Becoming smarter – infrastructure and technology in smart cities

by Terry Norman

When we think of a Smart City, we might imagine a proliferation of smart technologies. Wireless sensors attached to everything from refuse bins to buildings. Sensors and centralised data storage interconnected by intelligent communication systems. Gigabytes of data being carried every second to digital machines for organisation and analysis using artificial intelligence. If this is what we imagine, the reality is somewhat less exciting.

Unless the city has been designed and built with smart technologies in mind, this is an unlikely scenario. Of course, there are cases of smart cities being built from scratch, Songdo in South Korea, for example. A more pragmatic approach with established cities is what we call Becoming Smarter.

In our opinion Amsterdam epitomises the Becoming Smarter method. In Amsterdam, one of the early adopters of smart city concepts in Europe, we see a city working through a series of projects – incremental improvements. Along the way the city is learning important lessons - partnering with service providers, collaborating with citizens and other cities and managing the vast amounts of data being gathered, and so on.

The strength of Becoming Smarter is that it acknowledges existing infrastructure and statutory obligations whilst allowing the city to ‘experiment’ with discrete, pilot projects. In this way the city learns and passes on the lessons to the next project, each time growing in strength and confidence. Here are examples of a few discrete smart projects, intelligent transport, smart waste and smart lighting:

1.      Many cities make use of electronic ticketing, prepaid transport systems like Oyster card in London. These systems gather vast amounts of data describing passenger journeys. If the transport operator made the data available to the city management team, it could become part of an intelligent transport system which the city might use to better plan its roads and parking.

2.      The city also has statutory obligations – to collect refuse and waste. By attaching electronic sensors to refuse bins city authorities might dispatch collection vehicles only to bins which are full or overflowing. The financial and environmental benefits here are clear.

3.      All cities have street lighting as part of their existing infrastructure. Operational costs are high. Rather than the lights being on or off, Smart lighting can be used to switch lighting on when it is needed as is used in Smart City Glasgow. The cost savings more than pay for the installation. Additionally, the lamp posts and network communications can be used by other smart technologies like noise detectors, CCTV and WiFi nodes.

It is our experience that cities often embark upon projects such as these as standalone projects. Understandably the city is looking to drive down costs and passes management of the project to the relevant service management team. This is a missed opportunity.

Each of these initiatives could be used in the Becoming Smarter model as laboratories to explore the issues faced by the city adopting smart technologies and concepts:  selecting a technology architecture, adapting the existing infrastructure, establishing partnerships with vendors and engaging with citizens, measuring the benefits, data management. Learning lessons and passing on to other projects etc.

In conclusion, by adopting the Becoming Smarter method, a city will not only be able to measure outcomes, learn and achieve benefits and so on, but, as confidence grows, will feel able to address some of the more perplexing problems like establishing a robust data management policy and aligning smart projects with long term strategic objectives.

One final and important note, almost as a by-product of Becoming Smarter, interconnecting pilot projects across service silos by passing on lessons learned etc serves to tear down the walls between departments as service managers realise how much they have in common!


If you would like to talk to know more about ‘Becoming Smarter’, the Wireless Explorers approach to becoming a Smart City please read more of our articles at or contact us directly through