Leveraging technology to tackle urban challenges and underpin environmental initiatives, smart cities are the key to boosting the efficiency and sustainability of the modern metropolis. It involves the application of technology, and data, to provide better outcomes and greater liveability for (smart) city inhabitants.

As the world’s population continues to grow, more and more people are gravitating towards cities. As of mid-2023, approximately 57% of the world’s 8 billion people lived in towns or cities. This figure is set to reach 60% by 2030.

There are 34 cities worldwide with more than 10 million inhabitants, which is set to grow to 43 by 2030. So many people living in close quarters requires better ways to manage environmental, social, and economic sustainability, especially in the face of global net-zero targets.

It should also be noted that although smart city is the most-used term, increasingly regional communities are looking to make use of the opportunities and benefits brought on by these applications of technology and data. So therefore do expect to see the term smart community also come into parlance.


What is a smart city?

A smart city is a data-driven urban area which takes advantage of sensors, smart infrastructure and other technologies to be more efficient, sustainable and liveable. The focus of smart cities extends from transport optimisation and energy efficiency to improved health outcomes and waste management.

Smart cities can also deliver more responsive and personalised public services, which can include sharing information with the citizens and businesses.

How does a smart city work?

A network of Internet of Things (IoT) devices forms the backbone of the modern smart city. Along with sensors, cameras and smart meters, this can include smart buildings and appliances for managing energy usage as well as smart vehicles for managing road usage.

A growing international focus on sustainability and tackling environmental issues sees energy management play a key role in smart cities. Smart grid technologies can improve operations and maintenance, as well as assist with demand planning. This includes reducing energy usage across residential, business and industrial users, perhaps taking advantage of IoT to support intelligent load balancing and shedding.

Making the most of smart city assets and utilities, like electricity and water, can underpin sustainability efforts by taking advantage of data such as consumption patterns and community feedback. This enhanced insight can help better align infrastructure and asset configuration with community needs, while boosting sustainability programs by improving efficiency and reducing waste.

At a street level, smart city energy efficient initiatives can include smart lighting which dims when an area is unoccupied.

At the building level, smart buildings also have a key role to play – not just in optimising their own energy usage but also through participating in citywide initiatives such as microgrids. Microgrids are small electricity networks capable of generating, storing and distributing locally-produced renewable energy such as solar power. Smart buildings with their own energy generation and storage capabilities have the potential to be self-sufficient during the day and then feed power back into the local grid in the evenings.

At a residential level, home batteries and Vehicle to Grid charging can also play a role in smart and renewable energy efforts.

Along with energy efficiency, smart cities can also be more resilient, with temperature and air quality sensors allowing them to better tackle issues such as air pollution and urban heat islands to better cope with climate change.

Smart city platforms can also assist with a wide range of asset management tasks. This includes waste management and sanitation, such as monitoring bin levels to optimise rubbish collection.

The data generated by smart city programs can also enhance public consultation and collaboration to improve services to citizens and businesses. Along with allowing people to engage with smart community initiatives, smart city apps can offer citizens a single view of their area with localised news, notifications, environmental reports and availability of resources such as recycling. This can become a central engagement point, including a trusted source of information during events such as real-time disaster management.

Smart cities can also assist with other liveability issues, such as smart video analysis to assist with tackling crime.

Transport and the smart city

Smart city transportation is also an important aspect of smart cities, with a particular focus on smart traffic management to optimise travel times, reduce congestion and reduce pollution.

Rather than just managing the movement of cars and trucks, smart city transportation takes a more holistic approach. This includes optimising and encouraging the use of other modes of transportation, including public transport and active transport modes, including walking and cycling. Microtransit initiatives can also plug the gaps in a city’s smart transport infrastructure.

Relying on traffic cameras and sensors allow smart cities to optimise the flow of traffic. For example, ramp signalling in order to manage traffic flowing onto freeways and arterial roads during peak times helps traffic flow more smoothly, along with variable speed limits and rapid response to traffic-blocking incidents.

Smart city transportation can also take advantage of connected vehicles which support two-way real-time interaction with the world around them – such as other connected vehicles, roadside infrastructure and traffic management systems – as part of a network known as a Cooperative Intelligent Transport System (C-ITS).

Vehicle to Cloud (V2C) connected vehicle systems take advantage of mobile broadband networks in order to connect to cloud-based services. Other connected vehicle systems involve cars talking directly to nearby devices via short-range wireless connections, such as the Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) and Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X) protocols, which are already appearing in some high-end vehicles.

These protocols can support Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) communications, which is mainly used for safety, such as sharing information regarding traffic, road and weather conditions. They can also support Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V), connecting directly to other nearby cars, along with Vehicle to Pedestrian (V2P) for connecting to a range of vulnerable road users.

Smart cities can also incorporate smart parking initiatives to help drivers locate the closest available parking spot to their destination. It can also send notifications to drivers when their parking time is about to expire and therefore ensure drivers get fairer access to parking by reducing overstays.

Volvo’s vision of smart city transport and infrastructure.

What are the benefits of smart cities?

One of the key benefits of smart cities is more effective, data-driven decision-making in every aspect of city management. This can deliver a range of efficiency improvements, economic benefits, and make the cities more liveable.

Part of this is the improved efficiency of public utilities, including public transport and road infrastructure, in order to reduce congestion and optimise services to better meet the needs of citizens and businesses.

Better managing resource consumption, particularly energy, also allows smart cities to reduce their environmental footprint.

When it comes to smart city transportation, the benefits include optimised travel times, reduced congestion and reduced pollution. This delivers economic and environmental benefits, along with improved quality of life for commuters.

As mentioned earlier, it also offers other currently underused transport modes to experience an uptake in use, such as shared micromobility, cycling, and walking. And on the subject of liveability, it makes places and spaces that people want to spend time in, rather than simply move through.

When considering the value of people’s time, road congestion cost the Australian economy $19 billion in 2016, according to Infrastructure Australia. Without continued infrastructure investment in our cities, the report suggests this will more than double to $39.8 billion by 2031.

Meanwhile, a large sedan consumes around 1.5 litres of petrol per hour while idling in traffic, while pumping another 1.8 kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere. Smart city transportation initiatives which keep traffic flow can curb this environmental impact.

What are the challenges of smart cities?

Firstly, there’s the shift in thinking to for cities to make the plan to move to be smart. What technologies? What outcomes are desired? Is the data in a manageable and malleable state? And how do you bring the public along on the smart city journey.

Then there’s the money. The need for significant capital investment is one key challenge for smart cities, accompanied by the risk of vendor lock-on and dependence on technology service companies.

From a technical perspective, there is also an integration challenge when bringing together smart technologies. Emerging standards and interoperability can also present long-term challenges in terms of future-proofing and ongoing support.

Storing and accessing vast amounts of data can also create privacy and security concerns, particularly when dealing with personal data. Initiatives such as video surveillance, in the name of improved public safety, can also risk becoming an invasion of privacy.

The interconnectedness of smart cities can also create cybersecurity threats and leave city infrastructure open to digital disruption or attack.

Examples of smart cities

As such a broad term, smart cities vary widely across the world. While some cities have taken a piecemeal approach, with standalone initiatives, others have made a more coordinated effort and focused on underlying infrastructure to support and integrate current and future initiatives.

In Switzerland, Zurich’s smart city projects began with a series of streetlights which adjusted their brightness according to traffic levels, delivering a 70% energy saving. Zurich expanded its smart streetlights across the city and introduced a range of sensor technologies for measuring traffic flow and collecting environmental data.

In South Korea, Seoul’s smart city projects include studying urban patterns such as traffic flow and air quality, measured by sensors and CCTV deployed across the city. It is also amongst the first cities to utilise 5G technology in smart mobility and transportation. SK Telecom has established a pilot zone for autonomous driving with the Seoul Metropolitan Government as part of a Cooperative Intelligent Transport System demonstration. It also installed a 5G advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) on taxis and buses, while providing traffic signal information on major intersections through a navigation app.

Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Columbus (USA) are good examples of smaller cities that are seriously looking to become smart cities.

In Australia, Transport for NSW has established Australia’s first testing facility of Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems – the Cooperative Intelligent Transport Initiative (CITI) Australia, located in the Illawarra region of NSW. Meanwhile, the Advanced Connected Vehicles Victoria (ACV2) platform warns drivers when a car is about to run a red light, or when a pedestrian steps onto the road.

What is the future of smart cities?

The potential for smart cities will be driven in part by the introduction of more sophisticated and power-efficient IoT devices, along with low-power, wide-area networks for connecting them. While some IoT devices take advantage of Wi-Fi or 4G/5G mobile, other are better suited to dedicated low-speed, long-range IoT networks based on wireless standards like LoRaWAN, NB-IoT and CAT-1.

These platforms make it easier to deploy and manage large scale IoT deployments which combine different devices and protocols. Stretching across the country, they will be put to work in areas such as smart cities, utilities, agriculture, infrastructure, access management and asset monitoring.

This lays the foundations for the Massive Internet of Things (M-IoT), consisting of billions of devices around the globe. It can help manage a wide range of assets, from giant combine harvesters down to tiny sensors monitoring soil quality.

With these kinds of digital foundations, smart cities of the future will rely less on point solutions addressing one specific need and more on coordinated efforts and tighter integration.

As cities invest in smart infrastructure, some will establish underlying smart networks and platforms designed to support multiple use cases. These will be open to multiple stakeholders, similar to other critical infrastructure like transport and energy, to allow them to create the next generation of smart city services.

Smart city careers

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in smart cuties, our interview series Meet Smart Mobility Experts could help guide you.

In this series we interview a number of researchers, practitioners, department of transport executives and more. Amongst other things we cover their academic background, research activity, career progression, and more.

Smart Cities resources

Here’s a selection of Australian strategy and project documents on the topic of smart cities.

Smart cities: Facts and figures

Working from Home

During the COVID pandemic in Australia:

  • the weighted average of car and public transport monetary costs declined from $2,105 to $461, or by 78%
  • the weighted average of car and public transport time costs declined from $5,841 to $2,686, or by 54%
  • taken together, total generalised costs declined from $7,946 to $3,147 or by 60%.

Connected vehicles

  • The eight C-ITS use cases implemented in the Ipswich Connected Vehicle Pilot could have prevented up to 101 fatalities and 4,198 serious injuries from crashes. This equates to an average of 20 fatalities and 840 serious injuries prevented each year in South-East Queensland.
  • Advanced Red Light Warning (ARLW) and Turning Warning Vulnerable Road user (TWVR) improved participants’ driving behaviour by alerting participants as they approached traffic signals.
  • Advanced Red Light Warning warnings could reduce the likelihood of running red traffic signals and thus reduce a potential intersection crash by 22%
  • A comprehensive analysis of Victorian Road Safety data, covering a 15-year period with approximately 190,000 recorded crashes indicated that the following eight major connected safety use cases have the capability to address approximately 80% of crashes on Victorian roads. Specifically, 78% of fatal crashes, 82% of serious injury crashes, and 84% of other crashes causing injury.


  • It has been estimated that even a medium level of drone uptake can boost the Australia’s productivity to a significant extent in the next few decades and that successful uptake will create 5,500 new jobs every year and boost real gross domestic product (GDP) by A$14.5 billion with a cost saving of A$9.3 billion across all sectors between 2020 and 2040.

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iMOVE smart cities content

In regards to transport there’s quite a lot of Smart City crossover with the topic of Smart Mobility. For that, iMOVE has a lot more content and project activity: