Skip to Content

A Closer Look at Smart Cities

Case studies, resources, and upcoming events.
November 18, 2014


Chattanooga, Tennessee
Population: 173,366

It may come as a surprise that Chattanooga has the fastest metro-wide Internet speeds in the U.S. Thanks to a gigabit fiber-optic network, connection speeds at least 50 times faster than the national average reach more than 150,000 households and businesses in a 600-square-mile area. Since the network’s launch five years ago, companies have been coming to the Tennessee city to experiment with it. The Company Lab, a local startup, runs a 14-week program called GigTank for entrepreneurs around the world interested in using the city’s Wi-Fi to launch businesses.

Last year the accelerator focused on 3-D printing, health-care, and smart-grid companies. According to a report produced by Siemens, consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, and law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, Chattanooga has implemented a self-healing smart grid that saved the city $1.4 million in 2011 when tornadoes knocked out power to 77,000 households. Half of the homes had power restored in two seconds. That would have taken 17 hours with previous grid technology.

Population: 2.7 million

To support a new smart electric grid in the city, 300,000 smart meters have been installed, and all Chicago residents will have one by 2017. When completed, the grid is expected to reduce energy waste and save customers $170 million. An analytics platform built on Cisco technology has helped reduce the city’s crime rate: violent crime fell 14 percent year over year for the nine months ending in September 2014 (see “Data-Toting Cops”). And by analyzing 311 data, the city created a model with more than 31 variables that predicts and prevents rodent infestations. Analytics is also helping to identify buildings that are likely to become vacant and suggest how the city might intervene. The city’s open data portal of 600 data sets has been used to build apps that tell citizens where to get a flu shot and alert them that their street is about to be swept, among other things.

Copenhagen, Denmark
Population: 1.3 million

Copenhagen plans to implement several new technologies in its effort to become the first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. In May, the city and neighboring municipalities of Albertslund and Frederikssund partnered with Cisco to build a network to connect technologies for smart lighting, parking, and water management. Cisco has also partnered with Copenhagen and Citelum, the Technical University of Denmark, Leapcraft, and Silver Spring to form Copenhagen Intelligent Traffic Solutions, which will geolocate devices connected to the Internet to help officials monitor traffic throughout the Scandinavian city.

This anonymous data is fed into a dashboard that, when accessed over the Internet, can show current traffic movement. Planners can also use the tool to create models of traffic patterns, which allow them to see, for example, how traffic lights and speed limits affect certain bus routes.

Geneva, Switzerland
Population: 189,033

Geneva is testing a new electric bus system called the Tosa, a 133-person vehicle developed by ABB that does not require overhead electrical wires. At select bus stops along its route, overhead “flash” charging stations deliver 400 kilowatts of power in less than 15 seconds. During a 10-month test of one bus line, the Tosa traveled more than 8,000 miles and charged more than 4,200 times without major issues. The city aims to expand the test, possibly saving 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide per bus line and lowering costs 30 percent, according to the partners behind the project.

Hamburg, Germany
Population: 1.8 million

Hamburg is working to make its port smarter by improving traffic flow and transportation of goods. With the help of Cisco, the city is working to develop several pilot projects, including a system to manage the parking and loading of vehicles as well as ways to make lighting more efficient, capture emissions data, and monitor railways with sensors. The city is also considering developing mobile GPS sensors to keep track of heavy machinery like cranes and vehicles within the port. The sensors would be able to track metrics like temperature, wind strength, and air pollution. Also in the works is an app that pulls in data from bridges, ships, and construction sites to create a high-level picture of activities in the area for people in the water and on land. Other companies involved in Hamburg’s pilot projects include AGT International, Avodaq, Philips, Streetline, T-Systems, and Worldsensing.

Population: 8.4 million

The U.K.’s largest city is predicted to reach 10 million residents by 2030. To prepare for this growth, Mayor Boris Johnson created a special board in 2013 to implement technology aimed at addressing anticipated issues with traffic, health care, waste management, and energy. London’s goals—to build a smart grid and cut transport emissions in half by 2020—are ambitious but build on earlier successes. The city has tackled congestion by charging a fee for driving in central business areas during the busiest times of day, using cameras to capture license plates and reducing cars by 70,000 per day.

Its London Datastore gives developers open data sets, visualized on the London Dashboard, to make new apps focused on topics like health care and elections. London’s next project involves turning four neighborhoods into living labs equipped with air quality sensors to collect data.

New York City
Population: 8.4 million

New York provides more than 1,100 sets of data for developers to use through its NYC OpenData platform, which encompasses everything from restaurant inspections to maps of Wi-Fi hotspots. In March, MIT’s Senseable City Lab, General Electric, and Audi analyzed more than 150 million taxi trips captured in New York City from 2011, finding that the number of trips taken in the city could decrease by 40 percent if taxi-sharing services were made available. That could pave the way for technologies that help people plan taxi trips more efficiently, reducing road congestion.

New York’s Transit Authority also has a pilot installation of interactive touch screens at five train stations that provide tools to help riders plan journeys, see maps of neighborhoods, and monitor elevator outages. New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress will help turn the 28-acre Hudson Yards development in Manhattan—the biggest in the city since Rockefeller Center—into a neighborhood that measures traffic, pedestrian flows, recycling, air quality, energy usage, and the health of the residents themselves.

Population: 1.6 million

Chief innovation officer Adel Ebeid has been getting a lot of attention for the $120 million initiative he’s led to upgrade core city technology, including the systems behind licensing, permitting, and revenue collection. The city is also working to close its digital divide—over 40 percent of residents don’t have Internet access in their homes—with a network of 79 locations offering computer access and training. Despite some early concerns about fire risk, the city’s power utility, Peco, has accelerated the installation of smart electric meters, spending $282 million to finish the project five years early. The system will allow the utility to charge more in peak periods.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Population: 6.5 million

With the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics both bringing crowds to Rio, the city has inaugurated a new data-driven operations plan. Now data from 30 agencies flows into one centralized “command center,” a system built, and heavily promoted as state-of-the-art, by IBM. Data from sensors and video feeds is used to build maps to predict weather and other problems. Emergency response times have improved 30 percent since the new system launched, and according to IBM, it will be expanding to more city departments, including public works, transportation, and utilities. Though there has been some pushback from citizens concerned about overbearing security and privacy violations, the smart city plan has made a name for Mayor Eduardo Paes as a leader in using technology to improve urban life.

Songdo, South Korea
Population: 82,000, including roughly 35,000 in the central business district

Built from scratch on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea’s tidal basin, the 1,500-acre International Business District in the South Korean city of Songdo has been touted as a model future city by developers and technology suppliers. The city is home to futuristic technologies that promote sustainability, such as water recycling systems and pneumatic waste disposal systems that eliminate the need for garbage trucks.

The city is also filled with Cisco’s latest telepresence software, a fixture in homes, which is used to connect Chadwick International School students to classmates in California. But while about 82,000 people live in Songdo, only between 33,000 and 35,000 people so far call its new smart district home. The city is about 45 minutes away from the bustling capital, Seoul, and the BBC described Songdo’s cafes, streets, and shopping areas as “largely empty” when reporters visited last year. Of the planned square footage for Songdo, only about half has been developed.

Population: 603,502

Already regularly voted one of the most livable cities in the world, Vancouver aims to become the greenest as well. The Canadian city has written an action plan to achieve that goal by 2020 and annually reviews its progress to date, including a 6 percent decrease in greenhouse gases since 2007, an 18 percent drop in water consumption since 2006, and 93 charging stations for electric vehicles. Extensive information on city assets, tax reports, city council meetings, cultural spaces, community gardens, road construction, city contracts, city council members’ expenses, bike racks, and other aspects of city life is available to anyone who wants to see it.

Vancouver is one of the first cities to visualize proposed projects and future growth with 3-D modeling. It’s using software from Autodesk to see how different city systems interact, and to ensure that the construction of new buildings doesn’t impede views of the mountains or other natural assets.

Back to top


Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia
In this book, New York University senior researcher Anthony Townsend navigates the new landscape of building cities in a world that is constantly connected. He explores the successes and struggles of city-building by companies, startups, and, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, citizens themselves.

The New Science of Cities
Understanding how cities work requires seeing them as systems rather than just physical spots on a map, argues University College London planning professor Michael Batty. In this book, Batty uses a scientific, data-driven approach to reveal the complex flows and networks of interaction that happen within cities, and shows how models and visualizations can aid in building future ones.

The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance
In The Responsive City, Harvard professors Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford provide case studies to show how community and government leaders in New York, Boston, and Chicago have used data analysis to improve city life and create tools to save taxpayers money.

Beyond Transparency: Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation
Chicago’s former chief information officer Brett Goldstein says he was inspired to create this “guidebook” on best practices for governments using open data after people kept asking how to replicate the city’s success. The result is a collection of 22 essays from the people implementing open data projects in cities like New York, Philadelphia, London, and Asheville, North Carolina, as well as people, such as O’Reilly Media CEO Tim O’Reilly, who are involved in the movement in other ways.

Enabling City Volume 2: Enhancing Creative Community Resilience
Through a series of guest articles from urban experts, this e-book explores more than 80 projects from around the world. The projects in question seek to help communities solve a variety of problems. Some of the examples covered by the book include crowdsourcing maps of public drinking fountains in Paris, an attempt to build sustainable tourist destinations in Sierra Leone, and the deployment of portable solar-powered communications devices and lighting to areas like Haiti that lack stable electricity. Resilience, energy planning, and citizen participation are some of the key topics covered by the book. A hardcover copy can also be purchased.

World Urbanization Prospects
In this annual report, the United Nations estimates that by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities. Graphs, maps, and charts bring the drama of accelerating urbanization into perspective, as do its eye-popping city-by-city population growth estimates.

“The Divided City”
Based on a longer report, this article by Richard Florida, a professor at New York University and senior editor at the Atlantic, examines the economic inequality that characterizes so many cities today, and the contributing factors.

“Against the Smart City”
In this pamphlet, urbanist Adam Greenfield argues that the sterile, technology-centered smart city programs he sees as being pushed by large technology companies are ill-suited to urban life.

Back to top


Transforming Transportation 2015: Smart Cities for Shared Prosperity
January 15–16, 2015, Washington, D.C.

International Green Building Conference
September 2–4, 2015, Singapore

ICMA Annual Conference
September 27–30, 2015, Seattle

National League of Cities Congress of Cities and Exposition
November 4–7, 2015, Nashville

November 18–20, 2015, Washington, D.C.

World Cities Summit
July 10–14, 2016, Singapore

Transport Research Arena
TBD 2016, Warsaw, Poland

Keep Reading

Most Popular

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Every year, we look for promising technologies poised to have a real impact on the world. Here are the advances that we think matter most right now.

Scientists are finding signals of long covid in blood. They could lead to new treatments.

Faults in a certain part of the immune system might be at the root of some long covid cases, new research suggests.

AI for everything: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT reached mass adoption in record time, and reset the course of an entire industry.

What’s next for AI in 2024

Our writers look at the four hot trends to watch out for this year

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.