the world gives us a window into the future. Leveraging facets of technology, design, and sustainable practices, smart cities can do more with less. Here are a few notable examples:
Bangalore, India: Nicknamed the Silicon Valley of India, Bangalore is known for its burgeoning tech industry. The city has already outpaced the San Francisco Bay Area in attracting tech talent. LinkedIn reports that the city attracted 44 percent new talent, compared with San Francisco’s 31 percent. In fact, the top four cities on this list are in India — definitely a strong testament to the growth of smart cities in emerging economies. With more than 500 companies generating more than $17 billion in revenue (and 200,000 jobs) annually, Bangalore is one of the fastest-growing and most entrepreneurial smart cities across the globe.
Medellín, Colombia: Notorious Colombian city Medellín was named “Most Innovative City of the Year” in 2013 by Citi and The Wall Street Journal after successfully reducing its homicide rate by 80 percent between 1991 and 2010, and developing natural community spaces. The hilly city uses a cable car system, an award-winning green urban design, and escalators to keep pedestrian traffic moving quickly. Medellin’s infrastructure makeover, financed in part by its state-owned utilities company, has been lauded as proof of the power of public architecture.
Tel Aviv, Israel: Tel Aviv has recently emerged as a nexus of technology, infrastructure, and design. It’s been crowned as the winner of the Smart City Expo for “Best City” for its innovative project Digi-Tel, which provides residents with free citywide Wi-Fi. Digi-Tel allows users to access public information across multiple databases and takes advantage of geolocation data to solve a variety of infrastructure problems. Helping people access data about available parking spaces throughout the city is just the tip of the iceberg.
San Francisco, California, USA: It’s impossible to discuss smart cities without talking about the city that started it all. San Francisco is known for its sustainability efforts, following environmental laws more stringent than those passed federally. The city has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025 and reaching zero waste by 2020 through the city’s mandatory recycling and composting programs. The city’s Pavement to Parks initiative creates urban, pedestrian centers out of unused spaces. At the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay Area lies Silicon Valley, the tech mecca where technological innovation is always close at hand. Silicon Valley helped San Francisco earn third place on NerdWallet’s list of America’s Most Innovative Cities.
Copenhagen, Denmark: The Danish capital has an incredible infrastructure to support local bike culture and continues to innovate as it strives to become the first carbon neutral capital by 2025. Cycling infrastructure includes the green wave, a path of green lights that set a pace timed to help cyclists make each traffic light, and Cykelslangen, or Cycle Snake, an elevated bike path that separates fast cyclists from slow pedestrians. The city has also integrated smart street lighting to illuminate LED bulbs only when sensors pick up a passing car, pedestrian, or bicycle on the street, both an environmental and cost-effective implementation. Denmark also ranked third in the 2015 world happiness report.
Singapore, Asia: Singapore is not only a smart city — it hopes to become the world’s first “smart nation,” Fast Company reports. The metropolis is piloting smart streetlights, like Copenhagen, and is investing in startups to take advantage of its growing government database of public information to solve issues of urban density and an aging population. The government has placed more than 1,000 sensors in the Jurong Lake District to better understand traffic patterns, bus commute times, and even driverless cars. Plus, its airport has a four-story slide, rooftop pool, and a mall — now that’s what we call smart.
Ultimately, the growing popularity and success of smart cities is an indication of how tech, business, and urban planning are merging to make our lives better. The most exciting result: There is no cookie-cutter approach — no single variety of smart city. With many different countries embracing the idea in their own way, there’s no limit to the innovative solutions we’ll see in coming years.