Smart City Infrastructure
The smart city movement could revolutionize urban life. These connected, tech-centric towns could make everyday life more convenient, safer, and more eco-friendly, a far cry from most cities today. But what will it take to make them a reality?
Expense and inconvenience can be major barriers to any sustainability project. High costs are the most common obstacle to sustainable living, and if a city has to change all of its infrastructure, the costs may keep them from becoming smarter. Understanding what needs to change and how can help organize more thoughtful smart city projects.
Smaller Upgrade Opportunities
Thankfully, not all smart city upgrades require massive infrastructure changes. In some areas, making a city smarter can be a matter of adding a few new devices to existing infrastructure.
Take traffic systems, for example. Cities can install internet of things (IoT) sensors and cameras on stoplights to provide real-time data about traffic patterns and road conditions. Setting these systems up wouldn’t require any changes to the traffic lights or roadways themselves, and they’d help make travel more efficient, reducing emissions.
Installing smart thermostats in buildings or IoT sensors to monitor waterways is similarly straightforward. Cities would only have to add new systems, not tear up old ones to replace them. Making these changes first could help cities become smarter and, therefore, greener, with minimal time and money.
What Needs to Change
While small changes can make a big difference, cities need to aim higher. Some more substantial smart city upgrades will require infrastructure changes. Here’s a look at a few of the biggest things that need to change.
- Power Grids
If a city wants to become truly smart, it’ll have to address its energy grid. Much of the U.S.’s current energy infrastructure dates back to World War II, and outages have become increasingly common as electricity consumption has risen. Smart cities, with all the new electronics they bring, will need a more reliable, efficient system.
A smart city needs a smart grid. That means breaking the system up into smaller sections to contain blackouts and make distribution easier. It will also entail making the grid able to send electricity in both directions so renewable energy systems can avoid waste and ensure consistent power.
These changes will likely be expensive. Cities will have to take a slow, gradual approach starting with the most crucial areas to help spread the costs out.
- Communication Networks
Similarly, smart cities will eventually need to upgrade their communications infrastructure. The IoT is at the heart of the smart city, and all these interconnected devices need reliable, efficient networks to share their data.
These upgrades will likely come in at least two forms: 5G infrastructure and fiber-optic internet. These technologies provide the speed, reliability and bandwidth that smart cities need to host all their devices, but they operate on different systems than older systems. Consequently, cities will have to slowly add new cables and cell towers to expand these networks.
Thankfully, these upgrades naturally come to urban areas first. Large cities already have more 5G and fiber internet access than other places, so some areas have a headstart on this shift.
- Low-Carbon Infrastructure
Smart cities will also need new infrastructure to support low-carbon operations in buildings and on roads. As they construct new buildings, they may have to move away from traditional grid or gas-based heating and cooling to be more energy-efficient.
If smart cities want to transition public transportation to emissions-free options, they’ll need to install more charging stations. That includes adjusting grids to ensure these stations have sufficient energy and remain eco-friendly.
This infrastructure may come with higher upfront costs and disruption, but they’ll also pay for themselves eventually. Geothermal heating and cooling, for example, can take as little as three years to offer a return on investment through energy savings.
Smart City Benefits to Offset Costs
While some smart city upgrades are small, some of the most important are unfortunately disruptive and expensive. However, their benefits outweigh these costs. If more companies, citizens, and local governments recognize these advantages, it’ll help them move past their fears and embrace smart city projects.
Smart cities come hand-in-hand with going green, which can improve mental health in the area. Staying inside to avoid health risks from heat and pollution can cause depression and anxiety, but walking out in nature can relieve stress. Since smart cities reduce emissions and make streets safer and more walkable, they enable this stress relief.
Smart city infrastructure will also save money in the long run, despite its upfront costs. Investing $30 billion in smart communication, healthcare, and energy systems could create almost one million jobs in the U.S. alone. Since this infrastructure is more resilient, it will also reduce costly accidents and downtime.
Smart Cities Require Both Big and Small Changes
If cities hope to become truly smart, yes, they’ll need to change their infrastructure. However, these changes will yield impressive results in the long run. Small, less disruptive changes can make cities slightly smarter in the meantime, too.
Making the smart city a reality will take time and money, but it will be worth it. If areas start now and start slow, they can spread out these costs and make the most of this infrastructure.
Article by Jane Marsh
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of