Smart city – smart meaning what?

Houston, we have... a solution

The idea of a “smart city”, according to some researchers, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and just as the world around us has changed over that time, the understanding of the concept has evolved many times over the past century.

In 1922, Croude Hinds installed the first electronically synchronised traffic lights in Houston, USA. The solution proved such a success that after just three years it was applied in all major cities in the United States. The success of this solution can be evidenced by its measurable benefits – in the city of New York, its introduction reduced the number of FTEs needed in the police traffic department from 6,000 to just 500, which translated into savings for the city of USD 12.5 million per year.

From the 1990s to the present day, considerable part of the society associated smart cities with the use of modern and advanced technological solutions. In part, this was a natural result of the development and popularisation of the Internet, however, this perception of the city was due in part to the lobbying of large technology companies which hoped to profit from the roll out of their systems across urban areas on a large scale. Even now, some of the “smart” solutions introduced into our cities are being criticised as not having a positive impact on city residents, an example of which is recognition of recipients of advertising media for the purpose of better profiling of displayed ads, or the often overlooked adverse impact of parcel lockers on the immediate vicinity.


Different aspects of smart

In modern times, the smart city concept has been redefined, taking the city resident and his or her needs and sustainability as a primary consideration. The technology should only represent the means of achieving the clearly defined and individual needs of a given city. It should be stressed that it is impossible to strike a perfect balance – each city should be treated individually, as the challenges facing seemingly similar cities can be quite different.

Therefore, when planning the development of a smart city, it is crucial to carry out an analysis to identify its specific problem areas and the direction for its further development. Some problems are universal to most cities (public transport management, traffic congestion, air pollution), while some may be of local nature (risk of flooding, drought, excessive suburbanisation or lack of energy and water supply infrastructure). Only after the needs analysis should solutions be sought and actions taken. It is also important to remember that solutions to be implemented should not exclude a part of the society that does not use (and does not want or know how to use) modern solutions.  


... I’ll be there in 15 minutes

The concept of a “15-minute city” was popularised in 2016 by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, although it is rooted in the concept of a “neighbourhood unit” developed by an American Clarence Perry as early as the 1920s.

The main idea is to ensure that the city’s residents have access to six basic functions: living, working, trade, healthcare, education and entertainment, within a 15-minute walk, a bicycle or public transport ride. The creation of self-sustaining mixed-use neighbourhoods (residential/retail/office functions), in addition to the measurable benefits for residents, can also prove beneficial for the city itself.

Currently, the key problems identified in cities, including in Poland, are air pollution and excessive number of cars (traffic congestion). The idea of a compact city is part of the fight against these problems. It offers residents everything they need to live without using private cars, which has a positive impact on reducing smog and traffic congestion and improving health, and it additionally promotes a reasonable approach to urban planning, which in the long term can bring benefits in the form of reducing suburbanisation or additional costs resulting from the formation of neighbourhood monocultures.

What should a friendly city be like? A city where residents can easily get to quality green spaces without using a car and where they can do their shopping at local stores or pick up groceries bought online on their way home. A city where the trip to work or the clinic does not take more than an hour and does not cause air pollution or additional stress and where the trip to school may be quick and safe. All these factors have a positive impact on the satisfaction of the residents and increase the attractiveness of the city as a friendly place to live for people in all age categories and with different needs of living.

Naturally, these changes are costly and often require large infrastructure investments, but the costs are often give rise not only to social, but also financial benefits. Paradoxically, the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes that it entailed (changes in work patterns, shopping habits, popularisation of personal mobility devices) and financial problems of local governments may be a good opportunity to consider changing the way of thinking about cities.


You can have your cake and eat it

So why not talk about a city that reconciles the use of smart solutions with the concept of meeting the needs of residents? In particular since measurable results can be often achieved not by using advanced technologies, but rather existing and proven solutions.

A good example of such a solution is the ongoing replacement of 43,000 lighting fixtures in Warsaw from old sodium ones with modern light sources in LED technology. In addition to increasing safety and improving visibility on roads and at intersections, the replacement cuts annual energy consumption from 49.6 GWh to 21.8 GWh. In the times of high energy prices, this results in savings of some PLN 30 million per year, making the entire operation pay for itself in just a little after a year, generating significant savings in the subsequent years, both in electricity and maintenance costs.

Another example involving those two aspects are investments related to the development of the bicycle path network, or improving the situation of public transport. Such investments often do not require significant financial expenditure, but can contribute both to the satisfaction of residents (safety of bicycle traffic which has grown every year, quick and efficient trips to work) and savings on the part of the transport authority (based on experience from Polish cities, the introduction of bus lanes allows to maintain the frequency of connections, while reducing the number of vehicles used).

These are, of course, only example actions, but they show that “smart” initiatives can affect many aspects, generating savings to cities and improving the quality of life for residents. Such multi-dimensional measures could be an opportunity for medium-sized cities suffering from a negative migration balance. The more a resident perceives his or her immediate surroundings as a friendly place to live and one in which essential services and recreational facilities are provided within several minutes, the less inclined he or she will be to migrate outside the city.


1. “Automatic Traffic Signals Save New York City $12,500,000,” Nation’s Traffic 2 (May 1928)
2. Municipal Roads Maintenance Authority in Warsaw (accessed on 24 November 2022)