Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Here's what it takes to become a smart city

There’s no instruction manual to start a smart city, but these are the ideas some cities have come up with.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
6 min read

This is part of our Road Trip 2017 summer series "The Smartest Stuff," about how innovators are thinking up new ways to make you — and the world around you — smarter. 

The city of the future is going to be cool, with smart tech that helps you live your life.

But no one knows exactly what the fantastical city we've been dreaming about looks like, how it'll work and what it'll do. 

Take car companies, for example. When they dreamed up their ideal smart city, they imagined sensor networks in roads that told commuters the perfect time to head to work, allowed cars to self-drive to their destinations and even automatically park in a garage. Some of those innovations are already here.


Antonio Puliafito's phone directs us to a parking spot, tracked by the prototype smart city project, SmartMe.

Nic Henry/CNET

Apps for Apple's iPhone and mobile devices powered by Google's Android software can alert drivers when they should leave for an appointment and suggest the best route to get you where you're going. Meanwhile, tech companies like Uber, Alphabet and Apple and car makers including Ford are playing with self-driving technology that could be in production in the next five years.

Since those issues are largely being tackled by companies, city governments are focusing their efforts on automating tasks that make a city tick. 

The sensors that may eventually help you find parking could pull double duty by alerting the city to potholes. And they'll also sense the air's quality and talk to our asthma inhalers and fire alarms. Rescue teams will be able to respond to emergencies faster because they're automatically alerted to alarms, rather than merely relying on people to call 9-1-1.

In short, sensors, apps and other smart tech is going to make the job of managing and protecting cities easier. And that should make living in tomorrow's cities a lot more fun.

Internet required

Enlarge Image

Fast and reliable internet connections are a must to make smart cities a reality.

James Martin/CNET

The first step in building a smart city is to get widely accessible super-fast internet, something cities from Cincinnati to San Francisco are still working on. After that, it's all about tackling data.

The way it works is this: Once the city starts collecting info, it can start curating and publishing that data in easy, downloadable formats.

Want to know how many crimes have been committed in Chicago from 2001 until now? It's here. (Spoiler: it's nearly 6.4 million.) Curious about food inspections? Search away. You can even find out how many people called the Windy City to remove graffiti.

"Governments have a huge amount of data," says Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and a former chief of staff for President Barack Obama. "A smart city is how you use that data to be more effective as a government agency for the will of the people."

Some cities have run into a slight snag after publishing all this information: It turns out very few people read it.

"Not everyone's a data geek," said Harry Black, Cincinnati's city manager.

But that hasn't stopped Chicago or Cincinnati, which have been experimenting with how to make the data more interesting and useful.

One way was by attaching GPS location trackers to snow plows and putting them on live updating maps so residents know when they're coming. That's been a big hit in both cities. "You've got to think outside the box," Black said.

San Francisco, for example, was one of the first cities to publish real-time route information about buses and trains on the web. Software developers, excited by Apple's new iPhone in 2007, began building apps to take advantage of these bus trackers.

A decade later, more than 1,200 cities around the world share their public transit schedules with app developers, helping to power new companies like Moovit in Israel and Montreal-based Transit. Meanwhile, Google and its Waze driving app subsidiary are working with cities to share information about drivers and traffic patterns.

The city of London is hoping to take public data sharing a step further. David Gann, a professor and vice president of innovation at Imperial College London and chairman of the smart city project there, has been bringing together both public and private information, like performance of electric delivery vans, into a collection of more than 700 datasets.

That kind of information can also help the government and businesses better predict when things like traffic will be heavy, or when internet connections might likely be constrained, and even where it might be best to install a new electric-vehicle charging station. One project he's interested in is using data to find new approaches to how trucks deliver online shopping packages, while avoiding traffic congestion and air pollution.

"This is all about making life easier and taking the friction out of city living," Gann said. That's particularly important when a city is growing as rapidly as London, which is expanding by about 100,000 people a year.

Smart emergencies

Louisville, Kentucky, may be best known for its bourbon and BBQ. But it's also been experimenting with tech to speed up city services.

One early success was in detecting trouble in vacant and abandoned buildings. These properties tend to be more fire-prone because no one's around to notice a blaze. That also means firefighters don't usually arrive on scene for about 15 minutes -- the typical response time to a fire in the city is less than four minutes.

Watch this: City turns to hackers to quell house fires

But adding alarms to a vacant property that automatically calls the authorities is expensive. So, Louisville began experimenting with a sensor that has a built-in microphone and a cellular connection that can pick up the noise from a nearby fire detector instead. The unit costs about $150 to make, plus a $10-a-month charge for the data plan.

It worked.

Another project records GPS location whenever someone uses a rescue inhaler or daily controller medication. More than 1,000 local citizens signed up. Public health officials can then work with other city department to change traffic patterns, for example.

The city also shares that info with inhaler therapists, who are able to work with patients to cut use by as much as 89 percent.

"It couldn't happen without citizens coming together to make it happen," says Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville.

Smart utilities

In Chicago, the third largest city in the US, an innovation accelerator called UI Labs has begun investigating tech to monitor storm drainage systems as part of an effort to avoid flooding from the Chicago River.

The new initiative just finished its nine-month pilot program and the team is currently assessing data.


Chicago is monitoring storm drainage with sensors.

Nic Henry/CNET

Another project underway will help Chicago create digital maps of underground utility systems, including telecommunications, water and power lines. Until now, the city's had to rely on outdated and incomplete maps, which slows down construction permitting and emergency services.

"Currently, it takes up to 30 days just to begin construction in the city of Chicago, at a minimum," said Katie Olson, who oversees operations for the mapping program at UI Labs.

So Olson's team worked with an app developer to use phone cameras to take video during underground construction. That video is now being turned into a digital subterranean map of the city.

Watch this: Chicago is digging deep to turn itself into a smart city

Smarts on a budget

Robot Boy

Click here to see more Road Trip adventures.


One of the biggest challenges in building out a smart city is finding the funds to make it happen. That's where San Diego is ahead of the game.

California's second-most populous city used a $30 million partnership with GE to help upgrade aging street lamps with energy-saving light emitting diodes, or LEDs. They'll last up to a decade, instead of the one to three years the city gets from lightbulbs today.

That GE funding, plus about $3 million per year saved from more efficient lamps, is being used to help fund projects like wireless sensor networks.

San Diego found other ways to up its tech game while saving money too. The city launched a shuttle service last year called Free Ride Everywhere Downtown -- or FRED -- costs about a quarter of a downtown shuttle system, while moving the same number of people. And of course, you can hail the FRED taxis with an app.

"At the end of the day, this has to be practical," said David Graham, deputy chief operating officer for the city of San Diego. 

Road Trip 2016: Reporters' dispatches from the field on tech's role in the global refugee crisis. 

Road Trip 2015: CNET hunts for innovation outside the Silicon Valley bubble.