Smart cities: lifting quality of life in our cities to a totally new dimension, using digital technologies

As the Internet of Things (IoT) grows and matures, the foundation is laid for ‘smart cities’ in which tens of thousands of sensors and connected devices will optimize the way in which we live and work.

Inspiring examples of European smart cities include Amsterdam, Barcelona, Helsinki and Vienna (to name a few). Each of them tunes the smart city concept to its own needs, but what they all have in common is the basic premise of using digital tools, services and processes to improve the city's mobility, sustainability, public services, retail, culture, and more.

The city of Amsterdam, for instance, is working closely with residents and visitors to develop ideas and solutions aimed at improving liveability in the city – in domains ranging from smart living and mobility to fostering the creation of a smart economy.

Vienna, another example, has set itself the target to significantly reduce its resource (e.g. energy) consumption, without giving in on quality of living, safety and security.

Together with the documentary makers of Flemish news show ‘Koppen’, Pieter Ballon travelled to Amsterdam and Barcelona, two of Europe’s most advanced smart cities. Garbage bins equipped with sensors that indicate when they need to be emptied, or smart sensors that predict traffic jams: in smart cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona this is no longer science fiction.

A smart city is not just a prefab machine designed by architects or engineers, and crammed with the latest technologies; it is a city that makes optimal use of digital technologies to respond to people’s actual needs. As such, it has the potential to lift quality of life to a totally new dimension.

Europe’s quest for a ‘smart city identity’

Smart cities are emerging all over the world. In Asia and the Middle East, some are even built from scratch. Noteworthy examples are the South Korean city of Songdo (a prestigious $35 billion project of which the first phase has been delivered last year) and the planned Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates.

At the other side of the world, smart cities such as San Francisco are seeing a boost in ‘bottom-up’ smart city developments – with private companies such as Uber (smart mobility), Airbnb (smart tourism) and Google’s Sidewalk Labs (city Wi-Fi hubs) pushing the uptake of smart service platforms.

At both ends of this spectrum (from greenfield projects in Asia to commercial initiatives in the US) quite some buzz is created – which leads many people to believe that not much is happening in Europe.

“In order to correct that perception and to give a boost to the creation of smart cities in Europe, we need a clearly defined European ‘smart city model’; a model that puts users’ needs and creativity center stage,” says prof. dr. Pieter Ballon (iMinds - VUB) in a recent opinion piece.