The term “smart city” has been around for three decades now. Back in 1997, it was predicted that around 50,000 cities and towns would jump on the smart city bandwagon. Fast forward to the present day and our infatuation with them shows no sign of abating. In India alone, the government is planning to develop 100 smart cities.

But nobody seems clear on what the criteria for a smart city actually is. Southampton claimed to be the UK’s first smart city simply off the back of a glorified bus pass.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got whole cities being built out of nothing - literally. Masdar City in the UAE is being built in the desert near Abu Dhabi. It has self-driving podcars and will be so high tech that there will be no light switches or water taps in the entire settlement. What could possibly go wrong?

So what is a smart city?

The short answer: nobody really agrees.

Some smart city scholars (yes, that’s a thing) attempted to come up with a definitive definition back in 2015, compiling 23 different definitions by academics. Put together, the definitions suggested that smart cities could solve a lot of problems. A whole heap of problems. Some of the aims of a smart city included sustainability, increased quality of life, economic growth, improved services, a healthy and happy community, optimisation of resources, integrated infrastructure and a better educated population. Phew.

Smart cities would achieve this through technology. Although the type of technology differed from definition to definition. For some, it remained vague (Internet and Communication Technology); in others, it was very specific, referencing data, sensors, and smart devices.

Unsurprisingly, the article’s authors concluded that smart city is a “multi-faceted” term. We would agree..

Why are there so many different definitions of the smart city?

One reason that “smart city” has so many definitions is because so many people are using it for their own agendas- and in the process each giving it their own spin.

“Smart city” is a great marketing catchphrase for both businesses and cities. IBM, for one, is aware of this, trademarking the term “smarter city” in 2011.

And the positive connotations of the word “smart” are hard to overlook; as Robert G Hollands points out, “what city does not want to be smart or intelligent?” If your city isn’t smart, the logical conclusion is that it is stupid - and nobody wants to live in a stupid city.

This means that you have all sorts of cities adopting the term. Because those cities are wildly different, so too are their smart city projects. A smart city built from scratch, like Masdar City or Songdo in South Korea, looks very different from one that is being adapted from an existing city, like London.

Different cities have different priorities and have different infrastructures in place to support projects - for example, in India’s Smart City Mission, their first priority is an adequate water supply. Cities have different budgets, while from a data point of view their citizens will have varying levels of concern about privacy.

Instead of just one smart city definition, perhaps we need several.

Smart City 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0?

Many experts (these smart city scholars again) believe that there have been several stages or types of smart city.

In their definitions, the first smart cities were top-down and driven by innovations in the tech sector.

A large part of this early definition was the Internet of Things (IoT) - where objects that normally aren’t connected to the internet are, or sensors across the city record data. For example, a toaster (for some reason, it’s always a toaster in these examples) that tells you what the weather today is going to be.

This definition of smart cities has proved remarkably persistent (if Wikipedia uses it, it must be true, right?). But, as other versions of the smart city have proved, IoT is not the be-all and end-all.

Smart city 2.0 is when the city leads the innovation, supported by technology. A good example of this is when Rio de Janeiro's mayor asked IBM to develop a system that would predict mudslides that were responsible for killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless.

The third smart city model is when citizens play a key part in the deciding on the necessary projects, such as in Medellin in Colombia where engaging some of the poorest citizens in the planning process helped transform a city that was once the most dangerous on the planet.

In this model tech is not of primary or even secondary importance - it’s more about thinking about problems in a different way by engaging people who are traditionally excluded from these discussions.

So that’s one way of breaking down smart cities. But few cities fit neatly into these categories - they might start off a 1.0 then become a 2.0. Or perhaps they are a 3.0 with a smattering of 2.0.

And so maybe splitting these definitions up isn’t all that helpful.

How do we define smart city?

Despite all of these ambiguities, at Desana we are pretty committed to using “smart city” - in fact, you’ll find a page on our website dedicated solely to our smart city impact.

Broadly speaking, therefore, we believe smart city initiatives are about thinking of the future and solving problems using data and technology, with the main goals being sustainability and quality of life.

We think “smart city” remains a helpful term because it signals this technological approach as a way of solving these problems. It shows we want to solve on-going problems in ways that never could have been dreamt of only a few decades ago, back in the 1980s when Microsoft Paint was a revelation or even in 1996 when “videophones for the price of a standard telephone, wristphones, and computers that recognise faces” were spoken of breathlessly as the technology of tomorrow.

We will keep using “smart city” because it provides a quick shorthand for what we are talking about (as opposed to saying that we are trying to improve quality of life and increase sustainability by leveraging the power of… you get my drift) and it connects us to other people talking about the same thing.

Think of the word “dog”. You might associate it with a sleek greyhound; I might think of a cute bichon frise. For one person the word evokes unconditional affection, for someone else it means assistance animal and for yet someone else it is a terrifying creature with large teeth. All of those meanings and associations - and many more - are encompassed in that one word.

Language is imperfect. It is just slightly more obvious in some cases than others.

So as long as we dream of making the world a better place by using technology, we will be talking about smart cities in some shape or other. There may come a time when that specific term falls out of fashion. But the ideas that it represents - that longing for a better tomorrow achieved through the advances of today - will remain current for as long as humans are humans.

And, for now, “smart city” seems as good a way of expressing that aspiration as any.

Do you think it is helpful to keep using the term “smart city”? Let us know on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.