Adam Simmonds, Cloud and Identity Architect from Coventry City Council, explores the diverse approaches of smart cities across a variety of international cities, reminding us that becoming a smart city is a journey, not a status.

Have you just thrown some litter into a bin in your city centre? Has that bin just reported back to say how full it is and when it next needs emptying? Is that bin solar powered?

Whether you want to or not, it is impossible to escape the digital transformation in your private life. Digital seems to be ‘all the rage now’ and is having to become a fundamental part of city development. This has given rise to the notion of smart cities but, with each city having a different make up of residents and visitors, how is a smart city defined?

In June this year, a delegation from Coventry City Council was invited to join with Kiel, Germany, and other twinned international cities to discuss how cities deal with digital transformation. Each delegation was asked to respond to the same seven questions: ‘how smart are our partner cities?’, ‘what has been achieved?’, ‘what is still to be done?’, ‘does the government play a leading role and how?’, ‘which other players from the economy, science and society are rising to the challenge?’, ‘are there joint objectives?’ and ‘what are the data protection and security risks?’.

What was fascinating is that each city responded to the same seven questions, but all had a different interpretation of what a ‘smart city’ is - although there were two emerging key themes: e-government and creating a ‘digital place’.


A significant majority of the international cities represented focused on the improvement of council administration as their interpretation of ‘smart cities’. This included channel shift via customer portals to reduce the number of contacts to services via face-to-face or telephone and a big emphasis on the reduction of paper. To some extent, this way of interacting can be taken for granted, but in many cities really does drive a change in people’s lives.

As an example, the Moshi Rural District, Tanzania, is a popular tourist destination but still suffers from famine, specifically within its farming regions. Approximately 80 per cent of its farming community has access to smartphones and connectivity so they can check prices, their bills, and buy and sell their produce online rather than having to travel to markets and city centres, giving them more time to focus on growing crops.

In Brest (France), Malmö (Sweden) and Hatay (Turkey), the focus has been to provide open access to the variety of data sets ranging from district health information all the way to city planning.

In some cases, there have been partnerships with local property development companies allowing them access to planning information about public buildings, playgrounds, construction sites, and childcare facilities. This is then combined with sensor data to help model and predict future demand, matched up with health and education needs within that area of the community, whilst enabling residents to comment and engage with the planning approval process online.

Everyone commented that there is continued reluctance from residents to engage like this, largely due to a lack of digital skills as well as diverse cultural groups. Kiel’s approach to overcome this was a ‘digital week’ that promoted learning and fostered partnerships between communities, local authorities and businesses. For example, a newspaper company had noticed a decline in the number of print versus online subscriptions, but there was reluctance from the remaining print media readers to switch to the online version because of skills. Sensing a good business opportunity, they had started to offer free digital and computer skills workshops to residents.

Although not entirely altruistic, those skills learnt have helped engage people further in government. The ‘digital week’, driven by the city administration with little budget and no programme, proved so successful that it’s likely to become an annual event.

Digital place

The second theme to emerge from the talks was around the actual physical aspect of the cities, the public realm and this notion of a ‘digital place’. The ability to provide good, fast reliable connectivity and for a city to change, adapt and respond ‘automagically’ based on sensors. The growth of the internet of things has really opened the world of sensors and data reporting that can help drive how a city centre space works.

Take the Smart-Big Belly bins, something San-Francisco and Coventry have in common. They are solar powered, connected bins fitted with sensors that provide real time alerts when they are full or reaching capacity. These alerts are then passed to refuse vehicles and collection teams who can respond accordingly, preventing expensive spillages and unnecessary journeys.

Later this year, paying respect to Coventry’s car manufacturing history, the emergence of sensors will increase as we see autonomous vehicles on Coventry roads as part of the UK Autodrive project. This will be expanded to form a West Midlands testbed as part of the connected autonomous vehicles (CAV) project, which is focused on getting vehicles to talk to each other and their surroundings over a 5G network.

The goal within Coventry is to create a platform that can be used by residents, local universities and businesses to innovate on, and engage with, a real-world environment, a ‘living lab’. Plans are afoot to install a low power wide area network (LoRaWAN) utilising various tall buildings across the city for an internet of things (IOT) network across the city for sensors, monitoring and connected devices.

Most of the delegations touched on some elements of ‘digital place’ with ambitions to improve their cities’ internet availability, transport networks and smarter connected technology, but said they are being held back by poor connectivity.

Surprisingly in some cases, it was the opposite of what we see in the UK, with rural areas being very well connected, but the denser urban populations not. Even in areas where you’d assume fast, good connectivity was the norm, that’s not always the case. For example, up to 15 per cent of school children do not have internet access at home within San Francisco.

Living lab and platform for innovation

So, if all this and more was discussed in a couple of hours by cities all trying to answer the same seven questions, when do you become a ‘smart city’? It shows that whilst every city is striving to achieve a ‘smart city’ status, it’s not easy to define what a ‘smart city’ is. In some cases, the local authority’s IT department is continuing with the internal business, but also having to engage in city-wide technology innovation.

Coventry has found itself an ideal ‘living lab’ due to its geographical size, two top universities and connectivity that provide a platform for innovation. Since being announced as UK City of Culture 2021 there has been an increase in technology partners wanting to engage.

It’s hard to say if a ‘smart city’ is determined based on its implementation of e-government or digital place initiatives as it is different for each country, city and person, and technology evolves very fast. Gdynia, Poland, summed it up nicely with a simple goal of being a city to ‘deliver quality of life’, which when it comes to smart cities is the use of technology to enable that, in a sustainable way.

Cities in attendance

  • Brest, France,
  • Coventry, Great Britain,
  • Gdynia, Poland,
  • Gothenburg, Sweden,
  • Hatay, Turkey,
  • Malmö, Sweden,
  • Moshi Rural, Tanzania
  • Riga, Latvia,
  • San Francisco, USA,
  • Stralsund, Germany,
  • Tallinn, Estonia,
  • Vaasa, Finland,
  • Kiel, Germany