Films such as Blade Runner predicted 21st-century cities full of flying cars and towering neon advertisements, but the real changes from before the millennium relate to the use of data, analytics and other technologies less obviously visible in our day-to-day lives.

No fiction of the last century predicted anything like our modern smartphones, which would have been considered so unrealistically advanced as to be implausible.

In our world of data, analytics and emerging artificial intelligence, “smart cities” represent a vision of urban development integrating advanced technologies, data-driven planning and sustainable infrastructure to create more efficient, better connected and more liveable urban landscapes. The idea is to redefine the way cities are designed, managed and experienced.

As a property developer, we have the responsibility of considering how this will work and how we can contribute to a greener, more efficient tomorrow.

Advanced technologies

Smart cities involve use of the Internet of Things (IoT) – that is, devices with sensors, processing ability, software and the capability to exchange data with other devices and systems. These devices can collect and share real-time data from sensors, cameras and other connected devices to help monitor and manage city infrastructure – for example, to keep track of traffic flow or the use of energy.

The vast amounts of data gathered by smart cities can provide insights into trends and patterns regarding traffic management, waste management, public safety and so on, making decision-making more informed. Certain city decisions can be delegated to artificial intelligence – for example, traffic or power management. In a set-up such as this, electricity supply and demand can be managed more efficiently, reducing waste.

Sustainable infrastructure

Smart cities prioritise eco-friendly construction with energy-efficient buildings, green roofs full of plant life, and integrated renewable energy from sources such as wind and solar panels. These buildings often use IoT to assist with this, adjusting lighting and heating based on occupancy and need.

This data-driven approach can have benefits for urban mobility, as artificial intelligence can devise optimised public transport schedules and traffic lights that adjust their timings based on how busy the roads are at different times. AI can also set up rubbish collection routes more efficiently with the use of sensors placed in bins that signal when they are full. Smart waste bins can also compact rubbish in situ so it takes up less room, reducing the number of collections required.

Benefits of smart cities

The main benefit of smart cities is in the improved efficiency of many public services, reducing costs and waste, and in the enhanced safety provided by the intelligent surveillance and emergency response systems. These will also be helpful in the event of natural disasters.

The aim is for the better services, cleaner environments and enhanced public spaces of the smart cities to provide a superior quality of life for residents. The intention is that a city such as this will attract innovative businesses and create a tech-friendly environment, which in turn will spur economic development.

The challenges of the concept include opposition to the collection of the vast amounts of data involved, and the associated issues regarding privacy and cybersecurity, and the fact that there may not be equal access in the cities to the smart technologies, which could lead to potential disparities between residents. The cost of implementing all the technologies could also be high, with major upfront investment likely to be necessary.

A long run to the palace in the sun

Smart cities can represent a step change in how our cities and communities are developed, with the technologies and data applications of the 21st century allowing us to create more sustainable, liveable and efficient environments for future generations. Challenges exist, but the potential benefits for humanity and our planet are great indeed. As a developer, we have the privilege of playing our part in shaping the future of urban spaces in a manner that goes beyond traditional property schemes. And unlike Blade Runner, this is for real.


Dean Williamson

Dean Williamson MRICS