What It Means to Be a 'Smart City'

By linking environmental sustainability and economic growth, Charlotte is showing the way.
by | January 26, 2016

Bob Graves

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

Like self-driving cars, "smart cities" are getting a lot of attention these days. And rightfully so, considering their broad range of potential benefits, from more sustainable use of resources and enhanced resilience to improved citizen engagement, urban mobility and public safety. Realizing significant improvements in even a few of these would make building out a smart city a worthwhile goal.

The infrastructure of a smart city is fairly easy to describe. It is created through the deployment of digital information and communications technologies and built on high-speed broadband. It incorporates intelligent infrastructure in its many variations: smart grids for energy and water, virtual environments for health care and education, and intelligent systems for transportation and buildings.

However, no master design exists for a model smart city and, even if there were, strong arguments support shaping one from the ground up based on unique local needs and resources.

Making a compelling case for this strategy is Charlotte, N.C. Focused on energy use in its business district, in 2011 the city started a voluntary partnership called Envision Charlotte to link sustainability to economic growth. The concept for Envision Charlotte was to reduce energy use -- and, as a result, operating costs -- in commercial buildings. Real-estate owners, including the city government, used intelligent-building technologies and existing city infrastructure to create a dashboard to display real-time data. The goal was to reduce energy use in the city's core by 20 percent over five years.

Four years into the project, Envision Charlotte is well on its way to achieving that goal. "It's not just great for the environment and great for the citizens, but it actually is proven through the dollars," says Envision Charlotte's executive director, Amy Aussieker. "We know, because we put meters in the buildings, that we're down 16 percent -- it's not just 'I think we're down 16.' We're measuring our results and using data to make decisions." Overall savings so far tally over $17 million. The city alone reduced energy use in its facilities by 30 percent.


In a 2013 interview with FutureStructure, Tom Shircliff, Envision Charlotte's first board chair, noted that an important factor in the project's design was government's role as a facilitator to encourage independent actions from a wide range of participants. Based on this approach, cities might one day become de facto platform providers and support a rich, diverse and distributed ecosystem of apps. Apple Computer has shown the success of such a model in the private sector. Perhaps local governments will foster their own smart-city analogs in the civic realm.

In the meantime, Envision Charlotte, through this public-private partnership model, continues to move forward with innovative leadership. Building on its initial success with energy use, the city has expanded its scope to include water, waste and air. And in September 2015 Envision Charlotte's organizers took another big step with the announcement of a new nonprofit, Envision America, to tackle these issues on a national level and, as Aussieker puts it, "accelerate deployment of smart-cities technology." To this end, Envision America hosted a workshop in January to help 10 selected cities from across the country plan their own smart-city projects.

Exporting Envision Charlotte's smart-city success makes wonderful sense, especially when you consider that its organizers have really grasped the importance of community participation. As urban expert Peter Kageyama, author of "For the Love of Cities," observed at Envision America's opening workshop, people don't care about sustaining something they don't love. How true. There's such a strong emotional connection to places we love, and smart cities need to be built with this objective in mind.

Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute

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