The top smart cities – 7 U.S. cities to watch

Nicole George
Nicole George
Jun 28, 2018

While technology races ahead, many cities still operate in a clunky way that brings to mind images of a frustrated Leslie Knope. However, other U.S. cities forge the way and embrace the innovative thinking it takes to become smart cities.

As you consider where you want to live, especially with worldwide urbanization accelerating, consider what generally makes a city “smart,” some of the top smart cities in the U.S., and what smart city components are being implemented in these smart cities.

Article Menu:

  1. What is a smart city?
  2. The top 7 smart cities
    1. Dallas
    2. Austin
    3. Columbus
    4. Chattanooga
    5. San Diego
    6. Kansas City
    7. Rochester
  3. The must-have for any smart city

Where did “smart city” come from?

The idea of a “smart city” was not the first term that city planners and developers used when they evaluated urban technology and planning. One of the first terms used was “virtual city,” which were electronic, web-based communities representing a specific, physical urban community. They operated like an urban database of public information.

Since the late 1990s when the term virtual city was first used, terms have shifted to the now commonly heard “smart city.” “Virtual city” first referred to the system of gathering public information and city web activities into one place online. Over time, “smart city” evolved from the term “virtual city” as leaders emphasized a city’s population activity instead of technology itself. “Smart city” grew more popular as emphasis moved to how people could use advanced technology to interact with one another within city systems.

How to define a smart city today

The modern smart city is usually a city that has partnered with private and public enterprises and businesses to leverage technology to:

  • Enhance energy usage efficiency
  • Implement better waste management
  • Improve public transportation
  • Use data to make informed building and planning decisions
  • Make public communication like public Wi-Fi available
  • Improve public safety

“A smart city works to solve city problems, conserve resources and create an inclusive and prosperous city. The technology itself isn’t enough without measurable insights that come from data,” said Mike Rawlings, the Mayor of Dallas in January 2018.

Smart cities are by no means a new phenomenon. Cities around the globe have always addressed challenges like water shortages or citizen safety with the latest technologies. As technology evolves at what feels like an exponential pace, cities have the opportunity to better plan for increasing urban populations and address rising urban growth concerns.

7 Modern U.S. smart cities and their smart city components

For each city that made our top U.S. Smart Cities List, we highlighted the strongest way we think they lead in technology implementation. However, each city has embraced a variety of projects to improve city operations and daily life, and each city is smart in areas beyond what we’ve highlighted.

The smart city with amazing partner programs – Dallas, TX

The City of Dallas works with a variety of private partners to implement leading technology systems. The lead partner is AT&T, and other partners include businesses like IBM, GE, Phillips, Microsoft, AECOM, and Cisco. These partnerships help Dallas stream forward to create Phase 1 of its Living Lab Project.

For instance, AT&T worked with Dallas to install 22 new smart lighting solutions to connect LED and intelligent controls that use 35% less energy than the previous lighting. The Dallas Innovation Alliance predicts that this will save tens of millions of dollars over 10 years.

Future smart projects with partners like Toyota and a local Dallas startup called ParkHub include smart irrigation systems, an advanced traffic management system, free Wi-Fi and cellular LTE access, smart parking, environmental sensors measuring air quality and crowd detection, waste management and more.

Additionally, the City of Dallas is combining smart city status and education. It has implemented a partnership program with Dallas Independent School district, private industry leaders and the Dallas County Community College District Foundation to create career pathways into tech schools and universities. Business partners in the program provide students with job interview, mentorship and internship opportunities.

Some of the career pathways in the smart city and education partnership include pre-electrical engineering, internet development technologies, logistics and pre-mechanical engineering. The program received over 4,800 student applications from December 5, 2017-January 31, 2018, and helps build a strong pool of future tech industry leaders.

The smart city making faster commutes – Austin, TX

The City of Austin won Energy Awards for the Transforming Household Waste project and the Austin SHINES program as well as mobility awards for the Automated Video Analytics for Improved Mobility in Austin project and the Electric Drive program at the 2018 Smart Cities Connect conference. As a leader in smart transportation, Austin leverages technology to help the average resident spend less time on the road and more time living life by implementing a Smart Mobility Roadmap that includes:

At South by Southwest in 2018, Austin Transportation Director Rob Spillar pointed out that autonomous vehicles aren’t just integrated as a cool, new gadget; the city implements and tests them with the purpose of solving city problems.

Using technology and data-driven strategies in the Smart Mobility Roadmap helps Austin reach goals of moving people safely and efficiently around the city. Connecting real-time data across traffic lights, congestion, traffic flow patterns, and more can improve how traffic lights respond to driver volume, improve the efficiency of emergency vehicle response time, and help autonomous cars automatically find new routes for a faster commute.

The smart city making safer transportation – Columbus, OH

As the fastest growing city in Ohio and the second-largest city in the Midwest, Columbus won a grant for $40 million in 2016 from the U.S. Department of Transportation to become the official first smart city in the U.S.

The city plans to implement an information system that uses data from traffic light sensors to analyze which intersections are most prone to accidents, which streets are frequently blocked and to enhance a connected vehicles initiative. The connected vehicle system will alert public transportation drivers and regular drivers about fellow driver behavior, pedestrians, and inanimate objects around the vehicle. The new alert system will help prevent accidents. The smart, connected vehicle operating system will also include first responder vehicles so they can more quickly reach residents and improve safety in the city.

On May 17, 2018, Columbus unveiled the Smart Columbus Operating System for the first time. Overall, the connected vehicle system will make Columbus safer for drivers, public commuters and walkers. Its first use case will be used with the Central Ohio Transit Authority. Columbus is also creating safer transportation for residents and visitors by proposing smart city projects such as:

  • Smart transportation hubs – Main pick-up and drop-off points around the city for multiple modes of transportation that include free Wi-Fi and trip planning kiosks.
  • Prenatal Trip Assistance – A transportation project that helps expecting mothers on Medicaid get to non-emergency medical appointments.
  • Electric, autonomous vehicles – A system of six electric, autonomous transit shuttles around the neighborhood of the main shopping area that also connects riders from the Columbus public bus system to employment centers.

The small, smart city prepping to grow – Chattanooga, TN

With an estimated population of over 167,000 people, Chattanooga is a good bit smaller than areas like Dallas (over 1 million people) or Columbus (around 787,000 people). However, Chattanooga was the fastest growing city in Tennessee at the 2010 census and is anticipated to grow over 25% by the year 2040.

To get ready for continued urban growth, Chattanooga has created an Enterprise Center that is working on projects such as a downtown Innovation District and an inclusion program for area residents to get access to internet and hardware.

Like other cities, Chattanooga has plans to integrate autonomous cars, sensor-based infrastructures, electric cars, and connected vehicle systems. And like larger cities, Chattanooga leverages strategic partnerships by working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Tennessee Department of Transportation. A unique initiative the smaller city has implemented is an open data access program, with projects including

  • Open data portals for future application development
  • Opt-in applications for public transportation systems
  • A collaborative project between the city government, the public library, and Open Chattanooga Brigade called Open Chattanooga to empower citizens with ways to use data
  • Public sharing of data through social media platforms

The city emphasizes planning for the future, empowering citizens and leaders to make data-driven decisions and building a strong infrastructure with a fiber-optic network. Chattanooga continues to pave the way for other smaller urban areas to embrace technology and innovation.

The smart city embracing sustainability and the environment – San Diego, CA

From making the San Diego Padres’ PETCO Park more energy efficient to reducing citywide greenhouse gas emissions, the City of San Diego employs smart technology across projects to improve sustainability:

  • PETCO Park – Different technologies monitor the facility’s electric, gas and water use to reduce operational expenses by around 25% and make park operations more sustainable.
  • The Smart City Open Urban Platform (SCOUP) – San Diego developed this network in 2017 and won the California Energy Commission’s Energy Innovation Challenge. The network tracks, benchmarks, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions at municipal facilities around the city.
  • Port of San Diego – A smart building project at the Port combined the use of Internet of Things technologies from different private partners to integrate sensors that can detect energy consumption levels. The sensors then communicate the data to building operators so they can reduce energy usage.
  • San Diego International Airport – In 2014, San Diego International Airport became the first LEED Platinum-certified commercial airport terminal. Features of the airport include energy-efficient lighting, HVAC, and escalator upgrades as well as 20 electric vehicle charging stations.

Other smart city sustainability projects include a net-zero living community, a street light LED retrofit initiative, and a Solar-to-EV transportation project launched in 2012. By using varied approaches and methods, the City of San Diego continues to address pollution and energy usage challenges to make the highly populated area a more sustainable place to work and live.

The smart city leveraging data for better living – Kansas City, MO

Kansas City strives to be the ‘smartest city on planet earth,’ and has already created a smart downtown district for over 20,000 residents in the downtown area. One aspect of the smart downtown initiative includes smart sensors. By collecting and leveraging data on foot traffic downtown, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer ushered in a new deli to make more dining available in an area with a high volume of walkers with nowhere to eat.

The smart downtown initiative also includes a streetcar line, free public Wi-Fi in partnership with Sprint, and as of June 2018, more than 2,000 smart LED streetlights that dim and brighten according to foot traffic levels. The city also added 25 digital kiosks that keep residents up to speed on streetcar routes, local events and daily restaurant specials. As a large delivery and logistics hub, Kansas City plans to use an information system to link freight drivers and freight management systems.

Linking public and private data with the information system will allow for parking improvements. It will also help optimize transportation operations. Another way the city has used data was an analysis of smart, mixed-use land patterns anchored by transportation infrastructure. By combining technology and land use analysis, Kansas City has used data to drive a street resurfacing project. The city will update 48 streets to promote biking and walking as well as create safer traffic patterns.

The smart city making emergencies a priority – Rochester, NY

The City of Rochester won an award at the 2018 Smart Cities Connect conference for its Emergency internet Bypass Lane Protocol. Rochester decided that instead of using an emergency responder network such as FirstNet, which requires building a separate wireless network for emergency services, the city built a communication system that uses existing internet connections. The protocol improves communication by making rescue workers’ data and communications a priority.

It also allows responder communications to use a special internet traffic control system. The traffic control system allows emergency data to go through communications networks without affecting other router protocols. Now, responder communications won’t slow down or be slowed down by other communications. On top of making emergency communications a priority, the City of Rochester plans to become a smart city with projects such as:

  • Improved transportation to improve job access
  • Implementing a sensor-based infrastructure
  • Use urban data and analytics to measure performance and optimize service delivery
  • Employ technology to create an advanced greenhouse to make fresh produce more accessible
  • Integrate energy-efficient information and communication technologies to reduce consumption by 25% by 2025

Excellent networks – the smart city asset

The common thread we’ve noticed here is the need for an excellent communications infrastructure. For these smart cities to reach their goals, their information and communications technology infrastructure must be up to par. Many cities on the list have made efforts to make Wi-Fi more available or improve city-wide networks.

Established networks make integrating additional systems and technology in the future more viable. For example, to build a strong foundation for transportation data sharing and for future growth in transportation and other areas like medical services and private business, the City of Columbus deployed an innovative, open source, web-based information system.

Fiber-optic internet networks – the smart city advantage

One strategic way to build a smart city communications system is investing in fiber-optic networks. For example, the City of Rochester already has an extensive municipal fiber-optic network as its backbone, and the city understands that a fiber-optic network is a significant advantage for deploying additional smart city elements.

Why fiber-optic?

Fiber internet is up to 25x faster than DSL or cable alternatives. It is particularly useful for organizations and systems using clouds, which multiple cities on the list plan to use or already use for their data systems. Fiber-optic systems are also more reliable than copper internet connectivity. They use glass to transport information as opposed to copper, which can experience interference from weather and electricity.

Lastly, fiber-optic internet offers much higher bandwidth availability, which allows for more network connections and information routes. In cities like Kansas City, the first Google Fiber city, a large fiber network is an efficient and smart way to prepare for the future.

Becoming a smart, fiber city

When Kansas City was approached in 2014 about adding additional smart technology as a streetcar line was installed, the city considered the perks of having additional fiber lines that would open up future smart city opportunities. Adding fiber lines along the existing streetcar route gave Kansas City the physical ability to seamlessly integrate new services into the data communication system that was already established. Having efficient communication networks at its fingertips has allowed for smart city systems like smart LED street lights and public Wi-Fi.

What smart city services are available near you?

Depending on where you live, you may already get to benefit from smart city systems and projects. From cities using technology to make electricity services greener and more affordable to cities building fiber-optic networks, areas across the U.S. are rising to the smart city challenge.