What is a smart city?

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Our cities and the way they operate is evolving. While the overarching purpose of transport, construction and other man-made infrastructures remains the same they are developing to become more connected, intelligent and data-driven. As we look towards the future of cities, we must consider what is a smart city, as well as what they will look like and how they will change the way we interact with our environment.

Perhaps more than ever, the Smart City evolution is quickening with the clamour for the adoption of more informed and efficient urban infrastructures, from people to policy makers. Technology is changing the dynamic of how we travel, how we work and, ultimately, how we live our lives.

This is particularly true of a world transitioning to a 'new-normal'. The COVID-19 pandemic has in ways exposed outdated metropolitan models at unprecedented levels, forcing cities to evaluate how they operate. We've seen enforced lockdowns exposing environmental issues as decreasing levels of congestion drive pollution levels to their lowest in decades. Technology is being embraced in all aspects of society, and by all generations, as people actively seek new solutions to work and community. Businesses are evolving their operations to bring increased service to consumers and diversifying operations to wider, more robust models.

Change is being embraced. The worldwide crisis is inevitably accelerating the adoption of transformative Smart City technology, responding to evolve the collective intelligence on optimised urban environments, potentially towards the post-pandemic rethinking of traditional planning models. Before these new models can be deployed however, cities must face the greater and immediate challenge of revamping existing infrastructure and city models, to evolve and optimise, buildings, homes, and transport models at the heart of our established metropolises. This first hurdle is perhaps the greatest in unlocking smarter city models, with cities bound by their existing environment.

So what are Smart Cities and what do they look like? And how are they changing the way we interact with our environment?

What is a Smart City?

Cities built around Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), addressing the challenges of urbanisation, with a focus on sustainability and sustainable development and movement. A smarter city is an urban ecosystem, focussed more generally on physical, institutional, social and economic infrastructures.

Smart cities use data and technology to improve processes and create efficiencies. By implementing innovative technology such as 'Internet of Things' (IoT) applications, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and new autonomy of traditional processes, for example, Building Information Modelling (BIM) – intelligent 3D model-based processes that gives architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) greater flexibility to effectively plan, develop, design, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure.

Smarter cities are often able to benefit from improved economic development, a better quality of life for citizens and more efficient energy resource management.

Through data collection in real time from people, buildings and other devices, Smart Cities have the capacity to manage assets, resources and services more effectively, using big data insights to continuously improve operations.

They are more efficient in their uses of physical infrastructures, including roads, transport networks, and buildings, but also technological, energy and human frameworks tuned to improving all spheres of urban living and movement. Smart ecosystems engage with their surroundings in a variety of ways, improving transport and travel, energy distribution, and in lowering pollution levels. Equally, vehicle connectivity and automation allows for augmented communication with road and traffic sensors to provide real-time data, reducing congestion for more efficient urban flow.

Ultimately, a smart city is based on the optimisation of mobility, infrastructure and services associated with built-up environments, to be more intuitive, robust and flexible at every level.

What are the challenges and opportunities of Smart Cities?

The boom of ICT technologies through Smart Cities and the Internet of Things is creating urban spaces progressively driven by computable data analytics. More and more data is being generated through all facets of people's lives, putting the information of citizens and their environment into the hands of organisations and policymakers at unprecedented levels. Such data-rich environments are creating new opportunities, but present great challenges to urban environments, their businesses and people:


  • Transport and mobility: opportunities for travel are becoming more informed and immediate through the use of technology and the capacity for further development in intelligent transport systems is seemingly limitless. New technologies are combatting rapid urbanisation and the increased demand for intelligent forms of transportation, to alleviate traffic volume, and revamp inefficient energy consumption models.
  • Living and working: changing working practices and concerns for the environment are disrupting how we do things and why, giving rise to enhanced living and working standards through more diversified means. Smart construction and real estate models are changing the face of our urban environments offering new solutions to increased populations and urban dwelling, as well as flexibility, convenience and affordability.
  • Environment: smart cities are reliant on more sophisticated models for environmental protection, converting places of most pollution into greener spaces with the advent of eco-friendly solutions.
  • Health: digital health and increasingly technology-driven patient care is used to the betterment and wellbeing of the global populace, increasingly tuned to the individual through more sophisticated and exact methods.
  • The Smart City opportunities are seemingly limitless. They are changing how people and businesses engage with urban environments, increasingly placing them at the heart of city models, inevitably leads to vast opportunities for growth.


  • Funding: adequate funding and financing continues to be a pressing problem for the wider development, operation and maintenance of Smart City infrastructure. Evolving urban environments comes at a premium, either in building new infrastructures or evolving existing models.
  • Data privacy and security: data privacy concerns and data security are a real issue for people and for organisations and policy-setters accessing vast swathes of digital information. Access to increased data could lead to data misuse.
  • Social inclusion: Smart Cities must also be socially inclusive and accessible to all – rapid technological development has the potential to polarise sections of society..
  • Retail: the move away from the traditional high street spending models towards internet retail habits presents a huge challenge for traditional view of cities as centres of trade.
  • Inevitably, Smart City technologies, much like consumer-facing innovation, operate in highly complex and challenging environments reliant on digital communications networks. With ever-expanding quantities of data being incorporated into all facets of society, and within organisations at all levels, the need for robust laws is paramount to the success and functionality of these Smart systems.

Smart legal expertise across all sectors

Smart Cities require smart legislation.

Legal frameworks and regulation is adapting to function in increasingly complex and interconnected urban ecosystems. Without robust legal services, policy makers, people and businesses may fail to capitalise.

As aging infrastructures evolve to merge with new-age technologies, cities and those who build them must ensure they are operating within agreed legal boundaries. Rapid technological development is inevitably exposing legal grey areas, particularly for businesses adapting to change

Whether in cyber security and data protection issues, new transport infrastructures or vehicle autonomy, smart development models including BIM intelligent 3D modelling for architecture, engineering, and construction, or greener energy and environmental technologies, the legal parameters must be in place to support Smart City success.

The Smart vision can only be completely realised if development is governed, impact assessed and privacy upheld.

Gowling WLG's sector focused approach means the firm has the legal expertise to advise clients on all aspects of Smart City development. Our lawyers are supporting clients in navigating the potential risks and in capturing the greatest opportunities of Smart Cities.

Keen to know more?

Speak to our legal experts and find out how Gowling WLG can advise you to navigate the challenges and capture the vast opportunities for your business. Whether on smaller projects, or highly complex matters, our lawyers have the know-how to support your success.

How can Gowling WLG help?

Our lawyers are experienced in handling smaller, niche projects as well as advising on large-scale more complex issues, taking care with political and legislative constraints.

Find out more about the work of our sectors and services in bringing Smart Cities to life, and speak to one of our legal experts.

See our full list of Smart Cities experts across our full spectrum of sector and service lines. Get in touch to discuss your projects and how Gowling WLG can support your success.

Rethinking Sustainable Cities

Read our latest report, produced as part of Gowling WLG's association with Interchange, London Transport Museum's thought leadership programme.

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