Right now, the most widely-cited examples of smart cities technology come from massive interventions powered by some of the world’s largest companies. Take General Electric’s forays into smart street lighting, currently in San Diego and rolling out in Jacksonville. The LED lighting comes equipped with an array of sensors that can reduce energy usage, optimize traffic and parking, and even deal with emergency response situations.

In Amsterdam--a city well known for being at the forefront of smart cities technology--the development of a smart energy grid, City-zen, is beginning. City-zen stands for City Zero Carbon Energy, and will include “energy efficient retrofitting, innovative district heating and cooling networks and smart grids at the level of districts”. The smart grid is expected be connected to 10,000 dwellings in two different districts of the Netherlands. The City-zen project is motivated by similar reasons as other smart cities projects: “Currently, over 68% of Europeans live in cities and this number will rise. In 2050, it is expected that 80% of the world population will live in cities.”

These demographic shifts towards city living necessitate city optimization to prevent daily life from becoming crowded and unbearable. In New York, Siemens is partnering with the MTA and Thales to make the train system smarter, allowing operators to know exactly where each train is, in real time. The end result will be trains that can run closer together and carry more people. The contract awarded, which is specifically for the development of a test facility, is worth about $60 million.

On the largest scale of all, Cisco worked in the city of Songdo, South Korea, to create a smart-city initiative from the ground up, literally. The planned city boasts 16 miles of bike paths, 40% of its area dedicated to outdoor spaces, and a designation as the biggest project outside the US to be included in the LEED Neighbourhood Development Pilot Plan (and first LEED accredited district in South Korea). LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a set of strict environmental standards for energy consumption and waste. Most impressive of all is the city’s pneumatic waste disposal system. Trash is taken directly from homes to an underground system that sorts and recycles, burns, or disposes of waste appropriately. There are only 7 employees handling waste for the whole city, and no garbage trucks or cans on the street.

These smart cities projects have one thing in common: they are massive interventions by massive companies. While they will result in valuable insights, aren’t there simpler ways to do so? The project in Songdo was advertised as costing $35 billion, but is said to be $40 billion and counting! It is a city of the future, but not all nations or areas have the option of building a new city from the ground up.

What is the best way, then, to future-proof existing cities? Read more on the infrastructure and cost challenges for smart cities in part 2 of this post.