Last updated: September 1, 2021 Smart City to Future City: Addressing the 21st century urbanization challenge

Smart City to Future City: Addressing the 21st century urbanization challenge


Every community and municipal government around the world faces a growing set of challenges as they transform in the 21st century to improve peoples’ lives.

With more and more of us living in cities, urbanization is creating significant opportunities for social and economic development and more sustainable living. But it’s also exerting significant pressure on infrastructure and resources and potentially opening the door to escalating social inequality.

The rise of the city

According to the United Nations, more than 54% of the world’s population now resides in urban areas – a figure set to rise to 67% by 2050. And these urban centers are becoming increasingly important drivers of national and regional economic growth. Indeed, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates the top 100 cities in the world already account for 38% of total global gross domestic product (GDP), with the top 600 cities generating 60% of global GDP.

Clearly, with cities around the world competing on the global stage for investment and top people talent, harnessing the true potential of urbanization to boost shared prosperity and eradicate extreme poverty depends on having a clear and long-term vision.

Evaluating the challenges

If cities don’t work for investors, employers and citizens alike, then the interconnected flows of trade, capital, people, and technology will stall. Planning and developing the urban eco-system – including managing the impacts to rural areas that get absorbed into the expanding urban area – is just the start.

To address a range of infrastructure, transit, utilities and connectivity challenges, city administrators will need to harness data-driven intelligence to identify appropriate priorities and ensure overall liveability for all residents.

But that’s not all. To counter the multiple social challenges arising from urbanization, they must ensure that data sources – which today mostly sit in silos across agencies and departments and commercial third party providers – can be brought together seamlessly. Only then will they be able to ease citizen burden through the delivery of predictive services – getting the right services to the right population cohort, at the right time.

Little wonder then that many municipalities are embracing the ‘smart city’ concept. But the definition of what a smart city is, or should be, varies significantly.

For some, it’s about using technology to optimize city operations and urban flows. For others it’s about initiating smart governance where policy making is more flexible, practical and closer to citizens – enabling experimentation, open dialogue and fast-paced adaption in which policies are ‘initiated from below, and diffused by example’.

Building smart communities

Some technologically advanced cities are using Internet of Things (IoT) platforms to monitor city infrastructures – managing everything from traffic flows and parking to water and air quality – and using the resulting smart data generated to tackle longer term planning decisions around environmental sustainability.

For others, the focus is on initiating digital business transformation and smart city initiatives designed to attract businesses and individuals with talent. In other words, making their city a prosperous place that’s both liveable and workable.

By contrast, the Indian government’s ambitious ‘Digital India’ mega plan to develop 100 smart cities across the country is motivated by a desire to offer sustainability in terms of economic activities and employment opportunities to a wide section of city residents, regardless of their level of education, skills or income levels.

Clearly, the smart city is a broad concept that’s high on everybody’s agenda, but what are the characteristics that define a smart city?

What makes a 21st century city smart?

In the broadest of terms, I believe a 21st century smart city uses digital technology to:

  • promote performance and wellbeing and increase its ability to respond to city-wide and global challenges
  • ensure its critical infrastructure is safe and economically sustainable and public service offers are more interactive, transparent and responsive
  • bring together people, processes and technology to enable a holistic customized approach that accounts for their city culture, long-term planning and citizen needs.

Looking beyond the technology, the vision of the smart city needs to be one that all stakeholders can make their own. Achieving consensus with the local population and business community will be the key to improving transparency, communication and partnerships. As our Key to Building a Smart City video shows, experts working to build smart cities around the world are in universal agreement that stakeholder engagement is a crucial first step that cannot be ignored.

To this end, cities will need to study their citizens and communities at a fundamental level, creating policies and objectives that truly meet identified needs. Only then can technology be implemented that improves quality of life and creates real economic opportunities.

Whatever the drivers to initiating a smart city initiative, and there are many, the foundation for the smart city of the future will be the collective intelligence it can harness. That means having the ability to intelligently connect people, things, and businesses.

Developing a smart city policy

Clearly, every city is different and will face a unique range of urbanization challenges. Defining smart city goals and objectives begins with a deep understanding citizen and business needs and a community’s unique attributes – its demographics, infrastructure and resources.

Engagement with all stakeholders is the critical initial point for jump starting smart city programs. After which, cities will need to harness real-time urban intelligence to power their smart mobility, energy, utilities and city commerce programs. Connecting all their smart urban applications and scaling these with ease.

As cities of the future define what urban life will mean for those who live and work in their municipalities, they will need to reconcile conflicting economic, environmental and social goals. And while facilitating digital infrastructure is important, it is the ability to truly connect with residents on a personal level that will support an open society and spur ideas, entrepreneurship, innovation and growth that will make the sustainable future city an achievable reality.

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Kathleen O'Brien

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