What makes a city “smart” in 2018?

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

What makes a city “smart” in 2018?

Current trends, technologies, and companies you need to know about in the smart city space

I recently attended the Smart Cities New York conference as a volunteer. SCNY operated at the intersection of technology, policy and urban living, bringing together mayors, startups, big industry and… me. As someone just beginning my journey in the sustainability field, I was blown away by the work being done to make cities more modern, connected, and resource-efficient.

At the conference, I noticed several key areas that leaders and technologists are focusing on to make cities smarter in 2018: technological equity, open data, and sustainability. I’ve been researching companies and public initiatives working on these focus areas and thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned.

Smart cities are thinking about inclusiveness and equity

Photo by Evan Krause on Unsplash

Making technology inclusive and accessible for all people in cities was a major topic of discussion. Nearly every workshop, panel, and keynote discussed the impact and potential of technology to make cities more (or less) equitable for marginalized populations.

  • NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics: MODA is interested in how automated decision systems (basically, algorithms) used by public officials have ethical considerations on low-income or minority populations. For example, municipalities have used predictive policing software such as HunchLab, which attempts to inform law enforcement of where crimes are likely to occur. Neighborhoods with minority populations may be disproportionately targeted by such technologies, and public officials need to consider these impacts.
  • Dollaride: As transportation options in cities grow, how can we ensure that lower income neighborhoods do not get left behind? One company trying to bridge this divide is Dollaride, which provides low-cost transit vans in urban transit deserts, areas that lack accessible public transit options despite being in cities.

Smart cities are publicly sharing data

Data for days. As IoT devices and connectivity grows, so does the amount of data being collected by local governments. Public transit, utilities, and permits account for millions of public records published across hundreds of data streams. There’s a lot of creative work being done with this data:

  • Open Data Nation: Based out of Washington D.C., Open Data Nation applies machine learning to publicly available data. They’re able to assess risk for things like car crashes and food safety violations, better informing cities and third-party insurers.
  • City data portals: Lots of cities release data to the public via online portals. This data often includes subway/transit performance, environmental surveys and even detailed cartographical data. For example, check out NYC Open Data and Citi Bike System Data, which I’ll be using to write an article soon!

Smart cities are building for a sustainable future

It’s estimated that cities account for roughly 70% of global emissions. Cities need to lead a worldwide push to transform urban infrastructure and reduce emissions. The battle to make urban impacts on the environment more sustainable is fought on four main frontiers: transportation, energy generation, building efficiency, and waste management.


Credit: carmera.com

Both public and private entities in cities know that urban transportation is undergoing a revolution. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) and electric vehicles (EVs) are on our doorstep, while ride sharing has revolutionized how city dwellers think about transportation.

Smart cities are preparing for a new transportation future by building support for efficient, next-generation transit into their infrastructure. Cities are working with companies to support vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems that can wirelessly communicate with AVs to make operations safer and more efficient.

  • Carmera: Carmera provides AVs with real-time, HD maps of city streets, which augment on-board cameras and sensors. AVs can use these maps to see what their on-board cameras cannot and navigate cities better.
  • Numina: Similarly, Numina provides a simple infrastructure solution for urban planners to gather data on how various modes of traffic traverse intersections. Data-driven urban planning can make cities easier to navigate by foot or bicycle.

Energy generation:

The DOE estimates that 62% of the energy consumed to generate electricity is lost somewhere in the electrical grid. Many components of existing electrical grids, such as generators and transmission wires, contribute to these losses. Smart cities are creating better grids that incorporate distributed energy resources, such as solar grids and wind farms, and eliminate wasted energy.

  • Opus One: As renewable energy sources become economically feasible, solar and wind farms will need to integrate with the existing electrical grid. GridOS, by Opus One, provides a grid management platform to plan and monitor how renewable energy assets can integrate with a utility’s infrastructure.
  • 3DFS: 3DFS is working on software defined electricity (SDE). The company is using software to (nearly) instantaneously modulate electric power to the instantaneous load of an electrical system, such as a data center. The idea is that optimizing power delivery to an electric load can greatly reduce waste in the form of heat and vibration in circuits.

Building efficiency:

Credit: Fentrend

New York City estimates that 58% of its emissions are caused by residential and commercial buildings. Heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems consume lots of energy. Aging buildings often have inefficient HVAC systems and poor insulation, which compounds the energy demands of these buildings. Making buildings more resource-efficient, or replacing old buildings with more modern construction, is crucial.

  • Sapient Industries: Sapient is working on an autonomous building management system that identifies how and where energy is being used in a building. Then, via smart outlets, they want to automatically turn off appliances or devices that aren’t being used.
  • Fentrend: Old windows and doors lead to poorly insulated buildings, causing heating and cooling demands. Fentrend is creating a marketplace between buildings and suppliers to make it easier and cheaper for buildings to purchase modern windows and doors.

Waste management:

Linear vs circular economy, Credit: Northeast Recycling Council

Currently, most cities are linear economies: raw materials are used to make products, products are consumed, and waste is discarded. Smart cities are thinking about and implementing circular economies, where a sizable portion of materials are reused or recycled back into the economy.

  • City of Amsterdam: Amsterdam is a world leader in transitioning to a circular economy. The city is already recycling nine waste streams, including batteries and cooking oils (in addition to the paper, plastic and glass streams us Americans are familiar with). Amsterdam has also devised a long-term roadmap (link to PDF) to become “more circular” by focusing on recycling construction and high-value materials.
  • Industrial/Organic: Industrial/Organic is a startup trying to recover water, energy, and nutrients from organic waste. They’re currently operating a facility in Newark, NJ which uses both biological and mechanical process to turn food waste into cleaning products.

There’s lots of exciting work going on to make cities more inclusive, data-driven, and sustainable. Most of the companies mentioned here are from the NYC area (where I’m currently based), so please feel free to share other relevant companies or initiatives in the comments or via Twitter.

If you found this overview interesting or helpful, please ? the article below and follow me (Pranav Badami) on Medium to read similar work in the future!

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What makes a city “smart” in 2018? was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.