The “smart city” concept has become a fixture of forward-looking media coverage and is gaining traction with many cities around the globe initiating smart city projects. Technology is the foundation of smart cities. In practice this means information and communication tech such as Internet of Things (IoT) devices are deployed to collect data that is in turn utilized to optimize and improve assets and services and manage resources including urban transportation, utilities, crime detection and community services.

Smart cities currently take many forms from pilot programs such as Dallas’ Smart City Living Lab program which focused on a specific neighborhood in downtown Dallas with an array of IoT devices including environmental quality sensors to the extremely ambitious like Toyota’s Woven City “city of the future” prototype at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan as a fully connected ecosystem based on hydrogen fuel cell power and featuring zero-emission autonomous vehicles, in-home robotics and fully sustainable buildings.

Adelphi, a Berlin-based think tank and public policy consultancy on climate, environment and development, sees smart cities as key to a sustainable future. The group points to projections on urban population growth from around 4 billion right now to 6.5 billion in 2050 and describes this growth along with urban infrastructure growth coupled with the ongoing digitalization in the modern world as an opportunity to increase urban efficiency and meet the dual challenges of growing urban infrastructure and sustainably using resources. To achieve this, information and communications technologies can network physical and digital infrastructures.

Many aspects of the smart city concept are forward-looking and will require large-scale adoption for many of the most grandiose claims to become fully realized. But, many of the technological backbone pieces are already in place. There are expected to be 25 billion IoT devices of all types deployed worldwide by next year and that number is increasing exponentially. It’s not typically covered in the hype around 5G mobile, but one of the main differences between 5G and the wireless tech it is superseding is along with much faster speeds 5G allows for orders of magnitude more IoT devices to connect to the network. All of this means the technology infrastructure for smart cities is here – it’s just a matter of putting this technology into practice

Here are a few ways smart cities can make an environmental impact:

  • Waste management – Intelligent garbage solutions can streamline trash collection saving both money and carbon dioxide emissions by only deploying collection trucks when needed. Solar powered smart trash cans can send messages when full to schedule pick-ups. There are pilot programs using smart garage bins in cities around the world and the long-term potential for smart waste management could be reducing the frequency of collections by as much as 80%.
  • Traffic control – IoT sensors allow city managers monitor traffic flow and patterns, noise levels, air quality and energy usage. The data collected can be used to make changes and implement policies that improve traffic usage and reduce carbon emissions. Even more ambitious ideas could entail smart city programs using autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing to reduce the number of single-owner cars on the road.
  • Utilities and resources – Sensors will monitor energy and water usage to better identify areas of waste and opportunities to optimize usage across the city. One example already in place in many cities is smart LED urban lighting. Not only is LED technology longer lasting and more energy efficient than traditional streetlight options, the smart tech allows streetlights to monitor conditions and brighten or dim as needed to both ensure safety and still use as little energy as possible. Urban lighting could even be set to only turn on or brighten when it senses activity adding to the energy savings.

The full “city of the future” experience may not be here right now, but parts of that vision can be found in urban areas around the world. The underlying technology for smart cities is in place and improving every day. And while many visions of what smart cities will offer and can accomplish seem bold, the reality is the entire idea of a smart city is very much in its infancy. Who knows what the smart city future will bring? The prospect is certainly exciting.

EarthX will host a Cities conference on April 23, 2020. EarthxCities will focus on city, community and business leaders are facing an increasing set of challenges as they prepare for the impacts of climate change and an increasing number of natural disasters. The conference will provide evolving practices, cutting edge solutions and decision support needs.

Schedule speakers are Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, Nobel Peace Prize Recipient and Mayor of Mexico City, Sam Higuchi, Greenhouse Gases & Climate Risk Management at NASA, Clarence Anthony, CEO & Executive Director of the National League of Cities, Jan Hartke, Global Director for Clean Energy at Clinton Foundation and Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin.

EarthX – Change Happens Here.  EarthX is a Dallas based nonprofit whose mission is to connect a global community to create a sustainable world.  Learn more at

Written by: David Kirkpatrick