What is a smart city? It’s a question that, considering how often the term is used, actually isn’t answered all that often. Recent articles have suggested, rather dystopically, that perhaps smart cities are merely a technological land grab.1 Could a smart city simply be the ‘bells and whistles’ addition of tech gadgetry onto an existing, confused urban landscape?

Perhaps the only way a city could be smart is when it is created from a blank slate, without legacy structures to contend with, such as BIll Gates’ US$80 million investment in a city set to rise from the desert in Arizona.2 Its aim is to have 80,000 homes, as well as industrial, office, retail space, 3,400 acres of green space and 470 acres for public schools.

Or, could smart cities be add-ons to existing old-school ‘dumb’ cities? Take the example of Quayside, which is being built with the help of Google’s Sidewalk Labs that won a tender to develop 12 acres of Toronto’s waterfront into a sustainable neighborhood.3 The area’s intelligence will include a renewable energy grid, food disposal systems, eco-friendly building and a digital layer of wifi connecting appliances, buildings and other assets into a centralised management platform.

Is there no hope of making our existing cities anything but superficially smart? Of course there is. But a smart city cannot fit neatly under one definition which seamlessly incorporates technology, infrastructure and people.

For the places that are well established and living with legacies of the past, the ‘smart’ will come from being continuously transformational. Far from an endless upgrade of needless technology, it will instead be in the end goal that the intelligence is found – that of creating models of sustainability that scale and improve the quality of lives of inhabitants all the while consuming fewer and fewer resources.

Neither intrinsically utopian nor dystopian, digital technologies such as those found in the below infographic by Visual Capitalist, can help achieve the goals of a future city, whether built from scratch or modified hundreds of years on, in which individual and collective needs are met.  We just need to be ‘smart’ about the implementation.