The "smarts" of a city

April 06, 2017

Elements of Smart City infrastructure

The continuing trend of urban population growth is stimulating demand for smart solutions that maximize efficiency in public resource utilization, enhance social cohesion and create a prosperous habitat for modern citizens. Smart city applications have drawn lately remarkable attention in the IT and networking industries. The challenge is to come up with advanced and economically viable technologies for monitoring and control of foundational urban systems, such as those necessary to deliver energy, waste management, transportation, water, safety, etc.

Intelligent sensors, actuators, gateways, wireless transmitters and all types of Internet of Things components seem to receive the bulk of consideration at the moment, not only because these technologies are relatively new, but also because of the challenges posed by the need to install such systems massively over large metropolitan areas. However, this single minded examination of Smart City initiatives, sometimes overlooks the very purpose of investing in citywide brainpower.

In our viewpoint, among the basic components of a Smart City project, one should be able to clearly identify not just the technological components, but also the tools and processes for policy making and for influencing public behavior.

Beyond sensors

Technology in the context of Smart Cities encompasses usually an elaborate system of sensors, controllers and communications devices, enabling the measurement, logging and collection of all types of data related to monitored activities. This information flow renders large volumes of data (Big Data, according to the prevalent terminology) and requires proper tools for analysis and processing to facilitate decision making.

In other words, formation of policies and triggering of actions must rely on tools that deliver the capacity to process data feeds in real time and possibly visualize and present these data to human policy makers. This function requires its own, sophisticated infrastructure and can oftentimes benefit greatly from visual analytics software, that helps reveal trends and run what-if-scenarios. Analytics tools can also help identify outliers and support data drill-down to the point of locating the contributing elements to a certain noticeable incident or pattern.

Frankly, without the insight delivered by analytics tools policy making is left to intuition and guesswork, which leaves a lot of room for error and may impact severely the ROI of a Smart City initiative.

Changing citizen behavior

The other element that is necessary in a Smart City initiative is a selection of mechanisms to influence citizens and visitors towards the desired behavior that optimizes public resource utilization and leads to a sustainable urban environment. Recycling, energy and water usage, littering, transportation habits, even crime activity can all be affected through application of appropriate behavior control policies.

This is the primary subject of the bestselling book "Nudge" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, coining the term "libertarian paternalism" to denote the idea that public behavior can be legitimately influenced while maintaining the freedom of choice intact. Other publications in the realm of Behavioral Economics have also tackled the subject and have shown that public behavior is not only susceptible to "nudging" but also that the effectiveness of interventions is dependent on the way that the policy maker message is delivered.

As an example, when the state of New York decided to take action against an evident obesity epidemic, it passed legislation that obliged food vendors to include calorific values on individual food items they offered. But this information alone did not produce any noticeable change. A further action was needed to educate the public about the typical daily calorie intake (e.g. 2000 for adults) required to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Perhaps the most complete and targeted work undertaken to investigate the application of behavioral economics principles on public policy making is the MINDSPACE initiative by the Institute for Government in the UK. The full report, which is an exciting read, is available at


Smart Cities should employ technology to obtain measurements and automate control of all aspects of city life that contribute to social welfare and sustainable living. Measurement data need to be processed by analytics tools that help formulate optimized policies for governmental interventions. The way these policies are applied and communicated to the public may benefit greatly from taking into account principles of behavioral science.