Almost 2,000 years ago Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, made a momentous decision: He laid the cornerstone for a new city on the banks of the Nile, in the northern part of present-day Egypt. Within a short period of time Alexandria became one of the ancient world's leading cities, reaching a total population of nearly 750,000 at its peak – a true mega-city. One key item distinguishing Alexandria was the fact that virtually nothing was left to chance. The city's main avenue was laid out according to the position of the sun on Alexander's birthday , and all of Alexandria's main edifices were built along it. The remaining streets were lined up in a perfect grid, wide enough for a wagon to pass through.
If all of this seemed intuitive to Alexander, it can sound quite lofty today when politicians intone the virtues of planning. Take Michael Häupl , Lord Mayor of the "smart city" of Vienna, who states that: "The key challenges to be met by cities in the 21st century consist of strengthening the economy as the foundation for social justice as well as conserving our resources." These goals are to be achieved, he says, by designing cities on the basis of urban development concepts geared to greater efficiency, more advanced technology, a greener environment and a more inclusive social fabric.
Big technology enterprises like Siemens approach the topic similarly, but with more of an emphasis on engineering . The goal is to "improve the quality of urban life through the employment of sustainable technologies". Which ultimately involves the same trends – networking and information sharing – as can be found in all other urban concepts of the future.
But what exactly constitutes a smart city? An efficient sewage system? Take Berlin, for example, where the smart sewage control and information system (codename "LISA") controls and monitors some 300 pumping stations, rainwater storage units and additional plant and equipment.
Or maybe the secret of a smart city lies in its low energy consumption? Take Fujisawa. This suburb of Tokyo, in which electric cars, e-bikes and car-sharing options are all centrally managed , is considered a shining example for smart cities. Or what about more convivial social interaction among the local population? According to Hilmar von Lojewski, head of the urban development department of the North Rhine-Westphalia municipal council, only broad and transparent avenues of citizen-government communication will do: "Without this, and without a broad social and political dialog, future urban development will be unfeasible."
Whereas some people still see "smart cities" as a corporate playground – a "technocratic vision that will only subject the population to surveillance" – other observers are anticipating a growth market of incalculable dimensions .
The fact is that smart cities represent an attempt to prepare for the future challenges of urban living. A total of 3.5 billion people already inhabit the world’s cities, and by 2050 that number is expected to reach 6.3 billion. Currently some 29 percent of the world's combined gross domestic product (GDP) is being generated in 120 cities; by 2025 some 600 cities will be responsible for 65 percent of global GDP growth .
Whether it involves sensors to monitor critical levels or apps for car drivers that use RFID transponders to report vacant parking spaces – there is more than enough room for development. For a compact overview of the potential of tomorrow's smart cities, visit CeBIT.