The 10 Smartest Cities In North America

Which cities are doing the most to become the sustainable, connected, innovative city of the future?

The survival of our species on planet earth is largely going to be determined by what happens in our cities. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in them. We are observing a mass migration to cities at an unprecedented rate. The growing urbanization places high demands on infrastructure such as transportation and building as well as increased demand for resources such as food, water, and energy. Global cities can not continue to sprawl as many U.S. cities did in the 20th century.


Today’s cities demand 21st century solutions to accommodate their growing populations in ways that not only maintain the quality of life, but also improve it. That’s where smart cities come in. Smart cities find ways to become more efficient, to deliver more services via mobile technology, to optimize existing infrastructure, and to leverage citizen participation to create better land-use decisions and to break down bureaucracy in order to stimulate a creative, entrepreneurial economy. In short, smart cities are innovative cities.

This is the third year of publishing a ranking of the region’s smartest cities (you can read last year’s here). This North American ranking is the first of four that we’ll unveil in the coming weeks, which will include Asia Pacific, Europe, and Latin America. Over the past year I refined the smart cities wheel framework, a visual guide that I use to help frame the discussion of smart cities. While the ranking methodology for 2012 is quite similar in its use of publicly available data as proxies for measuring each of the six components of the wheel, I have added an important new element this year: information from the cities themselves. Learn more about the full methodology here.

Here, then, are the smartest cities in North America for 2013:


1: Seattle

Moving up a few places from the 2012 rankings, Seattle led the pack in Smart Economy and Smart Government rankings while coming in second behind Washington, D.C. in the Smart People category. Seattle is also home to lots of sustainability innovation and the home to the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, one of the world’s leading master’s program dedicated to sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship. Sustainable Seattle and Climate Solutions are good examples of local organizations focused on promoting sustainable development. Aside from Sustainable Seattle’s core projects and indicator work, they also spun out an initiative called the Happiness Initiative, which aims to measure the level of local happiness, something I consider to be a core objective of smart city programs.

Seattle is also a quality hub for startups and is one of the only North American cities with more than 1,000 open data sets which are offered for transparency but also to support the growth of startups and introduction of mobile apps to improve mobility and quality of life in the city. In the 2012 publication of the Global Startup Ecosystem Index, Seattle’s entrepreneurial ecosystem was ranked fourth in the world. Part of this ranking, and one of the reasons Seattle achieved No. 1 position in this Smart Cities ranking is due to its ability to attract creative and entrepreneurial talent.

2: Boston (tie)

Last year, Boston was No. 1 and has slipped only slightly to a tie for second place. Boston has an incredibly smart and innovative population, boasting more than 70 universities and leading North America in both patents per capita and venture capital investment per capita. Boston’s former mayor Thomas Menino was a big driver in the innovation agenda through the launch of the Innovation District, the creation of the Office of New Urban Mechanics, and support for acceleration programs, like the MassChallenge.


Boston is also excelling in the smart government arena. In Boston’s response to the indicator survey, they said that more than 150 transactions with the city can be completed 100% online. The city writes: “For example, we use cameras and inductive loops to manage traffic and acoustic sensors to identify gun shots. However, our biggest source of sensors are our citizens’ smartphones. Through apps we’ve developed such as Street Bump and Citizens Connect, we’re able to empower our residents to extend the civic-sensor network with no additional cost to the taxpayer.”

2: San Francisco (tie)

San Francisco holds its number-two spot down in 2013. Like Boston, one of the areas I am most interested in regarding San Francisco is its strong entrepreneurial ecosystem. I am particularly interested in the work by urbanist Richard Florida in suggesting that the epicenter of the Bay Area entrepreneurial ecosystem is moving away from Silicon Valley and towards San Francisco itself. Much like Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, San Francisco has a mayor’s office dedicated to civic innovation.

Of course, for years San Francisco has been a leader in embracing sustainability and smart urban development as evidenced by their regular spot in the top of North American green cities rankings. San Francisco reports having 302 LEED certified buildings, which would place them in the upper echelon of North American cities.


4: Washington, D.C.

Experts in the smart cities seem to agree that smart mobility is critical to improving the quality of life for citizens while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from the transportation sector. D.C. came out in second behind only New York in the use of biking, walking, and public transit (54.6%) for daily commuting. D.C. also has among the highest educated population in North America, while having one of the lowest Gini indexes (0.433). For those unfamiliar, the Gini index measures the amount of income inequality and the lower the score, the better.

D.C. is not shying away from big data and social media. They recently launched to mine social media to monitor residents complaints and concerns and suggestions across numerous social-media platforms. Once aggregated, the data is fed to the appropriate municipal agency to determine how they may respond to citizen concerns. Furthermore, in a smart approach to transparency, this data is converted to letter grades for the different agencies with the grade being available to the general public.

5: New York

New York has been a regular in these rankings since 2011, and for good reason. It has pioneered the adoption of electric vehicles, embraced green and smart urban regeneration, and fostered a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem (Silicon Alley). New York has a significant number of universities and university-educated population and has been a leader, through outgoing Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to initiatives like C40, in promoting the low-carbon economy.


Also, New York recently launched one of the largest bike-sharing initiatives in the world, with 4,500 bikes. This of course contributes to the city’s ongoing leadership in North America in the use of non-motorized and public transport. As well, New York City has embraced open data, having more than 2,400 databases open to the public, more than twice their nearest competitor in this ranking.

6: Toronto

Given the current struggles with their current mayor (at least he is still mayor as I write this review), I am wondering if I need to modify my smart city indicators to include something regarding each city’s mayor’s behavior, which in this case appears to be far from smart.

Nevertheless, Toronto continues to be a leader in Canada across several fronts. Like other major cities on this list, Toronto has continued its commitment to smart densification with its ongoing transformation of its previously contaminated waterfront area. In collaboration with IBM, Waterfront Toronto has launched phase one of to allow residents to have real-time web and mobile access to transit info and traffic congestion reports, public transit information, local weather and news reports as well as, in the near future, energy- and water-consumption data.


7: Vancouver

My former home for seven years, Vancouver has much to be proud of. Vancouver’s bold mayor has spearheaded numerous initiatives to continue its tradition as a very livable and green city. In recent years, the city embarked on an impressive citizen-engagement initiative to co-create a new vision for the city. This culminated in an aggressive plan to try to become the greenest city on the planet by 2020.

While Vancouver has a ways to go regarding digital governance, it recently developed an ambitious $30 million plan to become a major player in smart cities by focusing on nine key priorities ranging from more open data and increased digital services delivery to the launch of an ICT incubator.

8: Portland, Oregon

Portland has long been a leading player in the green cities arena, with innovations such as green roof standards, home an office of the paradigm shifting Living Building Institute (it’s main HQ is–of course–in Seattle), and also pioneering the development of ecodistricts. On the mobility front, they have a fantastic set of clean, accessible public-transit options, particularly within the city. Collaborating with the local Climate Trust, Portland has been an early leader in the use of ICT solutions for real-time traffic signal timing adjustments to support smart mobility and congestion and GHG emission reductions.


Like others on this list, Portland has also engaged in a smart transformation of its waterfront into a mixed-use, green residential, university, and commercial area.

9: Chicago

Chicago is dedicated to being a green building leader, and with 405 certified LEED buildings, they are putting their money where their mouth is. Chicago also has an ambitious bike-sharing program, with 4,000 bikes and 400 solar-powered bike stations.

Chicago has embraced digital governance in several ways ranging from nearly 1,000 open databases to the recent launch of their “Data Dictionary” which aims to enhance the usability and accessibility of its open data program. Under current mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city has also developed an ambitious technology strategy complete with 28 initiatives driven by the vision of “becoming the city where technology fuels opportunity, inclusion, engagement, and innovation.” Some of the 28 initiatives include broader rollout of high-speed broadband, the introduction of public displays for residents and tourists to gain access to real-time, hyperlocal data, increase public Wi-Fi access, and “provide a broad range of intellectual and financial resources to help residents and civic technologists use technology to improve urban life.”


10: Montreal

The third Canadian city to make the top 10 smart cities in North America, this European-inspired city has plenty to offer the smart city enthusiast. Starting with mobility, Montreal has the largest bike-sharing program in North America, with more than 5,000 bikes and 450 stations. Also, Montreal has the lowest Gini index of all cities in the ranking (0.397).

Citizen engagement is critical to smart cities. In 2010, Montreal passed a bylaw which allows anyone who obtains 15,000 signatures to trigger a public consultation process on any topic. The first group of citizen activists to leverage this process obtained 25,000 signatures to generate an open public debate about how to support the increasing use of urban agriculture. That’s smart.

The smart cities movement has really picked up steam in the past few years. It is beginning to come into its own and be defined by a much broader set of stakeholders than technologists who coined the term. The smart cities wheel, and this ranking initiative, seeks to expand the discussion by establishing a benchmark for what cities around the world are actually doing to get smarter. As I like to say, smart cities reflect a journey, not a destination–and hopefully this North American ranking and the forthcoming ones for Europe, Asia Pacific, and Latin America contribute to the journey of these cities while helping to engage citizens in the dialog.


About the author

Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., an urban strategist helping to lead communities, cities and companies on the journey towards the smart, innovative and low carbon economy. Dr


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