Are smart cities S.M.A.R.T?

For Intelligent Transport, Mark Cartwright, Managing Director of RTIG, discusses the open-ended goals of smart cities and whether they are truly S.M.A.R.T…

We live in the Information Age, with a widespread use of cheap information and communication systems – personal, commercial and social. That is affecting all of our lives in rapidly changing ways, and it is hardly surprising that the political classes have seized on its potential for change. Governments are keen to ensure that the public sector is making the most of the opportunities, both nationally and locally.

Smart cities

There can be few countries around the world where the concept of smart cities is not yet high on the policy agenda. Developing countries see it as a relatively quick and inexpensive approach (compared with infrastructure building) to improvements, while developed countries see it as a way of improving services, reducing costs, and relieving congested systems. These are admirable ambitions, and are well worth investing time and effort in to.

Headline stories in relation to smart cities are abound, particularly with transport – we can improve health, and access to health services. We can reinvent education, training and work. We can improve social integration and security. We can provide a seamless set of support services to those who need them.

The only slight problem with the smart cities goal is that it’s – let’s be kind – very open-ended. The Wikipedia definition (which is as good as any) is ‘an urban development vision to integrate information and communication technology and Internet of Things (IoT) technology in a secure fashion to manage a city’s assets’.

In this view, smart cities is like a technology tool. In transport, an approximate equivalent might be the term ‘intelligent transport systems’. But we hardly ever talk about ITS as a category. Instead, we discuss the services we want to deliver (or improve), and the applications we can use to achieve them: travel information; ticketing innovations; journey planning; or network analysis. These may be convenient short-hands for a wide range of very different elements, but no more.


By contrast, the capitalised term in the title may be familiar to many. It is an acronym, originating in a 1981 article by George T. Doran on how to manage goals and objectives. So, how does S.M.A.R.T affect smart?

S is for ‘specific’1. The smart cities agenda is not specific by design. So, the first task of the modern transport manager is to try to derive some specific targets from the smart agenda. That could mean, for instance, replacing private car traffic along a particular corridor by increased metro use, with (hopefully) the resulting benefits of improved travel times and reduced congestion etc. It will rarely be a technological goal.

M is for ‘measurable’. If you don’t know how much you want to change things, you won’t know whether you have succeeded. In any case, your finance director will probably ask about value for money, or benefit-cost ratio, or return on investment.

A is for ‘assignable’.

R is for ‘realistic’. You have to have reasonable evidence that your goal can be achieved, and by the means on offer. So, it is certainly possible to achieve a 100% modal shift to public and active transport (for instance by banning private vehicles), but cutting fares by a percentage won’t achieve it.

T is for ‘time-bound’. A goal that takes an unlimited amount of time is no goal at all. With technology, this is quite a hard challenge: the rate of change in system opportunities is much faster than the rate of change in infrastructure, or even (mostly) in behavioural expectations.

Where does this leave smart cities? The message to ‘do what you can with today’s technology to make things better’ is a good one, but that’s what we always do. We have to get S.M.A.R.T about them if they are to become really meaningful.

1There are now many variants of the words used to expand the acronym. The version used here is the original, and arguably still the best.

Related organisations