Smart City Primer

A brief introduction to a big idea.

We hear about “smart cities” often, but not everyone knows what that term means. Does it mean a city has plenty of free Wi-Fi? Cutting-edge technology? Complete communities? The answer to all these questions is yes…and no.

There is no one way to be a smart city. Simply put, a smart city is one that improves citizens’ lives using information and communication technologies. What these technologies are and how they’re implemented varies widely from city to city, and every smart city addresses urban challenges in a different way. Smart cities are emerging all over the world, using innovative solutions to address a range of urban issues including:

  • traffic and transportation systems;
  • energy grids and stormwater systems;
  • waste management;
  • law enforcement;
  • health care;
  • public parks, recreation, and connectivity; and
  • information systems and schools

Their methods and goals vary, but smart cities typically have the following characteristics in common:

  • A wide range of digital and electronic technologies in the city, in communities, and in government systems.
  • A goal to improve quality of life through the use of these technologies, by making the city more sustainable, prosperous, inclusive, and resilient.
  • A means of engaging citizens, which helps to foster innovation and enhance the overall intelligence of the city.

Some smart cities are master planned (such as Songdo, South Korea and Belmont, Arizona), but most are established cities that are adopting smart solutions as alternatives to existing systems. This has sparked debate about the most effective ways to implement smart changes in a municipality, and how city leaders and the private sector can collaborate on projects.

Seoul, South Korea

This Asian city is home to more than 10 million people, and it’s a world leader in “smart” solutions to urban problems. In 2011 it announced its Smart Seoul 2015 project, which would improve the city’s competitiveness and sustainability, including:

  • widespread Wi-Fi and smart device education programs;
  • a Smart Work Centre project that allows government employees to work at offices close to their homes;
  • smart energy metering;
  • smart bus shelters;
  • and a smart public safety system

Barcelona, Spain

To address traffic issues, Barcelona uses smart parking technology and streetlights, as well as sensors that monitor air quality and noise. After a 2008 drought forced the city to import water, Barcelona developed a smart sensor system for irrigation, which tracks rain levels and modifies sprinklers output accordingly.

Oslo, Norway

Sustainability is key in Oslo, where the city is remaking its transportation grid in an effort to cut emissions by 50% by 2020. It has already installed an electric vehicle charging network and smart street lighting, and it’s launched a broad sensing network to monitor traffic levels. Oslo plans to be 95% climate-neutral by 2030.

Chicago, U.S.A.

America’s third-largest city is engaged in one of the most ambitious smart stormwater management projects in the country, installing rain gardens and green infrastructure that filter and absorb runoff. It’s also in the process of replacing more than 200,000 streetlights with smart LED lights, and it’s creating the Array of Things, a massive research platform that collects data about Chicago’s environment and infrastructure to help solve future problems.

Toronto, Canada

Waterfront Toronto, working collaboratively with Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, is planning a mixed-use, purpose-built community called Quayside, which will sit on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront. Quayside is intended to be a smart neighbourhood, which uses digital technology to support sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic health. Find out more about the Sidewalk Toronto project.   



In 2017 Infrastructure Canada launched the Smart Cities Challenge, which invited municipalities of all sizes to come up with innovative technological ideas. Only winning cities will receive funding to complete their projects, but the competition has inspired many of Canada’s urban centres to take a fresh look at the lives of their citizens and their existing systems and infrastructure.

Calgary entered the competition, and while we weren’t named as a finalist, our proposal detailed a human-centred design approach that would improve connectivity, help Calgarians access services, and spur economic diversification. As well as giving rise to innovative ideas, the proposal process helped to foster collaboration between government, communities, academia, and industry, and it provided invaluable insight into Calgary’s priorities and challenges. These are all positive developments for the future of Calgary, because it’s not technology that makes a smart city – it’s the ability to solve problems together.

July 13th, 2018
Updated: July 27th, 2018

An introduction to smart cities, which are finding innovative ways to improve the lives of citizens.