Smart Cities

Smart cities utilize smart, internet-connected devices (like the Internet of Things) that communicate with one another to connect disparate utility, infrastructure, and public services to generate real-time data that can help cities manage their programs and services more effectively and gauge their impact immediately. [1]

How It’s Developing

Smart city initiatives utilize three components – information and communication technologies (ICTs) that generate and aggregate data; analytical tools that convert the data into usable information; and organizational structures that encourage collaboration, innovation, and the application of that information to solve public problems – to create a cycle of collecting, aggregating, and analyzing real-time data to improve the lives of citizens. [2]

Recognizing the work of civic leaders, data scientists, technologists, and companies building infrastructure to continuously improve the collection, aggregation, and use of data, in 2015 the Obama Administration announced a Smart Cities Initiative. The initiative provided $160 million in grant funds through several federal agencies to cities and projects focused on Internet of Things applications in urban areas and collaborations between cities, civic tech groups, and international partners. [3] In 2016, the administration announced an expansion of the initiative, providing $80 million in new federal investments and expanding the number of participating cities to seventy with a focus on interventions to address climate, public safety, and transforming city services. [4]

In addition to infusing federal dollars into smart city development, the Obama Administration’s initiative encouraged stronger collaboration between cities and private sector civic innovators. As part of the the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2015 Smart City Challenge, Google parent company Alphabet announced that its Sidewalk Labs would work closely with the seven finalist cities (Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco) to develop a data platform, Flow, that collects traffic data to provide real-time insights for city leaders and make kiosks to support citizen engagement in underserved neighborhoods. [5] Even after Columbus was announced as the winner of the $40 million challenge, Sidewalk Labs committed itself to work with advocacy group Transportation For America (T4A) to support 16 cities’ transportation goals in the wake of self-driving cars and ride-sharing apps. [6] While these collaborations do not require cities to purchase specific products, they do help private sector innovators integrate themselves into smart city planning and test specific products and solutions.

Intersection, a subsidiary of Google’s Sidewalk Labs, has been among the leaders in transforming urban spaces with its Link kiosk product, which provides internet connectivity, informational content, touchscreen tablets, charging stations, and integration with emergency and city services. The service has been deployed in New York City (LinkNYC), London (InLinkUK), and Philadelphia (LinkPHL) with further plans to expand into Chicago, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, San Francisco, and Seattle. [7] While the services currently provide information to users, many view the kiosks as one component of Sidewalk Labs’ strategy to bring connectivity and data collection to cities, allowing cities to monitor, track, and communicate information to citizens and city departments. [8]

In one of the most ambitious public-private partnerships, Sidewalk Labs and the Canadian government announced a partnership to develop the 750-acre Quayside area along Toronto’s waterfront into a high-tech living laboratory to address urban issues. [9] A similiar project will be developed by LStar Ventures in partnership with General Electric; Union Point, a planned smart city twelve miles south of Boston, will integrate driverless shuttle services, heated sidewalks, and a super-resilient energy grid into a community of thousands of housing units and millions of square feet of high-tech commercial space. [10]

Chicago’s Array of Things (AoT) project installs sensor nodes to collect real-time data on everything from air quality to the number of pedestrians on the street; collected data can be used by citizens and the city to make more informed decisions and address critical issues. [11]

Many smart city initiatives focus on transportation. Miami-Dade County is pursuing a preparatory strategy, investing in vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) connection by installing controllers on traffic signals that will allow them to connect with cars, public transit, and other vehicles in the future. Then, traffic signals could coordinate cars approaching from different directions, warn about collisions, and communicate to let vehicles know how fast they should be driving in order to avoid hitting a red light. [12] While car manufacturers begin to introduce V2I features in new vehicles, the county’s efforts remain flexible to accommodate the many futures smart cities and the Internet of Things could provide.

Los Angeles is investing in smarter cities through lighting, retrofitting older streetlights with energy-efficient internet-connected lamps that communicate back to the Bureau of Street Lighting to let them know if the lamp is operating, broken, or needs to be replaced; in the future, those same lamps’ connectivity might allow them to respond to what it going on in the city, blinking if emergency vehicles are in route or brightening for heavy pedestrian traffic. [13]

Baltimore is advancing an $15 million project to place 4,000 smart trash receptacles across the city – the trash cans are solared powered and Wi-Fi-enabled, which allows them to transmit information about how full they are so that city services can offer collections as needed. [14]

Kansas City’s streetcar project will provide traditional transportation through downtown but will also form a network of sensors, screens, and wireless internet service that could allow future streetlights to brighten and fade as pedestrians walk, digital kiosks that provide local information, and push notifications to smart phone users. [15] Data collected through the system will also be made available to entrepreneurs through a Living Lab program that seeks to accelerate the commercialization of the Internet of Things, turning the city’s data into new businesses. [16]

Why It Matters

As public spaces – in cities or on campuses – that experience patron use patterns, are adjacent to transportation infrastructure (parking lots, public transportation routes, etc.), and are embedded in neighborhoods, libraries could be outfitted with sensors to help city or campus administrators better manage facilities and improve users’ experiences.

Smart city development requires the establishment of policies – like open data and e-governance – and the development of administrative capacities – like a department of innovation or a chief data officer – to take advantage of new technologies and encourage the cycle of collection, aggregation, and analysis. [17] As institutions that create data, libraries may need to evaluate policies and administrative capacities that will feed into smart city initiatives.

Smart city development could align with libraries’ goals for equity, providing cities with data to be more responsive to neighborhood needs across the economic spectrum, improving public transportation and infrastructure, creating safer public spaces designed for people instead of cars, and distributing internet across sidewalks and public squares. [18] The allure and promise of smart city technologies as a solution for inequities should not relieve cities or communities of their obligations to address functional silos, challenges of cross-sector collaboration, political divisions, and systemic issues of racism or poverty. [19]

Projects like Chicago’s Array of Things and grant-funded initiatives like those available through the Obama Administration’s Smart Cities Initiative leverage collaborations from cities, for-profit businesses, research labs, and universities. Academic and research libraries may be increasingly called upon to support the needs of partners in these collaborations, and libraries of all types should prepare for collaboration and partnerships around smart city solutions.

The data collection that fuels smart city initiatives raises many ethical concerns, including privacy. While many initiatives pledge anonymized and aggregated data, there could be risks for breaches of personal information, through, for instance, the collection of personal smartphone data from free wireless access points, especially as sectors and systems interconnect. [20] Additionally, the same innovations that yield benefits for communities could also be used to police citizens; sensors that notify citizens of available parking spaces could also be used to issue traffic violations or sensors in roads or sidewalks meant to notify authorities when citizens have fallen or are injured could also be used to police people experiencing homelessness. [21]

Truly effective smart city initiatives will align citizens’ interests and aspirations with the available technology investments that can achieve those outcomes. [22] As spaces for community dialogue and meeting, libraries could play an important role in facilitating the discussion between community aspirations and administrative investments.

Notes and Resources

[1] "Trends in Smart City Development," National League of Cities, published 2016, available from

[2] "Trends in Smart City Development," National League of Cities, published 2016, available from

[3] "FACT SHEET: Administration Announces New ‘Smart Cities’ Initiative to Help Communities Tackle Local Challenges and Improve City Services," The White House, news release, September 14, 2015, available from

[4] "FACT SHEET: Announcing Over $80 million in New Federal Investment and a Doubling of Participating Communities in the White House Smart Cities Initiative," The White House, news release, September 26, 2016, available from

[5] "Google’s Sidewalk Labs and U.S. DOT Team Up on Traffic Data," Rachel Kaufman, Next City, March 17, 2016, available from

[6] “Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs aims to transform 16 cities into tech-friendly laboratories,” Andrew J. Hawkins, The Verge, October 18, 2016, available from

[7] “Free gigabit Wi-Fi hot spots launch in London,” Sean O’Kane, The Verge, June 27, 2017, available from


“Intersection raises $150 million for the global expansion of its free Wi-Fi,” Jonathan Shieber, TechCrunch, November 7, 2017, available from

[8] “Intersection raises $150 million for the global expansion of its free Wi-Fi,” Jonathan Shieber, TechCrunch, November 7, 2017, available from

[9] "Alphabet Announces Plan to Turn Toronto Neighborhood into Living Laboratory," Benjamin Schneider, CityLab, October 17, 2017, available from

[10] "Building a Connected City From the Ground Up," Lisa Prevost, New York Times, April 3, 2018, available from

[11] "Chicago Launches Array of Things," Government Technology, August 30, 2016, available from

[12] “Inside One of the Most Aggressive Intelligent Transportation-IoT Efforts in the U.S.,” Ben Miller, Government Technology, October 10, 2016, available from

[13] "8 Cities That Show You What the Future Will Look Like," Adam Rogers, Wired, October 2015, available from

[14] "Baltimore Rolls Out Smart Trash Cans," Skip Descant, Government Technology, January 29, 2018, available from

[15] "Will Kansas City’s Streetcar Be a Connector or a Divider?" Sandy Smith, Next City, May 22, 2015, available from

[16] "How Will Kansas City Run Its Plugged-In, Sensor-Filled Future?" Henry Grabar, Next City, October 26, 2015, available from

[17] "Trends in Smart City Development," National League of Cities, published 2016, available from

[18] “Smart cities must be people-centered, equitable cities,” Brooks Rainwater and Nicole Dupuis, TechCrunch, February 24, 2017, available from

[19] "Trends in Smart City Development," National League of Cities, published 2016, available from

[20] "Building Smart City Security," Steve Durbin, TechCrunch, September 12, 2015, available from

[21] "How Will Kansas City Run Its Plugged-In, Sensor-Filled Future?" Henry Grabar, Next City, October 26, 2015, available from

[22] "Trends in Smart City Development," National League of Cities, published 2016, available from