How Smart Communities Will Work

Smart communities can be smart in all kinds of ways. Want to learn more? Check out our incredible homes of the future pictures.

The phrase "smart communities" makes me think of a community that only allows MENSA members. Other names tossed around include "intelligent communities" or "smart cities," although they're not always used the same way.

A community of super-smart people sounds good, and the attributes of its citizens do play a part. But the actual definition of smart community (and its analogues) depends very much on who you ask. Several organizations around the world, such as the World Foundation for Smart Communities and the European Smart Cities Project, have sought to define the concept but also to create a model and recognize existing examples of smart communities for their efforts.

Improving the ability of the community and its members to compete in today's world is a major goal of smart communities. The Intelligent Community Forum uses the term "broadband economy," arguing that "global economy" isn't broad enough to describe "an economy in which for all intents and purposes the hard-working people of Bangalore and Beijing live right next door to the hard-working people of Boston, Brussels and Buenos Aires" [source: ICF]. A community's economic viability isn't just dependent on the people in the community -- businesses all over can have access to some of the same tools and resources. At the same time, the local economy has to be viable enough to make people want to stay and move there.

Historically, infrastructure has been about building and maintaining things like power systems and roads, also known as hard capital. But smart communities are also concerned about "soft" capital -- things that better the community but aren't necessarily tangible. These might include its governance, policies and educational opportunities. Sometimes, the term has been employed to describe cities that are on the cutting edge of information and communication technology (ICT), but it's about way more than just having an Internet connection, as we'll explore in the following pages.

What makes a community so smart?

Although there's no set definition of a smart community yet, there are lots of potential attributes. Of course, technology plays a huge part. Smart communities have strong networks in place that link government services both to each other and to outside entities, making them more accessible and user-friendly. For example, they may link different law-enforcement entities to each other as well as to national databases.

Smart communities have broadband connectivity that's readily available and affordable for its residents, usually with some type of government involvement. For example, the local government in a smart community might subsidize improvements to an existing network (like laying fiber optic cables so that everybody can have broadband) in places where they wouldn't otherwise have an incentive to do so. Just having the connectivity available isn't enough. They may provide free or subsidized hardware, software and broadband for those who can't afford it. There might also be WiFi access in public spaces.

The final component -- which many communities neglect -- is education. Smart communities have programs to increase computer and Web skills in people of all ages and backgrounds, including those who are illiterate. Often, this means working with community leaders to figure out the best way to make the Internet relevant and useful for everybody.

Education in general is incredibly important for a successful smart community, but it's also about increasing what economists call "human capital." Sure, having a lot of inherently intelligent people makes a difference but so does having people who possess highly marketable skills in knowledge-based (meaning not manual-labor) jobs. Smart communities have plans in place to attract and groom these kinds of people, including improving the existing public-education system and providing secondary- and continuing-education opportunities.

Smart communities work to foster innovation and creativity. They may have programs and capital available to encourage start-up businesses and policies that make the area an attractive place to set up shop and find workers with necessary skills. There's a way for residents to actively participate in governance and strong leadership from both the government and the community. Some smart communities incorporate an environmental component, striving to make the community greener and more sustainable. They also market their community effectively and have a task force to work on plans and strategies.

This is really a sort of wish list of features that might qualify a community as smart, and no one community will do all of them equally well. Some of them are currently doing a great job with one or more attributes, however, and their statistics might surprise you.

The Future Is ... Soon

Also known as Smart Village Cairo, this smart community is one of a kind.
Also known as Smart Village Cairo, this smart community is one of a kind.

A community doesn't have to be big to be smart. Let's start with one in the Netherlands that the Intelligent Community Forum named Intelligent Community of the Year in 2011. Eindhoven is the fifth-largest city in the Netherlands and already had plenty of high-tech companies, including many that were once divisions of Philips (the largest lighting manufacturer in the world). It also has a history of cooperation between research institutions, government organizations and corporations to develop new products as well as foster start-up companies.

In 2000, it formed a cooperative between private companies and public entities called Brainport, designed to grow its knowledge-based economy and better serve the needs of residents. Projects included improving healthcare for the elderly and improving the infrastructure. Some impressive statistics include 90 percent or higher broadband penetration everywhere and more than 50,000 new jobs added in the past decade.

Eindhoven was already high-tech at the start (although their accomplishments are no less impressive because of it). Sometimes, communities become smart by learning how to adapt and evolve their existing structure and economy to meet today's challenges. A nonprofit called Enterprise St. John in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, helped take the region from an industrialized city to one focused more on technology and service industries. Its history was one of shipbuilding, oil drilling and different types of paper production, but these industries had fallen into decline by the early 2000s. Enterprise St. John began initiatives like recruiting skilled college students from local schools as well as immigrants and entrepreneurs. About 24 percent more residents are college-educated than in 1991, and they have the highest median income of anybody in the province.

Both of these communities are existing ones that have been working toward "smart" status. Some communities have approached the concept in a different way: building it from the ground up. Smart Village Egypt was built in 2003 as a high-tech cluster of multinational businesses, government organizations and educational institutions, with meeting spaces, recreation and restaurants to serve them. All buildings have the latest in broadband technology. They also provide bus transportation for employees to cut back on traffic and car pollution. Companies like Microsoft, IBM and Vodafone have offices there. There are no residences yet, but there are plans for schools and a hotel.

These are just a couple of examples of smart community practices at work -- there are many more. In the future, the numbers will continue to grow as leaders work to make their communities thrive in our ever-changing economy.

Author's Note

My initial research on the concept of smart communities left me a little confused since it's still emerging. I quickly figured out that the definition was pretty wide-open but encompassed plenty of traits that made sense to me and seemed desirable in any community. It seems like the focus would solely be on information technology, but it's interesting to learn that merely possessing the latest technology isn't enough; you need residents who are on-board with its use and a workforce that knows how best to use it.

Related Articles


  • City of Chicago. "Smart Communities Program." 2012. (May 12, 2012)
  • Eindhoven. "Brainport Eindhoven, world's smartest region." 2012. (May 11, 2012)
  • Eger, John. "Smart Communities Concept." California Institute for Smart Communities. 2007. (May 10, 2012)
  • Eger, John. "The World Foundation for Smart Communities." California Institute for Smart Communities. 2000. (May 10, 2012)
  • Enterprise Saint John. 2012. (May 11, 2012)
  • IBM. "A Smarter Planet." 2012. (May 10, 2012)
  • Intelligent Community Forum. 2012. (May 10, 2012)
  • National Resources Defense Council. "What are smarter cities?" 2012. (May 12, 2012)
  • North Sea Region Programme. "Smart Cities Aim." Smart Cities. 2012. (May 11, 2012)
  • Smart Village. "Smart Village Egypt." 2012. (May 11, 2012)
  • Wakefield, Jane. "London to test 'smart city' operating system." May 4, 2012. (May 10, 2012)