Defining the term – what exactly is a “smart city”?
Cities are networks: they host a variety of agents that interact on very complex levels. In order for cities to “grow” and “live,” they need to be attractive to residents, businesses, and visitors alike. And they require efficient future investments to remain competitive with other urban centers. To retain and enhance their competitive edge, cities can deliberately engage and connect their different networks, helping them to achieve sustainability and identifying previously overlooked areas of growth: Cities need to become “smarter.”

Sounds like a nice, but theoretical idea? Well, consider how cities supply their inhabitants with power, water, waste disposal, street and building maintenance, safety (crime, fire, weather, health), and transportation (of goods, people) in order to keep everyday life running. Beyond these obvious physical infrastructural requirements, however, policy makers also need to keep an eye on other, less tangible but no less important quality of life factors that attract a thriving population. People want to work, grow, and learn; they crave entertainment and creative stimulation; and, most of all, they want to have a say in decisions.

Bike-sharing, like the Hubway from Boston Bikes, remains one of the best options for smart transportation projects.
Bike-sharing, like the Hubway from Boston Bikes, remains one of the best options for smart transportation projects. © Bostonbikes

With this in mind, smart city concepts also address environmental, social, and intellectual issues. And, what is more, they connect all of these issues – mostly via “smart” communication technologies like sensors, smartphones, or the internet – to establish a more sustainable and stimulating environment.

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Smart cities like Cologne invest in infrastructure like this e-station for recharging electric vehicles. © Smart City Cologne

Getting around – the question of transport
One of the most obvious aspects that springs to mind is urban mobility. Since nobody enjoys congested streets, crammed with single-occupancy cars, or subway systems straining at the seams, the idea of shared-use and on-demand transportation is central to most “smart city” concepts. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a leading university in the field, even funds its own City Science team. Co-director Kent Larson stresses the need to return cities to their urban cell origin, where everything you need is within easy reach. On this note, he discusses the interconnection of local mobility hubs, i. e. neighborhood centers that cover all immediate needs and facilitate mobility in two different ways.

First of all, individual cells or neighborhoods are linked via mass transit systems – planned with efficiency and sustainability in mind. One such example would be Vienna’s “smart” Ecotram, equipped with digital sensors that anticipate heat build-up from sunlight or cold drafts resulting from strong winds. At the same time, the Ecotram constantly “learns” from statistical data and extrapolates expected passenger volumes for any given time and place, presetting the car’s heat and air accordingly. The pilot scheme is currently being field-tested on the city’s tram line 62 until March 2014.

Ecotram in Vienna is a "smart" public transport system that uses sensors to adjust heating and air conditioning as required.
Ecotram in Vienna is a “smart” public transport system that uses sensors to adjust heating and air conditioning as required. © Smartcity Wien
Ecotram auf Linie 62 am Karlsplatz, Juli13

At the same time, to mitigate the environmental impact of individualized transport and to explore more sustainable solutions, smart cities like Cologne invest heavily in alternative energy sources for transportation. The city has already installed 14 electronic charging stations for electronic vehicles in the urban center. More are scheduled to follow, boosting the attraction and feasibility of e-car use among its citizens.

A second smart approach seeks to improve mobility within any particular urban cell. Here, smart cities tend to focus on individual shared-use solutions like bike stations, compact rented electric vehicles, or peer-to-peer car sharing. Many cities already have such solutions in place, often complemented by offerings from the corporate sector to fill the economic gap of such systems: Daimler’s own car sharing service Car2Go now features more than 9.000 smart cars for easy and short-term rental in 25 European cities. Bike rental, too, enjoys great popularity across the globe and smart cities like Boston not only offer easy access sharing stations like the Hubway, but also support cycling through better bike lanes and reclaiming car-dominated street estate.

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start of car2Go concept in Hamburg. © car2go

Even smarter – when it comes to upping the social and informational capital of the city – are solutions that add a peer-to-peer element to the administrative or corporate mix, thus strengthening the communities’ social ties. One such example is the Amsterdam WeGo project – a non-corporate and app-based car sharing scheme that connects would-be renters to a network of private users that hire out their specially adapted private vehicles.

WeGo car-sharing – A peer-to-peer car sharing system that allows you to reserve and rent privately owned cars in Amsterdam.
WeGo car-sharing – A peer-to-peer car sharing system that allows you to reserve and rent privately owned cars in Amsterdam. © WeGo

With their multi-pronged approach to transportation, smart cities support a wealth of solutions that make getting around a lot easier – and ultimately enhance the quality of life in the urban environment.

Text: Lars Schmeink
Header image: aidasonne / photocase.com