Building Smart Cities
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Building Smart Cities

Sokwoo Rhee, Associate Director of Cyber-Physical Systems Program, National Institute of Standard and Technology

1. What are the challenges faced to build a smart city? How do you manage to overcome those challenges?

There are two big challenges in building a smart city today. For most of the cities and communities around the world, it is difficult to find and afford the technical expertise that can create and execute appropriate smart city strategies. Even if a city comes up with a viable smart city strategy after a lengthy process, most cities end up with developing custom-tailored solutions and reinventing the wheel on the same issues other cities may have already developed solutions to address. This challenge prevents the cities from leveraging each other’s investments, and it also prevents technology providers from developing scalable and repeatable businesses. In the end, the lack of economies of scale, both from the perspectives of strategy and technology, is the main cause of the slow pace of adoption of proven smart city solutions. As a result, we are seeing only incremental growth in smart city solution deployments, when many observers are expecting to see exponential growth.

  ​a smart city project must be conceived and designed with a clear idea of the citizens’ benefits that will be produced by the project 

The second challenge is the lack of operational sustainability over time for many smart city projects, which rely on one-time funding from the federal government or foundations. Once the project is finished and the funding period is over (e.g., the deployment of air pollution sensors is finished), the entity which oversaw the deployment may not be able to maintain the system any longer. In many cases, the cities do not have a sustainable financial/business model to take it over and carry it on.  

To overcome these challenges, it is imperative for cities to consider working with other cities to identify the shared issues and replicate the best practices. Key issues—such as traffic congestion, air pollution, water management, and flood prediction—are shared by numerous local governments. It is important for cities that share similar issues to identify successful and proven best practices, and then replicate them. To catalyze exponential growth in the smart city market, we need to empower medium/smaller cities and communities, including rural areas, to easily jumpstart the process of developing their strategy and identifying successful technical solutions without going through the trial and error process that other cities may have already gone through. To accomplish this goal, we need a consensus-based, common blueprint/playbook that can serve as a foundation for the communities to start with and build on. The blueprint/playbook should include proven best practices and methods distilled from diverse real-world examples and a variety of geographical areas. This will ensure that it can be adopted by a broad range of cities and communities. While each city and community is unique, many of them also share common challenges. Although the blueprint/playbook will not address all of the needs for every city in the world, it could save cities both time and resources by helping them avoid the mistakes other cities already have experienced. It will also help grow the industry and business community by creating a common market for which products can be replicated in scale.

One such effort—developing blueprints/playbooks--is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)’s Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) ( During the past three years, GCTC has nurtured over 150 smart city projects with participation from over 160 cities and communities and 400 companies, universities, and non-profits from around the world. These projects address common issues that cities and communities are facing, and these projects can serve as the source of replicable best practices. GCTC has also incubated five SuperClusters that are developing blueprints/playbooks for five different sectors: transportation, public safety, energy/water/waste management, city data platform, and public Wi-Fi/broadband. The blueprints/playbooks can be used by cities and communities worldwide as the foundation of their own smart city strategies.

This year’s GCTC round will culminate with the GCTC Expo on August 28-29 in Washington, DC ( The GCTC Expo is the largest smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) event hosted by the US federal government. This year’s main theme is bringing federal/central and local governments together to discuss challenges, collaborations, and replication of best practices for smart city projects. The five SuperClusters are expected to announce the public availability of their blueprints/playbooks at the Expo.

2. A smart city requires Smart Energy, Smart Environment, Smart Mobility, Smart Infrastructure, Smart Technology, Smart People, Smart Living, Smart Healthcare, and Smart Economy. What factors affect the achievement of these goals?

There are two conflicting requirements in achieving the goals. The first requirement is to develop a comprehensive strategy and implementation plan that cuts across all the sectors mentioned above. The second requirement is to start “small.” It is important to understand that building a smart city does not necessarily mean undertaking a complete overhaul of the city’s infrastructure. Adding a small number of air pollution sensors or smart lighting fixtures could be a great start. At the end of the day, smart city projects will never start if you insist on waiting until a perfect plan is completed. At the same time, each component and solution should be installed while keeping in mind the big picture and overall strategy. Each city or community may have its own priority, and its smart city strategy should reflect that priority while different sectors are harmonized to produce maximum synergy.

3. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when one mentions “smart city”? How can a smart city benefit its citizens?

The definition of a smart city used in GCTC is “a city or community using smart technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) and Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) to improve the quality of life.” The goal is “to improve the quality of life,” and smart technologies are simply a tool to accomplish the goal. In the end, a smart city project must be conceived and designed with a clear idea of the citizens’ benefits that will be produced by the project. It is best to define goals and benefits that are tangible, quantifiable, and measurable, such as a 40 percent reduction of commute time or a 30 percent reduction of air pollution. If the smart city project is conceived and designed with the target benefits in mind from the beginning, it is much easier to justify the return on investment in the planning stage, and it will result in a higher probability of successfully delivering the benefits.

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4. How can smart cities contribute to the economic growth of the country?

Smart cities and communities, if done right, can provide a foundation for significant economic growth in two respects. First, they can create a new market for the large-scale deployment of advanced technologies such as IoT, CPS, big data, artificial intelligence, and so on. This new market will open up significant new business opportunities, which will then lead to the economic growth of the country. Secondly, the successful implementation of smart technologies and infrastructure will make cities and communities more livable and will attract new workforce and talents, which will also lead to new business opportunities and resources.

However, it is important to note that economic growth will not be achieved naturally without identifying scalable business and financial models and establishing strong public-private partnerships. Cities and communities should also pay close attention to the potential unintended consequences such as the “digital divide” and security/privacy issues. In particular, the security/privacy issues need to be considered from the beginning of the project planning process. As long as these issues are properly handled and managed, smart cities can serve as a major economic growth engine for the country.

5. How important is the role of IoT in building a smart city?

IoT is a core thread of the advanced technologies enabling smart cities. The concept of IoT is broader than many people realize. IoT is commonly described as “devices connected to each other.” However, the IoT ecosystem covers a complete range of advanced technology, including data analytics and services as well as communications, hardware, and interactions between physical and logical systems. For example, a self-driving car is a complex system; it is built from many smart “things” or components interacting with each other. But a self-driving car can also be considered a single “thing” and it may be part of a network, such as a fleet management system of autonomous vehicles. To distinguish this broader definition of IoT from conventional wisdom, we sometimes refer to this broader definition as “Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS).” The city is a complex system composed of hardware, software, networking, data analytics, services, and humans, and IoT or CPS is the cross-cutting concept that weaves different components into a unified and harmonized system. In summary, once IoT or CPS is applied to the public sector, it becomes a smart city/community.

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