A City That Is Smart? Says Who?

By Ezatul Faizura

With the increased popularity of smart cities phenomenon, there have been many discussions on what exactly constitutes a smart city. However, there has yet to be an authoritative definition that practitioners and citizens can use as a yardstick to determine whether a city is smart. Without this certainty, there is the challenge of potential inconsistencies in the development of smart cities. At best, there would be misaligned expectations from all stakeholders, and at worst, these inconsistencies could be taken advantage of by unscrupulous parties. 

How then do we build a “smart city”, if we do not have an explicit definition of a “smart city”? Should we even try? After all, with or without formally coining the term smart city, many cities are already taking advantage of technology to “smarten” their processes and services anyway. 

“...the starting point of a smart city should be the needs of its people. Technology should merely be an enabler to meet those needs.”

Thus, “smart cities” in whatever form that the stakeholders may choose to define them, have provided benefits in one way or another (e.g. more efficient public transportation resulting in more public commuters and less cars in the city). So can these cities then be considered “smart”? 

Technology should be seen as an enabler, not a disruptor or a replacement 

While working on my Executive Masters in Innovative Governance of Large Urban Systems  (IGLUS) from Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), I was privileged to have had the opportunity to witness and experience first-hand what other cities around the world are doing with regards to smart cities, including the cities of Cyberjaya, Malaysia; Seoul, Korea; Istanbul, Turkey; Detroit & New York, USA; and St. Petersburg & Moscow, Russia. 

Conversations with stakeholders, from Ministers, academicians, regulators, industry experts right up to the man on the street, all gave real insights on the challenges that cities are facing today.  

So, based on the learnings that I got out of these five cities, what exactly is a smart city? 

Early literature indicates that smart cities were initially very focused on futuristic utopian hi-tech cities. The vision of flying cars, automatic household gadgets, service robots and intelligent systems all come into mind. However, literature also shows that this technology-driven approach is not the most ideal. 

The Songdo project in South Korea is an example of how a technology-driven smart city can potentially fail. It started with the noblest of intentions: Songdo International Business District aimed to “banish the problems created by modern urban life” (McNeill, 2014). 

Today, often dubbed as a “Chernobyl-like ghost city”, this mega billion-dollar project has failed to attract investors and inhabitants (Pettit, 2018). It seemingly had all the ingredients needed to make up what was thought to be a smart city: sensors built into city infrastructures, neighbourhood connected via video connectivity, traffic autonomously managed, etc. But with all its technological advancement, Songdo was deemed a failure, and could not attract “normal” people, hence the sterile feel to the city.  

Following the lacklustre performance of Songdo and other similar technology-led smart cities, many cities have adopted a more city-led approach. This is where the city itself defined what is required in their respective cities, with technology as an enabler instead of a leader. An example of a city-led smart city is Seoul, South Korea, where there are many top-down initiatives and city-driven programs that capitalize on technology.  

Of late, many cities have begun to become smarter from a more bottom-up approach, with the needs of the citizens as the starting point. Smart services are co-created by the citizens and the market, most times independent from any city-driven initiatives. Citizen participation and public inclusivity are paramount in this type of smart city. 

These three phases of smart cities have been succinctly illustrated by Cohen (2015),  summarized as follows: 

Cognizant of the many examples of smart cities, many have attempted to define smart cities,  including academicians, regulators and practitioners. However, there is yet to be a single authoritative definition that could conclusively say that a city is smart.  

What can be deduced from my IGLUS experience is that there should be no generic theme when approaching smart cities. Each city has its own set of unique problems, and hence its own set of unique needs. Furthermore, each city is at its own stage of urban development, which in turn will determine its own set of priorities. These priorities would determine whether a city is at Cohen’s Smart City 1.0, Smart City 2.0 or Smart City 3.0.  

Hence, there should NOT be a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter approach to building smart cities. What works in Seoul would not necessarily work in Selangor, and the problems in Moscow need a different set of resolutions from the problems in Istanbul.  

Technology needs to be people-centric and the needs of the people should be foremost in the development of smart cities 

So then, who can say that a city is truly smart? 

From the sample cities observed, it was seen that there were a few common elements when their smart city key success factors were studied. These are: 

  • Connectivity 
Any smart city is dependent on the ability of the city to interact with its citizens. And this can only be done if the connectivity infrastructure is in place.  

  • Availability of services 
Ample smart city services must be made available to its citizens. Sufficient apps must be available for the citizens to run their daily tasks, and the services must be made available to them easily, through devices owned. 

  • Data sharing 
Any smart city needs to have sufficient data to efficiently and effectively understand the needs of its citizens. It is imperative that different players and stakeholders share all relevant data with the relevant members within the smart city ecosystem. This is to enable the incorporation of more meaningful city services.

  • Inclusivity 
The higher the level of public participation, the higher the chances are for the smart city to be sustainable and successful. When citizens feel more engaged, they feel more ownership towards the smart city initiatives. Similarly, the more the smart city includes existing players within the city, the less resistance there would be to any new initiatives introduced.

Additionally, from the case studies conducted, most cities seem to be somewhat in agreement that technology should NOT be the starting point to a smart city. Instead, the starting point of a smart city should be the needs of its people. Technology should merely be an enabler to meet those needs.  

Therefore based on all the above, I am adopting the following description of a smart city in my daily smart city approach with my stakeholders: 
A smart city is any city that intuitively adapts and responds to the needs of its citizens.

This definition breaks down the smart city into three characteristics: 
i. The city must be able to act intuitively, with minimum human intervention;
ii. The city must be able to on its own adapt and respond, and 
iii. The city must be able to address the specific needs of its citizens

Only if a city successfully achieves all three of the characteristics specified above should it then be considered a “smart” city. 

Therefore, a city is only smart, if the citizens say that it is smart. 

This is a contribution by Ezatul Faizura, Business Development Assistant General Manager at TM One 


Cohen, B. (2015, August 10). The 3 Generations Of Smart Cities. Retrieved from  


McNeill, D. (2014, April 07). New Songdo City: Atlantis of the Far East. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/new-songdo-city-atlantis-of-the-far-east-1712252.html 

Pettit, H. (2018, March 28). Smart city in South Korea turns into a 'Chernobyl-like ghost town'. Retrieved June  10, 2019, from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5553001/28-billion-project-dubbed-worlds Smart-City-turned-Chernobyl-like-ghost-town.html