Smart Cities Series: What is a Smart City?

Smart City definitions are just plain hard to come by. There are plenty of articles that say why and how to undertake Smart City programs. But there is nothing to adequately answer the question of, ‘What is a Smart City?’ The key challenge is recursion; whereby something is defined in terms of itself. You can neither adequately define a Smart City by ascribing the word ‘Smart’ to a pre-existing municipality nor simply by expecting the word ‘City’ to convey the intended complexity of a thoroughly modern, intricate ecosystem. I suspect that is part of the reason we are so easily diverted by sub-par, tech-biased definitions as can be found on Wikipedia and others like it. So in order to wrest it back from the brink of recursive irrelevance on which it currently teeters, here is my take…

Smart City
/smɑːt ˈsɪti/

A super-urban, multi-industrial complex where collaborative component systems of management interact to deliver data-driven, automated services to a resident or transient constituency through the application of technologies to portfolios of connected physical assets.


I don’t offer this definition as a lexicographic submission but rather as one that has allowed me through trial, error, and ultimately success to productively analyse and engage across multiple sectors and both sides of the supply and demand markets. The six (6) core elements of this Smart City definition include:

1. A Super-Urban, Multi-Industrial Complex
A city by its very definition includes a myriad of industries, cultures, and levels of government. A Smart City applies this definition and extends it to include a super-metropolis or connected zones, industries and all of their component economic entities. In this sense, metropolisation (a modern term more common in Europe), and its entwined mega-influence zone, is critical to identifying and ultimately defining a Smart City.

2. Collaborative Component Systems of Management
Systems thinking is the management discipline that concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the components that comprise the entirety of that defined system. In a city this includes political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental (PESTLE) factors. A Smart City must therefore include collaboration between the various governing bodies of these multiple components. In this way a Smart City is the ultimate outcome of the concept of Triple- and Quad Helix Systems of Innovation where organisations engage and collaborate beyond the confines of their own sector experiences and the fundamental drive between programs like the Australian Federal Government’s City Deals.

3. A Resident or Transient Constituency
Cities are large and permanent human settlements. A Smart City therefore ultimately concerns itself with enhancing the experience of its constituents, and often through involvement of the citizenry in the development of those experiences.

4. Technologies
Smart Cities are enabled by an evolving portfolio of technology trends and their subordinates including the Internet of Everything (encompassing the Internet of Things, the Consumer Internet of Things, and the Industrial Internet of Things), Mobility, Cloud Computing, Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented and Virtual Realities, Drones, 3D Printing, Machine Learning, Cognitive Computing and more. Technology itself is an enabling and not a singularly defining factor of a Smart City.

5. Data-Driven, Automated Services
While advanced computing and data management are foundation elements for any operational system, autonomous systems and integrated machine learning are a singularly defining element of a Smart City. These capabilities provide the ultimate ability for humans and machines to work responsively and autonomously of human intervention in addressing the fundamental Smart City challenges of size, scale, and sprawl.

6. Connected Physical Assets
The internet is awash with Smart City vendors and explainers describing smart ways to enable and often commercialise previously dormant assets into data and revenue streams, and often new businesses: think smart vehicles, smart parking, smart buildings, and smart lighting to name a few. Broader programs like smart transport, smart health and smart waste extend the asset portfolio considerably. But these in and of themselves do make a Smart City and are in fact usually (at least today) stand-alone Internet of Things (IoT) or some other form of tech-trend inspired projects. A Smart City is one defined by its ability to first instrument then integrate multiple physical assets, across multiple functions, within a super-urban portfolio of multi-industrial stakeholders (refer #1).


In envisioning a future that realises this more complete definition proponents of the global Smart City movement are operating under a banner that is both recursive and ironic. Said another way, the term Smart City depicts an inadequate imagery to describe its intended meaning and purpose.

For this reason, my observations of today’s reality would suggest that the majority of organisations purporting to either govern or provide Smart City services and solutions are in fact just borrowing the nomenclature without fully understanding (or just ignoring) its full import.