Smart cities sound like an appropriate setting for cyberpunk dystopian novels, so it’s hard to imagine ourselves actually living in one. Depending on who you ask, a smart city could be one that’s entirely self-sustaining, relying on a vast, interconnected web of information to dictate everything from traffic patterns to consumption habits, or it could just be a tech-upgraded version of a modern-day city we’re all familiar with.

Either way, upgrading our cities with more technology, especially in the growing era of the internet of things (IoT), sounds like a good idea. So how long before we can actually achieve this feat?

What Is a Smart City?

Let’s start by talking about what a “smart city” might actually look like. Any smart city should have a fleet of electronic sensors and devices to collect information on things happening in city limits, including the flow of vehicular traffic, the flow of pedestrian traffic, weather changes, infrastructure conditions, and more. With the help of AI, we can collect and analyze these data, resulting in real-time and/or long-term changes to the environment; for example, a sudden change in traffic patterns could trigger traffic lights to self-adjust and allow for a more natural flow, or a sensor that detects road damage could trigger a repair team to be deployed to the area.

There isn’t a strict, formal definition for what constitutes a smart city and what doesn’t. Accordingly, the transition will likely be gradual, slowly taking our existing city infrastructures through phases of new technology and new modes of operation as they become more technologically advanced.

Building From the Ground Up

Now, let’s look at the process we might follow to take a city from its modern-day status to a designation as a smart city. Before we can feasibly declare the existence of a “smart city,” we’ll need to establish and develop smart buildings. Smart buildings would feasibly collect data on visitors and occupants, as well as their interior and exterior condition. Even more importantly, they could serve as nodes on a wider, more interconnected grid—the smart city.

Stitching together the data from many different devices, operating systems, and businesses would be an enormous challenge, so it’s unlikely that a smart city would emerge organically from a collection of different smart buildings. However, smart buildings serve as a kind of “proof of concept” that IoT systems can be integrated in a cohesive and practical way. Accordingly, as smart buildings become more commonplace (and as we learn from our mistakes when developing them), we’ll gradually get more comfortable with the idea of integrating and monitoring our cities in the same way.

How Much Longer Will We Wait?

So how long will we wait before we start seeing the emergence of smart cities? That depends on how you want to define what a “smart city” is. Some major world cities are already pursuing major, tech-based infrastructural upgrades.

For example, the Amsterdam Smart City Initiative began in 2009, and currently hosts more than 170 independent projects designed by local residents, businesses, and the government. Already, these interconnected devices and processes have reduced and improved traffic in the city, saved energy, and promoted public safety. For example, business owners can currently rent out empty parking spaces in their parking lots for a fixed fee, and data generated from this endeavor has led to a better understanding of traffic and parking demand, which has, in turn, led to better infrastructural improvements.

New York City has also been home to a number of smart city-like improvements, including the rollout of LinkNYC. The LinkNYC network offers free Wi-Fi via publicly installed kiosks, which began to be installed back in 2014, replacing former locations of payphones. These kiosks have also been rolled out in other major cities.

With these examples, it’s evident that we’re already beginning to enter the era of smart cities. In the coming years, more city initiatives like these will develop, and existing initiatives will grow more robust.

Public Concerns

There are a few limiting factors impeding the growth and development of smart cities, however. For example, some experts have raised privacy concerns; if data on pedestrians are collected regularly and if citizens are relying on publicly available, free Wi-Fi, their privacy will almost certainly be compromised to some extent. There’s also the potential problem of vulnerability to hackers; what would happen if someone seized control of a system that dictates how traffic flows?

In any case, some of us are already living in municipalities that could be considered “smart cities” under the laxest definitions. It’s only a matter of years before those smart cities become more robust, and a matter of a decade or two before all major cities get similar upgrades—though the nature and extent of those upgrades remains in question.