Ranking Smart Cities: Relevance and Challenges

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By Dominique Bonte | 2Q 2018 | IN-5083

Ranking criteria are by no means based on standard assessments. However, ABI Research focuses on smart cities’ key objectives and ambitions, and compares apples to apples in an upcoming report.

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Defining and Scoping the Smart Cities Paradigm Remains Elusive


Ranking smart cities remains an obsession for research companies, technology vendors, and governments. However, due to the lack of a clear definition of the smart city concept’s scope and boundaries, objective rankings remain elusive and there are as many doing the ranking as there are companies being ranked. There is no agreed upon standard for how to assess a city’s smart technology strategy and implementation in an objective and formal way. Smart city rankings can be based on any or all of the aspects and criteria described below:

  • Technologies: Fiber, 5G, V2X, ITS, LPWA, AI, blockchain, sensors
  • Single Point Use Cases: Smart street lights, smart waste management, smart metering, smart parking, camera surveillance, smart kiosks
  • Business Paradigms: Sharing economy, citizen participation, sensor crowdsourcing, eGovernment, demand-response systems, crowdfunding,
  • Holistic Applications and Cross Vertical Approaches:IoT platforms, standards, marketplaces,etc.
  • Benefits: Livability, cost of living, safety and security, resilience, sustainability, economic development
  • Public versus Private Initiatives: Public-private partnerships, grass root and crowdsourced efforts, complementing and sometimes taking over public initiatives, private sharing economy, national projects, etc.

This bewildering array of evaluation criteria and possible metrics makes it hard to come up with a transparent and standardized assessment framework, resulting in various meaningless efforts missing the mark completely. In particular, questions need to be asked about the smartness and effectiveness of a public or private urban technology implementation and to what extent it’s just informed by political objectives or considerations.

Scoping issues are not just related to the nature of technologies, projects, or applications, but also to the geographic boundaries: does a city end at its official boundaries or should the wider metropolitan area be taken into account?

Relevance of Rankings and the Smart Cities Competitive Environment


One of the main benefits of smart cities rankings is to highlight and promote best practices of advanced, forward-looking city governments. It should not be meant as a catalyst unleashing fierce competition resulting in duplication of efforts and inefficient use of resources. While some competition between cities might be good to drive or maintain industry momentum by accelerating interest in and deployment of smart city paradigms, fragmentation always looms large. And in any case, every city is different, mandating customized solutions targeting local contexts. Borrowing and fine tuning best practices from multiple cities should always be the plan.

From an economic development perspective, cities compete against each other to attract businesses, often even involving favorable tax incentives and creating an overall positive climate for enterprises, creating imbalances in the growth across cities within countries. This especially impacts smaller cities that are often disadvantaged due to limited financial resources and a lack of technical or other expertise. On the other hand, coalitions between cities are starting to appear, pulling a larger number of cities into the economic benefits of smart city practices by sharing and replicating best practices and avoiding duplication of efforts.

Smart cities competitions, organized by trade organizations or national governments, have the additional advantage of making available financial resources in the form of money prizes, allowing cities to accelerate the execution of their strategies.

ABI Research's Smart Cities Ranking Approach


ABI Research’s smart cities ranking methodology is centered around key smart city objectives and ambitions, while formalizing achievements and strategic direction through its proven implementation/innovation criteria competitive assessment framework. Innovation criteria are focused on next-generation paradigms like driverless car sharing, microgrids, and automated, closed-loop demand-response infrastructure, which can provide fundamental solutions to a city’s hard problems. Implementation criteria are based on the evaluation of objective metrics on key performance indicators for congestion, digital inclusion, crime, economic development, livability, and cost of living, all of which are directly related to smart city benefits.

Additionally, ABI Research avoids meaningless direct comparisons between megacities and smaller cities (for example, comparing London and Bristol in the United Kingdom or Columbus, Ohio and New York City in the United States), as the problems smaller cities face are of such a different magnitude and character that every comparison becomes largely irrelevant. In other words, whichever smart city technologies Bristol or Columbus have deployed or are planning to deploy in relation with the rather small challenges they are facing, however laudable, seem futile when considering the hard problems cities like London and New York are trying to address. Similarly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to compare cities in both developed and developing regions due to different environments and stages in their development. ABI Research’s upcoming Smart Cities Competitive Assessment will compare the following 10 mega cities/metropolitan areas across developed regions: New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Dubai, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, and Seoul.