Skip to Content
City by night

Creating the Cities of the Future

Vibrant, urban environments depend on collaboration with citizens, businesses, and universities.

In 2017, Boston was at a crossroads in its approach to smart-city planning and development. In preceding years, it had implemented a number of initiatives to streamline its operations with data and analytics, which had delivered significant value. Now officials were seeing the possibilities for technology to create new and improved services for its residents.

Boston issued a challenge to technologists, scientists, researchers, journalists, and smart-city activists to propose ideas that would engage its constituents: “We’re happy if you have a technology for us to use internally, something that’ll make a City department’s work easier,” the Boston Smart City Playbook states. “But we’d be even happier if you were solving problems for residents.”

Globally there is no shortage of smart-city initiatives, but the outcomes thus far have been underwhelming. Very few sustainable, repeatable solutions have emerged to improve the way people interact with their cities as physical or social spaces or to redesign urban life in any fundamental way. Boston’s reality check and call to arms was perhaps a good start to redirect and reenergise its efforts toward local businesspeople trying to keep up with digital disrupters; commuters struggling with parking and transportation; city dwellers worried about unchecked development, affordable rents, and sustainability; or average citizens concerned about safe streets. But there and elsewhere, smart-city advocates within and outside of government have discovered that a key piece has been missing: participation by the millions who live, work, and seek entertainment in urban spaces.


Just as businesses are embracing a future driven by the customer experience, cities need to develop a collaborative, responsive, and personalised urban experience with their constituents. “Our citizens demand that we make use of the latest technology for their benefit,” says Harald Wouters, a consultant and former senior strategist for urban development in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, a small city in the Netherlands. “If we don’t adapt to the new digital wave of developments, public authorities will lose their relevance completely.”


But cities must take a more proactive approach to advancing this future instead of waiting, as they typically do, for citizens or businesses (especially tech companies) to bring ideas forward. Just as businesses are shifting from delivering end products to providing open platforms – where customers can co-develop and use products and services, access relevant data, and interact directly with each other to create their own value – cities will need platforms to collect input (including data) from their population and use it to co-design new ways to live, work, and do business. They will have to master the quid pro quo, as companies are doing with their customers, and deliver value in the form of greater responsiveness, personalised experiences, inclusiveness, and community connection.


Cities that are unable to make these shifts risk not only losing citizens’ trust but also missing out on the potential gains from urban transformation.

Listen to the people (and their data)

A smart city senses and responds to the patterns its constituents create as they travel, work, shop, and seek entertainment. Yet no smart city can accomplish this without real-time data about its infrastructure, inhabitants, and activities. “Cities thrived for the past 200 years by having access to great infrastructure – waterways, transportation, jobs,” says Kirk Talbott, CIO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and formerly the deputy CIO and executive director of Smart City, City of Atlanta. “The next 100 years will be marked by access to great information. It will be one of the key deciders of success or failure in the future.”

People wonder why, for example, when Google and Amazon can use predictive modelling to suggest what users want to write or need to buy, the local government can’t proactively fix a pothole. “Cities have been growing without respecting their citizens enough,” says Ivan Caballero, CEO of Citibeats, which helps cities develop citizen engagement and civic analytics platforms and mobile applications. “And now those citizens are asking for more.”


More, according to Caballero and other smart-city advocates, means having an environment that citizens can shape to their benefit with data, whether they are actively contributing their opinions about plans for a new neighborhood development or passively providing their vehicle location data for the city to manage traffic signals. A survey of more than 6,000 citizens from Australia, France, Germany, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States found that people overwhelmingly want digital delivery of public services, greater personalisation, and easier, more secure ways to share and access data. The results also suggest an untapped enthusiasm for contributing to digital efforts. For example, 42% said they would willingly use Internet of Things (IoT) devices to share their personal data in exchange for discounts or service improvements, and 45% were willing to participate in focus groups or on committees to improve a service they use.


For the most part, however, cities have not explored ways to involve constituents in smart-city initiatives. “The essential role of citizens in smart-city development is not well-studied,” a team of researchers wrote in the journal Business & Information Systems Engineering in 2018, adding that smart cities are failing to meet their objectives because they do not appropriately involve citizens or take into account the impact of their initiatives on citizens.




There are, however, some smart-city experiments that aim to validate ways to use new technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as a variety of new data sources, to engage citizen participation:

  • In the Netherlands, a new law requires that citizens be involved in urban development from the earliest stages. The Dutch government’s website explains a concept it calls “do-ocracy,” which assumes that citizens reject “standard solutions for everything” and want to engage with “authorities that think along with them.” In ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Wouters’ team experimented with mixed reality. “If we’re developing windmills or a new high-rise, we’re exploring ways that the residents can see what it’s going to look like or feel like so that we can better understand their needs and concerns,” he explains. “They can virtually walk around the neighborhood or ride a bike through a new development to experience the changes,” and the city collects feedback from surveys or in-person meetings.
  • Citibeats has been working with municipalities around the world to better understand what citizens want and engage them more directly in solutions. Its platform uses AI to analyse text from multiple sources, including social media, transcripts from public helplines or hearings, and chatbots, to discover, categorize, and synthesize local residents’ biggest concerns. In 2017, the Citibeats platform identified mobility as a top issue in Barcelona, Spain, which led the organisation to develop a mobile app that individuals can download in order to participate in the solution. The app lets users know if there is gridlock on their chosen route, directs them to the best public transportation instead of a taxi, and rewards them with points – which they can redeem at local businesses – according to how much they contribute to alleviating the problem (the tighter the gridlock, the more points people get for using public transit).
  • In New Zealand, the city councils of Christchurch, Auckland, and Wellington have been sharing data and research with each other, as well as with partner companies around the world, to pilot and implement a number of citizen-centric projects. Thus far, Christchurch had transformed the way it delivers 46 services, providing its 380,000 citizens with a choice of options, including apps and websites, for interacting with the city. Auckland has installed sensors to monitor recreational water conditions and offer real-time safety alerts and water-quality information to its citizens as well as provide real-time data on public transportation and traffic congestion. Wellington, meanwhile, has introduced a VR version of the capital city that allows people to interact with city data to understand the issues facing the city and ideas for its future.
  • Medellín, Colombia, may trail some of its Latin American peers in the number of its smart-city projects, but it leads in citizen adoption of them, according to a June 2018 report by the McKinsey Global Institute. Medellín Ciudad Inteligente works with government, local universities, and social organisations to promote open data and transparent governance, citizen participation, and innovation and collaboration among individuals and communities. The city has focused on urban regeneration from the bottom up, using crowdsourcing to engage citizens from the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods in transformative projects, such as a cable car, electric stairs, and technology-enabled schools and libraries. The city’s MiMedellin portal offers one way for citizens to give feedback on and vote for solutions to many issues, including air quality and mass transit.



Seoul, South Korea, is among the most advanced major cities in using technology to involve citizens in setting municipal priorities. The South Korean capital offers the mVoting smartphone app, which enables users to review local policy proposals (searchable by geography or popularity), such as improvements to public libraries, new bus routes, anti-smoking policies, or school curricula; suggest their own proposals; and vote for those they’d like to see enacted. While not an official voting process, this initiative helps shape officials’ decisions. A couple hundred proposals have been implemented so far.


According to Gartner Research Vice President Bettina Tratz-Ryan, Seoul is emerging as a model for other smart cities with its community-driven, bottom-up approach that involves residents in the design and development of the urban experience rather than a top-down effort driven by technology or infrastructure. However, in most places, “Citizens are often considered as users, testers, or consumers rather than producers and sources of creativity and innovation,” according to research by Ignasi Capdevila of the Paris School of Business and Matias I. Zarlenga of the University of Barcelona in the Journal of Strategy and Management.


One reason: the first wave of urban digital innovation was often led by private industry with its own profitability aims. Big tech companies, startups, and researchers have all been clamoring to stake their claim in the smart-city market. Meanwhile, cities have done a poor job of organising these efforts for their own benefit or creating clear strategies about the futures they want to build.


What’s more, the one-off projects that have predominated only solve one-off problems rather than reimagining how cities can develop differently.


Meanwhile, some smart-city initiatives have created a backlash amid concerns that they have failed to take citizens’ concerns about the privacy and use of their data into account. For example, questions about personal data have prompted an online campaign by Toronto residents to halt development of Quayside, a waterfront property under contract with Sidewalk Labs, a unit of Alphabet, the parent company of Google.


Similar concerns have led some municipalities to define citizens’ digital rights. In June 2018, Amsterdam deputy mayor Touria Meliani began spearheading the development of a digital-city policy framework that describes the values and norms, such as the use of sensors and data in urban public spaces, that the city expects to embody in its digital infrastructure. These principles will cover data collection, availability, and privacy as well as the banning of WiFi tracking. They are based on a manifesto, developed by the Amsterdam Economic Board in cooperation with local citizens, that calls for transparency, accountability, and ethics in smart-city data collection and use. Amsterdam is also pioneering other solutions that make the city and technology providers accountable for data use, such as neutral audits to ensure that machine learning algorithms are not biased toward privileged areas or problems.

Citizens are often considered as users, testers, or consumers rather than producers and sources of creativity and innovation.

Ignasi Capdevila, the Paris School of Business, and Matias I. Zarlenga, the University of Barcelona, Journal of Strategy and Management

The city as a platform

Discrete projects designed to better understand citizens’ needs and engage them in solutions are a start. Ultimately, though, cities will need to think bigger and provide platforms that enable constituents to participate in creating their urban experience.

In the private sector, businesses are creating open platforms for their customers, who may contribute directly to design, production, or marketing of products and services – or merely agree to let companies use their data to formulate and deliver products and services for them. A platform business model creates value by supporting exchanges between two or more groups, typically producers and consumers. The platform provides a structure, standards, and protocols that enable a network of such interactions on a large scale. In the fitness realm, for example, companies provide platforms for developers to create apps that let users feel connected through data such as personal bests, crowdsourced routes, and “top of the heap” competitions. In some cases, customers may coalesce for action on their own, organising into digital tribes to deliver solutions.


In the case of a city, advocates envision ecosystems in which citizens, businesses, university researchers, and others can co-innovate to solve urban problems. TM Forum, an association for telecommunications companies, describes the concept in its City as a Platform Manifesto as a “shared collaborative framework between residents, the public and private sector to drive the desired outcome of sustainability, inclusivity, and targeted innovation that benefits cities and their residents.” By adapting the principles of commercial platforms for the urban environment, cities can become innovation hubs, generating ideas for managing the challenges of urban life and improving its quality.


Tampere, Finland, for example, is building platforms around selected themes (currently, health and well-being, customer service, safety and security, and smart mobility) to create a foundation for companies, universities, and others to be able to experiment with digital solutions for the city and its residents. The platforms employ several co-creation approaches common in the private sector, including agile development and project management, hackathons, and an open innovation approach that has enabled companies, university researchers, and city leaders to co-define an IoT model for the future (see “Chicago streets as innovation labs”).


One platform offers a digital 3D-model of Tampere, based on open data, that can be freely accessed by businesses and residents and used to showcase ideas for city development, such as its new tramway or a planned lakeside district called Hiedanranta. “Each user may look up the developments relevant to their own neighborhood or place of work,” the city says. “This makes it easier for citizens to contribute to urban planning.” Tampere is also creating an IoT platform (built into its street-lighting network) that can be integrated with other sensors or apps, making it easier for companies and researchers to test out new projects or products.

Chicago streets as innovation labs

The city-as-a-platform approach can be used to tackle any number of urban issues in a more citizen-centric way. “There aren’t very many good places that you can go to try out a new and potentially crazy idea you want embed in the city infrastructure,” says Charlie Catlett, senior computer scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and a senior fellow at the University of Chicago Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. “As we interacted with the city regarding the challenges they face, it became clear that a flexible, programmable measurement capability would be critical.”


Enter Chicago’s Array of Things (AoT). Some have called the project, which Catlett leads, a fitness tracker for the city. Sensors gather data on light, air, surface temperature, vibration, barometric pressure, sound intensity, and – using AI deployed with the sensors – pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The network is envisioned not only as a tool to improve how the city pursues its urban planning and sustainability goals but also the quality of daily life for residents and communities.


“Five years out, if we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents and the way the city builds new services and policies,” says former Chicago CIO Brenna Berman when the first nodes (as the sensor units are called) went live in 2016. “It will be viewed as a utility – the same way we view our street lights and the way we view our buses. They are there for us and they help us get through the city more easily.”


The team behind the AoT shows the potential for broad collaboration. Researchers affiliated with Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago are developing the Waggle Platform (named for the dance honeybees do to communicate the location of food sources to members of their hive) with partners from dozens of universities around the world. They’re also receiving support from major technology industry players, such as Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Schneider Electric, and Motorola Solutions. The Chicago Department of Transportation is in charge of installing nodes onto light posts across the city and managing the data portal, which will make the AoT data available to the public. The Department of Innovation and Technology manages a data portal that integrates available AoT data with other Chicago data for use by the public.


Some of the first nodes were installed in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where asthma is more prevalent and a local health clinic is eager for more data. Private companies and nonprofits envision using the data to develop innovative applications, such as a mobile app that enables residents to track their exposure to certain air contaminants or navigate the city while avoiding neighborhoods with excessive congestion and noise or along routes with the most green spaces. In 2018, the project released an API for data access, along with tutorials and documentation, enabling developers to start using near-real-time data collected by the AoT in their applications. The city plans to integrate the data with other public data sets and make the interface more usable and accessible for a variety of audiences, from scientists to app developers to the general public.


Today more than 100 AoT nodes have been installed, with a plan to bring the total to 200 by the end of summer 2019. Project leaders have held meetings and workshops to build relationships with residents and identify community priorities, which vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Residents and community groups can also request nodes be installed in a specific place through the project website.

Four steps forward

Smart city platforms are a means, not an end. They represent a fundamental shift in how cities might solve the most pressing needs of their citizens by bringing them – and the companies and researchers who might be able to address their needs – together through data and information exchange.

An interoperable, fully connected, fully engaging platform will take years to evolve, and cities will need to take an iterative approach. “In our case, we start bottom up by integrating running use cases in the city,” says Wouters. There are a number of actions city leaders can take now to move more intelligently toward this platform-enabled, citizen-centric future:

  • Begin with problems, not solutions. “Figure out what problem you want to solve or what information you wish you knew,” advises Talbott. No two cities are the same. In Barcelona, for example, mobility, water consumption, and education are top priorities. Three hours west by train, in Madrid, citizens are focused on issues related to global warming, says Caballero.
  • Gather existing data. Once you’ve prioritized the problems you need to solve, look for relevant data the city already has. “Cities have petabytes of data that are already being collected on a regular basis,” says Talbott. You can combine and analyse existing information and begin to come up with new solutions.
  • Create coalitions with private industry and universities. There will continue to be enormous commercial interest in monetizing future city solutions. To protect the quality of life and interests of their residents, city leaders will need to be proactive about establishing partnerships that support citizen-centric solutions.
  • Define digital principles or rights. Technology is advancing quickly, and current laws about privacy and data use have not universally kept up with citizens’ concerns. Cities will need to define a set of digital principals and make clear the quid pro quo they are offering citizens for their digital contribution to urban life, planning, and problem solving. In November 2018, New York City, Amsterdam, and Barcelona jointly launched the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights to create policies, tools, and resources that promote and protect personal data.

“Leaders need to focus the thoughtful people towards sorting these issues out – the universities, the think tanks – and recognise that we have to do a little bit of experimentation to figure out what the future should look like,” says Talbott. “Cities can’t just sit back and be risk-averse. In fact, that’s almost a guarantee that we’re going to get it wrong.”

Toward a smarter future

By 2050, 68% of the world population will live in cities, according to 2018 projections provided by the United Nations. Challenges to economic development, social inclusion, security, sustainability, infrastructure, mobility, housing, and quality of life will continue to mount as urban areas grow. Cities must get truly smarter to address them, or they won’t continue to grow economically. And when cities fail to grow, people leave and the cities decline.

As the influential journalist and urban planning advocate Jane Jacobs says: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Early smart-city efforts have opened the eyes of citizens and city officials as to how that might be possible in the digital age.


New capabilities such as AI, Big Data analytics, and IoT technologies emerged with the promise of helping municipalities solve many of their biggest issues. Those same technologies can also be used to empower residents to participate in the dynamics of city operations and decision-making. The future will belong to those cities that put their citizenry at the centre of this new urban world.

Meet the Authors

Michael Rander
Senior Director and Head of Operations | SAP Insights research centre

Stephanie Overby
Independent Writer | Business and Technology

Further reading

SAP Insights Newsletter

Subscribe today

Gain key insights by subscribing to our newsletter.

Back to top