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IoT and the Smart City: Examples, Applications, and Goals

Smart cities are a technical solution to help city officials meet urban planning goals. Learn how IoT provides the foundation for smart cities and how connected solutions can help officials prove their impact and improve the lives of citizens.

A version of this article was originally published by Smart City Business in December 2021. It has been updated and expanded here.

The United Nations predicted that by 2050, about 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This rapid urbanization will put enormous pressure on city officials to ensure their infrastructure can handle the demands of a growing population.

Without control over air quality, energy, transportation, building systems, and other critical facets of urban life, city officials will struggle to gather the data they need to improve infrastructure, implement smarter regulations, and foster a high quality of life. The idea of a “connected” or smart city changes that.

To date, city officials have been able to use Internet of Things technology to make certain aspects of their cities “smart,” such as street lights, meters, and utilities. But until recently, IoT was cost-prohibitive and difficult to deploy across wide geographic areas, and ROI was murky for some use cases.

Now, IoT is more accessible than ever thanks to integrated IoT solutions that make it easy to manage the hardware, connectivity, and software needed to bring previously unconnected infrastructure online.

Cities across the globe have started prioritizing efforts to bring connectivity to areas such as micromobility, emissions monitoring, and smart buildings, with the goal of improving their residents' quality of life.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What smart cities are and why they want to be “smart” in the first place
  • Which cities are leading the smart city revolution
  • Key applications of IoT in smart cities
  • Ways to tell if smart cities are successful

What Are Smart Cities?

From congested highways and scarce parking to polluted air and a lack of green spaces, issues that degrade the general livability of urban areas are a concern for cities around the world.

Enter the smart city—an urban space that uses data and technology to meaningfully improve its residents' quality of life.

While there is no universally agreed-upon definition of the term, a smart city is best understood as a place where data, devices, and people interact in real time.

Simply put, smart cities are places where continuous emissions monitoring, traffic-detecting sensors, connected building systems, and other technological advancements play a leading role in improving the existing infrastructure—and, consequently, people's lives.

That said, the mass deployment of technology is only one component of making a city smart. Ultimately, a smart city's success rests on how well connected devices and data are used to optimize the civilian experience. By this metric, the smart city of the future will leverage technology and IoT to become safer, more sustainable, and more efficient.

Image Credit: McKinsey

What Are Smart Cities?

Why Do City Officials Want Their Cities To Be ‘Smart’?

IoT and connectivity are technical solutions to real-life problems. Before getting into how technology makes cities smart, it’s worth understanding why city officials want their cities to be smart in the first place.

The ‘Planned’ City

IoT in cities is primarily used to aid in urban planning. As a discipline, urban planning emerged in the early 20th century as a response to the sanitary, social, and economic conditions of industrializing cities. Initially, urban planning was seen as a profession for architects and engineers.

Public health specialists, economists, lawyers, environmental specialists, and other disciplines joined the effort as city planners realized that the complexities of managing a city were far greater than what could be summed up as an engineering problem.

Today, the School of Urban Planning at McGill University defines urban planning as “a technical and political process concerned with the welfare of people, control of the use of land, design of the urban environment including transportation and communication networks, and protection and enhancement of the natural environment.”

Smart Cities As A Tool For Modern Urban Planning

City officials want to incorporate smart technologies—those enabled by IoT—to help them reach and exceed the goals of their own urban planning efforts. What are some of the benefits of doing so?

  • Measuring impact. IoT sensors that measure air quality can be used to show the results of city planning efforts on emissions. Reduced traffic fatalities in neighborhoods where micromobility solutions are offered show the impact of said solutions. These metrics can prove impact and give city officials a way to show their citizens that they are working to improve the quality of life in the city.
  • Data-driven budget allocation. Data generated by sensors across a smart city can help officials make decisions about where to allocate limited budget in a growing city. Areas with high concentrations of polluted air can get more attention than those with cleaner air. Neighborhoods with low power grid reliability can receive priority for smart grid investments.
  • Improving equity. Most cities have goals around equity, which ensure that all citizens have equal access to services, even as the city grows. For example, sensors embedded in shared electric vehicles can show if some neighborhoods are excluded from micromobility programs.
  • Attracting economic investment. Cities are always competing to attract economic investment from businesses. Services that improve quality of life, such as shared micromobility, smart buildings, clean air, etc. can be a major draw for businesses and professionals alike.
  • Long-term planning. A city without a vision is one that falls behind on quality of life metrics. Data can help city officials prioritize long-term planning and show progress over time, which isn’t tied to one administration or official.

How IoT Makes Cities Smart

IoT allows for the mass real-time capture of critical data that can be used to power insights and, eventually, actions that increase general efficiency and city operations. So, how does all this come together?

In a word, protocols. Simply put, protocols are rules for communication between two sides of a data exchange that facilitate the transfer of data from its origins at the device level to the cloud or a data center.

In the context of smart city infrastructure, the IoT protocol stack refers to the technology, applications, and processes through which smart cities collect, manage, process, and ultimately interpret data. This stack consists of four layers, which we'll break down next.

The Physical, Sensory layer

In the physical layer, devices, sensors, or actuators are used at the source to capture raw data about certain conditions, events, or actions—for example, the presence or absence of an object and the temperature or moisture level of the environment. The physical layer is deployed widely to capture infrastructure data in real time.

The Connectivity or Network Layer

The network layer allows for the transfer of the captured data via the established connection. At this level, the raw physical data is compiled and prepared for transfer, and analog events in the physical layer are converted into digital records and communicated. In order for this to happen, networks have to account for the logical direction and flow of the data.

The Data Processing Layer

After events or conditions collected in the physical layer are converted into digital data, this data must be processed. In the data processing layer, data is formatted in a way that allows it to be read and used at the higher application level—for instance, by compressing the total volume to make the data suitable for use or interpretation in the cloud or at the data center.

The Application Layer

Once the data has been collected, sent over the network, and further processed, it’s ready to be reviewed by city decision-makers and even regular citizens. In the application layer, people are able to interpret the data in a meaningful way that informs future action.

Which Cities Are Setting the Example for Smart City Development?

Seoul, South Korea

According to a 2022 report from Juniper Research, three Asian cities are among the top five global smart cities, with Shanghai taking first place, Beijing coming in fourth, and Seoul being named the global runner-up. So, how is Seoul leading in smart city infrastructure?

The World Bank noted that one of Seoul's major achievements was reversing a decades-long consumer shift toward cars over public transport. Thanks to the Seoul Smart Mobility Reform of 2003, subway and bus users grew to compose 70% of people in the city, far outnumbering the 30% who are personal vehicle users. Of note, the South Korean capital's Bus Management System uses real-time data to optimize bus routes and improve the overall flow of the city's mobility infrastructure.

New York, USA

New York City is among the metropolises with the greatest number of connected-device deployments in the world—and according to a McKinsey report, the city's IoT infrastructure has a huge impact on mobility, saving commuters an average of 15 minutes in travel time per day.

What's more, NYC is a leader in environmental IoT applications. Its Accelerated Conservation and Efficiency program cut out 900 metric tons of carbon emissions, while its state-of-the-art Automated Meter Reading program saved residents more than $73 million on water bills.

London, England

Over the past decade, London has garnered global recognition for its use of public data to improve the lives of its citizens. The public London DataStore analyzes data from the London Underground public transportation system, vehicle sensors, and other devices to create a reliable portrait of citizen mobility and improve overall efficiency.

While government agencies use this data to make recommendations and prioritize infrastructure upgrades according to residents' actual needs, commuters can harness the information to get personalized recommendations and travel updates.

London is a city with medieval bones, and efforts to carry it into the new age of green energy efficiency have been bolstered by IoT. In 2019, the city deployed smart LED lighting in its historic city center, using a central management system to improve resiliency, monitor energy levels in real time, and curb excess consumption.

Key Applications of IoT in Smart Cities

In terms of its raw potential to transform cities for the public good, IoT is in a class of its own. Although availability and effectiveness may vary, connected solutions can significantly improve quality of life for citizens living in cities the world over.

Looking past well-known use cases like traffic management and streetlight improvement, the most important IoT smart city applications include saving time, reducing the cost of living, and keeping the air cleaner. We'll take a look at some of these applications next.

Micromobility: How IoT Is Making Transportation Smarter, Cleaner, and Safer

As city populations rise, cars' dominance as the main mode of transportation is straining infrastructure and leading to major quality-of-life issues, such as:

  • Congestion: A 2019 study from INRIX showed that urban traffic congestion costs U.S. cities billions of dollars every year.
  • Pollution: The Environmental Protection Agency found that 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions originate from the transportation sector, making this sector the single largest contributor to air pollution in the country.
  • Safety: According to research from the World Health Organization, 1.3 million members of the global population die every year from road traffic crashes. More than half of these deaths occur in vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists).

While there's no single solution to these problems, micromobility vehicles—defined as Internet-connected, electric-motorized vehicles that weigh less than 500 pounds and are used for urban trips under 5 miles—will have a transformative impact on how city officials plan for the future of transportation.

Transportation is a pillar of daily life in any city, and micromobility vehicles such as e-bikes, e-scooters, and even e-boards are making substantial progress in displacing traditional combustion vehicles. In particular, the two areas of transportation that are experiencing a substantial evolution due to micromobility are ride-sharing and last-mile delivery.

Ride Sharing

Although ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft made it possible for city dwellers to ditch their cars, this model still lends itself to car dominance. In contrast, ride-sharing solutions based around connected scooters and bikes are playing a key role in reducing congestion by taking cars off the road.

Last-Mile Delivery

Last-mile delivery—which often relies on vans and trucks—is being similarly upended by connected light electric vehicles. Researchers from Westminster University who pitted cargo bikes against cargo vans in the City of London were surprised to find that the bikes beat the vans by completing deliveries 1.6 times faster while also reducing emissions and congestion.

Emission-free, easy-to-use, Internet-connected light vehicles provide citizens and businesses with more convenient modes of transportation while helping city officials improve equity, sustainability, safety, and city planning.

How Connected Cities Will Use Micromobility to Improve Transportation

What makes micromobility vehicles truly transformative is their connectivity via cellular networks and Wi-Fi. This enables operators and cities to track user, vehicle, and trip data at the vehicle level, as well as aggregate the data in a central location and make smarter decisions about managing transportation.

By implementing connectivity into each vehicle, micromobility operators and delivery providers can better align with city authorities' needs and form mutually beneficial civic partnerships. Here are just a few of the benefits they’re already seeing:

  • Improved rider safety: IoT-enabled vehicles allow for necessary safety features like remote locking, speed control, and accident detection.
  • Extended vehicle lifecycles: IoT sensors embedded in electric vehicles can monitor key condition metrics such as excess vibration, voltage, decreased speed, and internal component temperatures to determine preventive maintenance needs.
  • Mobility Data Specification compliance: The Mobility Data Specification standardizes communication and data sharing between cities and micromobility operators. By adopting MDS, cities and operators can unlock useful data to better manage public spaces.
  • Reliable location tracking: Because cities and operators drive revenue based on trip length, lost location signals translate to lost money. To ameliorate this concern, modern IoT platforms use Location Fusion, which combines GPS, Wi-Fi, and cellular signals to provide more accurate location information.
  • More efficient deliveries: As e-commerce demand increases, the number of last-mile delivery vehicles on city streets rises. By using connected light electric vehicles instead of trucks and vans, last-mile delivery providers can more easily navigate crowded streets, improve route efficiency, and reduce emissions.

Quality of life in any urban area depends on the efficiency, safety, and sustainability of transportation. By reducing emissions and providing transportation data that cities can use to make smarter infrastructure decisions, IoT-connected vehicles can be a decisive force in the quest for connected cities.

Emissions Monitoring: Cleaner Air Through Continuous Monitoring and Mitigation

According to research published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, three quarters of global CO2 emissions emanate from cities. Other gases and particulates—such as methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons—can also be found in high concentrations in urban areas.

This has a direct consequence for the health of people who live in cities. Research shows that more than half of European cities have unacceptable air quality, while over 40% of Americans in urban and suburban areas live with levels of ozone and particle pollution that are damaging to their health.

This hasn’t escaped the notice of political leaders around the world. At the recent COP26 summit, over 90 countries signed a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% below current levels by 2030. Similar goals exist for CO2, with a phase-out on coal at the forefront.

While many of these efforts will be self-policed, some countries and cities are moving to enact legal penalties for non-compliance—yet according to research published in Nature, U.S. cities under-report their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 18.3%.

How Smart Cities Can Track and Mitigate Emissions

So, what can cities do to better track—and work to mitigate—their emissions? How can cities across the world develop a single systematic approach to collecting and analyzing air quality data?

That’s where IoT comes into play.

Connected cities can deploy sensors across their entire geographic area, rather than using the current methods of collecting air quality data from just one or two locations or periodically sending out sensor-equipped cars or planes to measure air quality at a specific point in time.

By deploying sensors across an entire city, city officials can continuously monitor air quality, locate problem areas, identify trends, and prioritize cleanup efforts. Today, the IoT devices required to accomplish this are less expensive and easier to install than ever, meaning more cities can use them to maximize the fidelity of data collected, more accurately report greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the efficiency of emissions-reduction efforts.

IoT-enabled emissions monitoring solutions will be a vital element in the pursuit of cleaner air and better health outcomes for citizens, and the British city of Leeds is leading the way in this regard by combining air quality sensing with geofencing on hybrid electric vehicles. When a connected vehicle enters an area of Leeds where poor air quality is detected, it automatically switches from combustion to electric power to eliminate extra emissions.

How IoT Is Revolutionizing HVAC and Creating Smart Buildings

In connected cities, what’s happening inside buildings is just as important as what’s happening outside—and just like with air quality and transportation, IoT makes HVAC cleaner. This is crucial for urban buildings, as HVAC needs are set to rise due to the following elements:

  • Prioritization of energy efficiency: Did you know that commercial buildings consume 35% of electricity.) in the U.S.? To meet energy efficiency standards, they'll need to cut down on HVAC energy use at a time when cold snaps are getting colder and heat waves are getting hotter.
  • Climate change: As global temperatures rise, so do AC usage rates in both commercial and residential buildings. Consequently, cities that once had low HVAC utilization rates are breaking AC usage records.

HVAC and Smart Buildings

Managing energy consumption is a requirement for any building to be considered “smart.” As IoT-enhanced HVAC becomes standard in modern smart buildings, cities will enjoy benefits such as wider personalization options, improved energy consumption management, and prolonged building system life spans.

Consider all the times the AC at your workplace has been blasting even though the office is cold. Not only do embedded sensors in AC units give building owners and system manufacturers insight into energy use patterns, they can also automatically adjust temperatures to curb excessive usage.

Thanks to their ability to detect abnormal temperatures, excessive vibration, lower pressure, air pollutants, and other variables, sensors can also raise the alarm when a breakdown is imminent, thereby enabling preventative maintenance. Making repairs before unplanned downtime occurs will prolong the lifespan of the system, making the overall installation more sustainable.

Beyond realizing energy efficiency goals and issuing maintenance alerts, IoT-enabled HVAC systems can improve quality of life for building occupants. Owners can use these systems to detect poor air quality, improve ventilation, and remotely tailor heating and cooling in accordance with their preferences.

How Smart Grids Can Meet Cities' Changing Energy Needs

The evolving energy needs of the 21st century will require better, cleaner, and more reliable solutions, with the interconnected devices that make up IoT-enabled smart grids playing a crucial role in the energy transformation to come.

Traditional energy grids are some of the most complex frameworks on the planet. When they fail, millions of people can be affected—and as we saw with the 2021 Texas grid failure, lives can even be lost.

Smart Grids vs. Traditional Grids

So, what do smart grids do better than traditional grids, and how can they impact cities in particular?

The principal breakthrough offered by smart grid technology is the bi-directional flow of information and power between energy consumers and providers like utility companies. Thanks to advances in data collection at the edge, smart grids are helping energy infrastructure transform from an open loop to a closed loop.

Breakthroughs in the way energy is generated, analyzed, and stored signify a practical end to many of the limitations imposed by the traditional electric grid, such as devastating outages, wasted energy, energy theft, and more. And while this is true in urban, suburban, and rural areas alike, cities facing rising population levels arguably stand to gain the most from implementing smart grids. Let's look at a few examples of why.

Electric Vehicle Charging

While cities can and should encourage the use of public transit to clear up congested throughways, EVs are the next best way to meet carbon emissions-reduction goals. A smart grid system can help EV drivers quickly identify their optimal charging station based on variables such as proximity and how busy the station is.

Battery Reserves to Redistribute Energy

Batteries play a crucial role in storing excess energy until it can be redistributed to the consumers on busy electric grids—an important feature in crowded cities. However, overcharging can quickly degrade battery performance. To address this issue, IoT-powered smart sensors can monitor state-of-charge levels to prevent under- or overcharging.

Smart Meters

Smart meters allow for a bi-directional flow of information between suppliers and consumers that begins at the source, which empowers suppliers to access and interpret real-time data to direct energy flows based on usage—sometimes automatically. Smart meters can also inform consumers' energy consumption decisions, such as setting a dishwasher to activate at a less busy time to save money and improve grid resiliency.

What Will Make Smart Cities Successful?

As cities around the world begin to consider what it will take to become “smart,” they can model their efforts on the following common benchmarks for success shared by world leaders in smart city development.

Reliable Connectivity

Just as weak resiliency wreaks havoc on traditional power grids, poor Internet connectivity will hamper the grids of tomorrow. With this in mind, cities should do all they can to create reliable forms of connectivity that are insulated from cyberattacks and other threats.

Security and Data Privacy

Establishing best-in-class security and data privacy is the forefront of smart city development now and in the future. As dependency on a connected IoT infrastructure grows, cities will have to redouble their protective efforts to prevent interference from bad actors. Similarly, they must commit to using data for the benefit of their citizens, protecting that data, and ensuring citizens’ privacy rights are upheld at all times.

Citizen-Centric Applications

Historically, technology has played an important role in improving humanity's health and safety—and smart city development should be no different. As such, the well-being of people who live and work in cities must be prioritized first and foremost.

Public Safety

As global urbanization rates grow, factors such as crime prevention and road safety will continue to be central metrics upon which smart city applications' success or failure are judged.

Equitable Access

By expanding access to clean energy and shared mobility (whether public or private), technology can be used to address inequality in cities across the world.

Common Infrastructure

The greater the technological consensus, the greater the number of applications and solutions that can be developed and utilized by city decision-makers and citizens alike. In contrast, isolated solutions—such as those offered by only one particular application—stymie this type of collaboration and development.

IoT Is the Backbone of Smart Cities

Although cities have been getting “smart” in a piecemeal fashion for the last decade or so, they must continue to innovate, create cohesive IoT strategies across different systems, and find ways to make data-driven decisions about critical infrastructure.

It could be said that IoT is the foundation of connected cities—and as more infrastructure comes online, city leaders will have unprecedented access to data that can help them attain key goals around safety, sustainability, and access.

The barriers to entry for IoT have never been lower thanks to advancements in connectivity, hardware, and software, and IoT Platform-as-a-Service solutions like Particle have made it easier and more cost-effective than ever to add connectivity to nearly any device or system. So, what are you waiting for?

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