Smart cities: Digital solutions for a more livable future

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McKinsey Global Institute

Jonathan Woetzel, Jaana Remes, Brodie Boland, Katrina Lv, Suveer Sinha, Gernot Strube, John Means, Jonathan Law, Andres Cadena, Valerie von der Tann


Until recently, city leaders thought of smart technologies primarily as tools for becoming more efficient behind the scenes. Now technology is being injected more directly into the lives of residents. Smartphones have become the keys to the city, putting instant information about transit, traffic, health services, safety alerts, and community news into millions of hands.

After a decade of trial and error, municipal leaders are realizing that smart-city strategies start with people, not technology. “Smartness” is not just about installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructure or streamlining city operations. It is also about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life.

Quality of life has many dimensions, from the air residents breathe to how safe they feel walking the streets. The latest report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), Smart cities: Digital solutions for a more livable future (PDF–6MB), analyzes how dozens of digital applications address these kinds of practical and very human concerns. It finds that cities can use smart technologies to improve some key quality-of-life indicators by 10 to 30 percent—numbers that translate into lives saved, fewer crime incidents, shorter commutes, a reduced health burden, and carbon emissions averted.

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What makes a city smart?

Smart cities put data and digital technology to work to make better decisions and improve the quality of life. More comprehensive, real-time data gives agencies the ability to watch events as they unfold, understand how demand patterns are changing, and respond with faster and lower-cost solutions.

Three layers work together to make a smart city hum. First is the technology base, which includes a critical mass of smartphones and sensors connected by high-speed communication networks. The second layer consists of specific applications. Translating raw data into alerts, insight, and action requires the right tools, and this is where technology providers and app developers come in. The third layer is usage by cities, companies, and the public. Many applications succeed only if they are widely adopted and manage to change behavior. They encourage people to use transit during off-hours, to change routes, to use less energy and water and to do so at different times of day, and to reduce strains on the healthcare system through preventive self-care.

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Smart-city technologies have substantial unrealized potential to improve the urban quality of life

MGI assessed how smart-city applications could affect various quality-of-life dimensions: safety, time and convenience, health, environmental quality, social connectedness and civic participation, jobs, and the cost of living. The wide range of outcomes reflects the fact that applications perform differently from city to city, depending on factors such as legacy infrastructure systems and on baseline starting points.

Applications can help cities fight crime and improve other aspects of public safety

Deploying a range of applications to their maximum effect could potentially reduce fatalities (from homicide, road traffic, and fires) by 8 to 10 percent. In a high-crime city with a population of five million, this could mean saving up to 300 lives each year. Incidents of assault, robbery, burglary, and auto theft could be lowered by 30 to 40 percent. On top of these metrics are the incalculable benefits of giving residents freedom of movement and peace of mind.

Technology is not a quick fix for crime, but agencies can use data to deploy scarce resources and personnel more effectively. Real-time crime mapping, for instance, utilizes statistical analysis to highlight patterns, while predictive policing goes a step further, anticipating crime to head off incidents before they occur. When incidents do occur, applications such as gunshot detection, smart surveillance, and home security systems can accelerate law-enforcement response. But data-driven policing has to be deployed in a way that protects civil liberties and avoids criminalizing specific neighborhoods or demographic groups.

Seconds count when lives are at stake, making speed critical for first responders in getting to the scene of emergencies. Smart systems can optimize call centers and field operations, while traffic-signal preemption gives emergency vehicles a clear driving path. These types of applications could cut emergency response times by 20 to 35 percent. A city with an already low response time of eight minutes could shave off almost two minutes. A city starting with an average response time of 50 minutes might be able to trim that by more than 17 minutes.

Smart-city technologies can make daily commutes faster and less frustrating

Tens of millions of people in cities worldwide begin and end every workday fuming in traffic or piling into overcrowded buses and trains. Improving the daily commute is critical to quality of life.

By 2025, cities that deploy smart-mobility applications have the potential to cut commuting times by 15 to 20 percent on average, with some people enjoying even larger reductions. The potential associated with each application is highly variable, depending on each city’s density, existing transit infrastructure, and commuting patterns. In a dense city with extensive transit, smart technologies could save the average commuter almost 15 minutes a day. In a developing city with more grueling commutes, the improvement might be 20 to 30 minutes every day.

In general, cities with extensive, well-used transit systems benefit from applications that streamline the experience for riders. Using digital signage or mobile apps to deliver real-time information about delays enables riders to adjust their routes on the fly. Installing IoT sensors on existing physical infrastructure can help crews fix problems before they turn into breakdowns and delays.

Applications that ease road congestion are more effective in cities where driving is prevalent or where buses are the primary mode of transit. Intelligent syncing of traffic signals has the potential to reduce average commutes by more than 5 percent in developing cities where most people travel by bus. Real-time navigation alerts drivers to delays and helps them choose the fastest route. Smart-parking apps point them directly to available spots, eliminating time spent fruitlessly circling city blocks.

Cities can be catalysts for better health

The sheer density of cities makes them critical although currently underutilized platforms for addressing health. Recognizing that the role of technology in healthcare is broad and evolving by the day, we analyze only digital applications that offer cities room to play a role. We quantify their potential impact on disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), the primary metric used by the World Health Organization to convey the global disease burden, reflecting not only years of life lost to early death but also productive and healthy life lost to disability or incapacity. If cities deploy the applications included in our analyses to their fullest effect, we see the potential to reduce DALYs by 8 to 15 percent.

Applications that help prevent, treat, and monitor chronic conditions, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, could make the biggest difference in the developed world. Remote-patient-monitoring systems have the potential to reduce the health burden in high-income cities by more than 4 percent. These systems use digital devices to take vital readings, then transmit them securely to doctors in another location for assessment. This data can alert both patient and doctor when early intervention is needed, heading off complications and hospitalizations.

Cities can use data and analytics to identify demographic groups with elevated risk profiles and target interventions more precisely. So-called mHealth interventions can send out lifesaving messages about vaccinations, sanitation, safe sex, and adherence to antiretroviral therapy regimens. In low-income cities with high infant-mortality rates, data-based interventions focused on maternal and child health alone could reduce DALYs by more than 5 percent. Another 5 percent reduction is possible if developing cities use infectious-disease surveillance systems to stay a step ahead of fast-moving epidemics. Telemedicine, which provides clinical consultations by videoconference, can also be lifesaving in low-income cities with doctor shortages.

Smart cities can deliver a cleaner and more sustainable environment

As urbanization, industrialization, and consumption grow, environmental pressures multiply. Applications such as building-automation systems, dynamic electricity pricing, and some mobility applications could combine to cut emissions by 10 to 15 percent.

Water-consumption tracking, which pairs advanced metering with digital feedback messages, can nudge people toward conservation and reduce consumption by 15 percent in cities where residential water usage is high. In many parts of the developing world, the biggest source of water waste is leakage from pipes. Deploying sensors and analytics can cut those losses by up to 25 percent. Applications such as pay-as-you-throw digital tracking can reduce the volume of solid waste per capita by 10 to 20 percent. Overall, cities can save 25 to 80 liters of water per person each day and reduce unrecycled solid waste by 30 to 130 kilograms per person annually.

Air-quality sensors do not automatically address the causes of pollution, but they can identify the sources and provide the basis for further action. Beijing reduced deadly airborne pollutants by roughly 20 percent in less than a year by closely tracking the sources of pollution and regulating traffic and construction accordingly. Sharing real-time air-quality information with the public via smartphone apps enables individuals to take protective measures. This can reduce negative health effects by 3 to 15 percent, depending on current pollution levels.

Smart cities can create a new type of digital urban commons and enhance social connectedness

Community is hard to quantify, but MGI surveyed urban residents to determine if digital channels for communicating with local officials as well as digital platforms that facilitate real-world interactions (such as Meetup and Nextdoor) can have an impact. Our analysis suggests that using these types of applications could nearly double the share of residents who feel connected to the local community, and nearly triple the share who feel connected to local government.

Establishing channels for two-way communication between the public and local agencies could make city governments more responsive. Many city agencies maintain an active presence on social networks, and others have developed their own interactive citizen apps. In addition to disseminating information, these channels create vehicles for residents to report concerns, collect data, or weigh in on planning issues. Paris has implemented a participatory budget, inviting anyone to post project ideas and then holding online votes to decide which ones merit funding.

Becoming a smart city is not a strategy for job creation, but smart solutions can make local labor markets more efficient and slightly lower the cost of living

Many local officials want to know if becoming a smart city will lead to an infusion of high-paying tech jobs or accelerate a wave of automation. Our analysis finds a slightly positive net impact on formal employment. Smart technologies will directly eliminate some jobs (such as administrative and field jobs in city government) while creating others (such as maintenance, driving roles, and temporary installation jobs). E-career centers can have a modest positive impact by creating more efficient mechanisms for hiring and drawing more unemployed and inactive people into the workforce. Data-driven formal education and online retraining programs can enhance a city’s pool of skills. Digitizing government functions such as business licensing, permitting, and tax filing can free local enterprises from red tape, contributing to a more entrepreneurial business climate.

Many of the world’s most dynamic and desirable cities have serious housing shortages, driving up rents and home prices. Expanding the supply of housing can bring down those costs. In many places, bureaucracy bogs down land acquisition, environmental studies, design approvals, and permitting. Digitizing these processes can remove risks and delays, encouraging more construction. In addition, most cities have a surprising amount of land sitting idle that could be suitable for infill housing. Creating open-source cadastral databases can help to identify land parcels for development.

Smart applications produce savings in other areas, such as encouraging more efficient usage of utilities and the healthcare system. Products such as home-security systems, personal-alert devices, and lifestyle wearables involve consumer purchases, but they offer value that many are willing to pay for. Mobility applications offer new value as well, although e-hailing may encourage people to take more rides than they once did. However, e-hailing and other sharing applications make it possible for some people to forgo private vehicle ownership. MGI estimates that the average person could save as much as 3 percent on current annual expenditures.

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A look at current deployment in 50 cities around the world shows that even the most advanced still have a long way to go

MGI took a snapshot of deployment in 50 cities around the world, not to crown the world’s smartest city but to show the full sweep of activity under way around the globe. This includes assessment of each city’s technology base, its current application rollout, and public adoption.

Our view of each city’s technology base looked at the extent of sensors and devices, the quality of communication networks, and the presence of open data portals. Among the most advanced are Amsterdam, New York, Seoul, Singapore, and Stockholm—but even these front-runners are only about two-thirds of the way toward what constitutes a fully comprehensive technology base today. In general, cities across China, East Asia, Europe, and North America have relatively strong tech bases, as do select cities in the Middle East. But those in Africa, India, and Latin America lag behind, particularly in installing the sensor layer, the most capital-intensive element.

We gauged each city’s progress in implementation using a checklist of current smart applications. Mobility has been a top priority for most cities, but those places with the highest number of applications implemented overall—London, Los Angeles, New York, Seoul, Shenzhen, and Singapore—have branched out into multiple domains. Some cities have not yet implemented the applications with the greatest potential to address some of their priority issues.

MGI conducted online surveys in all of the cities analyzed to gauge how residents feel about the technologies already at work in their environment. We found that Asian cities are the strongest performers in awareness, usage, and satisfaction, while European cities lag. Positive adoption and awareness appear correlated with having a young population that not only accepts a more digital way of doing things but also expects it.

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Smart cities change the economics of infrastructure and create room for partnerships and private-sector participation

Smart-city technologies help cities get more out of their assets, whether they have extensive legacy systems or are building from scratch. There is no getting around the need to invest in physical assets and maintenance, but smart technologies can add new capabilities as core components are upgraded.

Infrastructure investment once locked cities into capital-intensive and extremely long-term plans. Now, using the right combination of traditional construction and smart solutions, they can respond more dynamically to how demand is changing. If population growth surges in a far-flung neighborhood, adding a new subway or bus line with the accompanying fleet expansion may take years. By contrast, a privately operated on-demand minibus service could be up and running much faster.

City government does not have to be the sole funder and operator of every type of service and infrastructure system. While implementing most of the applications that we examined would fall to the public sector, the majority of the initial investment could come from private actors. Public financing may be reserved for only those public goods that must be provided by the government. Furthermore, more than half of the initial investment that needs to be made by the public sector would generate a positive financial return, which opens the door to partnerships.

Adding more actors to the mix is a positive, since it increases adoption and applies more creativity to the available data. When private-sector innovations spring up organically, the role of government may involve regulating, convening key actors, offering subsidies, or changing purchasing decisions. Rather than taking a master-planning approach, some cities position themselves as ecosystems, creating consortia and even physical collaboration spaces.

Some cities are starting their transformations with inherent advantages such as wealth, density, and existing high-tech industries. But even places that lack these ingredients can set themselves apart with vision, good management, a willingness to break with conventional ways of doing things, and a relentless commitment to meeting the needs of residents. There are many blank canvases for the private sector, not for profits, and technologists to fill—and above all, individuals should be empowered to shape the future of the cities they call home.


About the author(s)

Jonathan Woetzel is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Shanghai office and a director of the McKinsey Global Institute; Jaana Remes is a partner in the San Francisco office; Brodie Boland is an associate partner the Washington, DC, office, where John Means is a partner; Katrina Lv is a partner in the Shenzhen office; Suveer Sinha is a partner in the Mumbai office; Gernot Strube is a senior partner in the Munich office; Jonathan Law is a partner in the New York office; Andrés Cadena is a partner in the Bogotá office; and Valerie von der Tann is a consultant in the Berlin office.