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 Sidewalk Labs' plans for Toronto aims to encourage the use of outdoor space.
Sidewalk Labs' plans for Toronto aims to encourage the use of outdoor space.

ACCORDING to the United Nations, the global population will hit 9.5 billion people by 2050, with some 68 per cent of people living in urban areas. That means the majority of the earth’s population will be in cities.

To cope with this, cities are going to have to get smarter. There’s no universal definition or standard for “smart cities”, but in general it means better management of transportation and traffic, power supply and waste disposal. Ultimately, the aim of smart cities is to provide a better lifestyle for its inhabitants. Some cities are already leading the way.


The Amsterdam Smart City initiative, which began in 2009, says its goal is to reduce traffic, save energy and improve public safety. The city upgraded its street lamps so that municipal councils would be able to dim the lights based on pedestrian usage. Many homes have also been provided with smart energy meters, which incentivise residents to reduce their energy consumption.

The initiative doesn’t just involve the government but local businesses and corporations too. For example, one of its programmes, “Climate Street” was trialled on Utrechtsestraat, a major shopping avenue in the city. It included energy-efficient lighting, waste reduction and recyclable tram stops, which collectively helped to cut down energy use on Utrechtsestraat by about 10 per cent.


As with most smart cities, Barcelona employs smart parking and traffic systems to manage congestion, a bane of most big cities. Its new, sophisticated bus network, for example, is based on an analysis of traffic flows. Its use of smart traffic lights maximises the number of green lights on bus routes, and in emergencies, the route of an emergency vehicle can be entered into the traffic light system so that all the traffic lights can be set to green to allow the ambulance to get to its destination faster. For everyday travellers, there’s a Transit app which uses live traffic cams to help them find the least jammed up routes.

The city is also very energy efficient. Since 2000, the Barcelona Solar Thermal Ordinance requires all large buildings to produce their own hot water and since 2006, it became a requirement to use solar water heaters. The city has also made its waste management system simpler by deploying pneumatic tubes underneath the city’s trash cans, which eliminate the need for large garbage trucks.

Barcelona is also one of the few cities where free city-wide Wi-Fi is available. It started in 2011 when the city council launched Barcelona WiFi and installed antennas throughout the city. Today Barcelona WiFi’s hotspots are located throughout the city in libraries, museums, markets, metro stations, public parks and even at the beach. There are also antennas mounted on street signs and lamp posts and buses, which means that you can get Internet access for free almost anywhere in the city.


As the capital, London is the biggest city in the country and it’s still growing with the population estimated to pass the 10 million mark by 2030. Various smart initiatives are being tested to cope with a city with escalating power demands.

The city plans to allow the River Thames to become a sustainable energy source by using it to heat homes, thereby reducing the power bills for residents. The city also intends to begin installing solar panels in homes and the power grid will be managed digitally in order to maximise efficiency. All these initiatives will also help to bring carbon emissions down.

As for connectivity, the city’s smart city roadmap includes proposals for full fibre connectivity to all new homes and a plan to roll out 4G using public buildings and existing physical infrastructure, and supporting bids for government funding to test 5G connectivity


Toronto is one lucky city as it has Alphabet Inc (the parent company of Google) using it as a testbed for smart cities. One of its subsidiaries, Sidewalk Labs, and a Canadian government agency called Waterside Toronto, are collaborating on a programme to create a smart waterfront called Quayside.

 The neighbourhoods, including Quayside, will be constructed from mass timber.
The neighbourhoods, including Quayside, will be constructed from mass timber.

Their plan is to develop a waterfront space starting from scratch and turn it into a tech-focused community. This space earmarked for this is 800 acres, and the programme will tackle issues like urban sprawl, climate change, efficiency and affordability.

Needless to say, the city would be heavily connected with Wi-Fi publicly available. Sensors throughout the neighbourhood would collect data about energy consumption, building use, and traffic patterns, which a software platform would analyse and manage.


Singapore is known as a leading global financial centre but because it’s a small island nation, it’s also a smart city that aims to also be a smart country. To combat traffic jams, the city has implemented a transportation system called One Monitoring, a web portal where drivers can access traffic information collected from surveillance cameras installed on roads and taxis. There’s also a Parking Guidance System which provides drivers with real-time information on parking availability.

There are also initiatives for efficient lighting, waste disposal, and even sensors deployed in elderly care facilities that will alert families if their relatives stop moving for too long. “Tele-Health” is another innovative system which allows patients to see their doctor through their computers.


Much of Tokyo’s efforts are focused on preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which is supposed to be the greenest Games ever. The city is also gearing up to be the greenest Olympic city ever.

The city is working on implementing technology that will help make the city more efficient and environmentally-friendly. That includes using zero-emission vehicles. For more widespread use of electric vehicles, the city will be installing chargers at apartments and condominiums.

For security during the Olympics, Tokyo will use face recognition technology to verify the identities of athletes, officials, staff, and media members. The system was developed by NEC Corporation and will store the facial images of every person with official accreditation to verify their identities at checkpoints.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at [email protected].

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