The Smartest Cities In The World

These cities that are doing the best at embracing the future are focusing on improving technology, equality, sharing, civic participation, and more.

Over the past several years, the idea of the being “smart” has emerged as a key mechanism for cities to find innovative solutions to the challenges that they are facing. Increased demand for infrastructure, housing, transportation, jobs, energy, food and water are all straining city governments and infrastructure, as people around the world flock to urban centers in hopes of a better life and more opportunity. For many years, the push to create smarter cities was led by technology companies looking for uses (and buyers) for their products. But in recent years, cities have begun to think more holistically about what being a smart city could mean, and have innovated new ways to modernize how a city serves its citizens.

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For the past several years, I’ve published an annual ranking of smart cities, and with each passing year I have sought to improve the quality of the ranking methodology. This year, This year, I embarked on a rather ambitious experiment Leveraging an international advisory panel, I expanded the survey to 62 indicators across the key components and subcomponents of the Smart Cities Wheel that I developed a few years ago.

Smart cities are a complex phenomenon and any effort to measure them needs to contain breadth and depth of indicators–and this year I have that. I have added several more information technology related indicators, like broadband Internet and the number of mobile applications that leverage open data initiatives. But I also have added low-tech indicators to ascertain how much a city is embracing shared mobility, like measuring the number of bikes and cars currently in their sharing programs. I have also added citizen participation metrics, such as the number of citizens engagement events held each year and percentage of citizens who vote in local elections.

I sent a survey of these 62 indicators to 120 cities around the world (30 cities in four regions). Unfortunately only 11 cities around the globe were able to participate due to the complexity and time required to collect such diverse data. Given the small sample size, and some inconsistencies in the data, this year I am not reporting formal rankings (you can read more about the methodology of the selection here).


But I did learn a lot about what these cities are doing, and what makes a smart city in 2015. In looking at these examples of smart cities around the globe, I’ve divided them into three categories: Pioneering Smart Cities, cities that have been on the leading edge of smart city development for some time (for these cities, I also discuss the challenges that face them in advancing their development even further). Emerging Smart Cities are cities on the cusp of true innovation. And Next Stage Smart Cities will be on the leading edge of innovative metropolises soon, if they keep up their good work. Here’s the list:

Pioneering Smart Cities

Flickr user Robert Cudmore


Barcelona has regularly ranked highly on our annual smart cities rankings Perhaps it is no surprise then that Barcelona is working on becoming the Mobile World Capital, is the host of the largest annual smart cities event (the Smart City Expo occurring this week) and was recently awarded the title of Europe’s Innovation Capital. Barcelona has a very robust smart cities program with 22 program areas covering everything from ubiquitous public Wi-Fi to becoming energy self-sufficient.


A few more recent innovative projects demonstrate Barcelona’s continued leadership in the smart cities arena. Barcelona just won a Mayors’ Challenge award from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The city will receive 5 million euros for the development of an innovative program designed to support the city’s growing elderly population via a digital trust network aimed to close gaps in the care adn quality of life for this vulnerable population. Another fascinating initiative from Barcelona is their BCN Open Challenge program which utilizes’s crowdsourcing platform to select innovative solutions to 6 city challenges. Barcelona was the first city to adopt this approach with Citysmart, but others including Moscow have since followed.

Challenge: In light of the above, it is difficult to find problems in Barcelona that are not already being addressed. Yet one area that needs much more work in Barcelona is, ironically, how to mitigate the results of so much success for their ongoing work. Barcelona has become an innovation hub and is attracting many members of the creative class for work or pleasure. Tourism is a large and growing component of the city’s economy. Yet it is putting strain on heritage sites and historic neighborhoods. It will be interesting to see how Barcelona strategically addresses the goal of continued support of smart tourism with the need to protect and preserve the local culture and quality of life for local residents.

Flickr user Simon Q.



Copenhagen is another city which scores well in most city rankings. It is widely considered the greenest capital city in the world and aims to be the first capital city to become carbon neutral by 2025. Copenhagen is, of course, famous for its impressive cycling culture. But the city has continued to innovate around topics such as rigorous green building requirements, expansion of green spaces and public transit, and a growing use of renewable energy to supply residents with sustainable heating and cooling from sources such as the neighboring waterway and the landfill.

But Copenhagen is more than just a green city. In fact it scored highest amongst all cities in our “smart people” category which measures things such as social inclusion, education and creativity. Copenhagen residents have amongst the highest smart phone ownership rates (75%) and are among the most engaged citizens, participating in more than 1,000 civic engagement events throughout the year.

Copenhagen has continued to invest in smart technologies in their transportation system. For example, 81% of their traffic lights are centrally monitored and managed, and 49% of those lights have sensors to give rights of ways to buses. Also, Copenhagen partnered with MIT to co-create the Copenhagen Wheel, an electric-assist wheel with embedded sensors which is now being marketed as a private initiative.


Challenge: Copenhagen is clearly a pioneer in green city initiatives. But to attract and retain the best and brightest young minds, which is a clear goal of most smart cities initiatives, it needs to grow its reputation as an innovation and creative hub.

Flickr user seisdeagosto


Helsinki is a very innovative city which has embraced the smart cities construct in many ways–of these 11 cities, it actually scored the highest. It hasbeen one of the leading cities in the world with respect to transparent and open data. The city has more than 1,200 open data sets (the most of all cities in this study) and 108 applications have been built and are in operation which leverage their open data program.


Helsinki has a strong commitment to digital technology. A full 100% of residential and commercial buildings have smart meters, and 70% of commercial buildings leverage automation systems to enhance efficiency. Helsinki has also implemented a smart grid throughout the city.

Helsinki is also experimenting with new technologies and has 3 living labs which are part of the European Network of Living Labs. Helsinki is also the first city I know of to experiment with an on-demand bus service.

Challenge: Helsinki scored well across the board on the indicators. One area where they could improve is in embracing the sharing economy. For example, Helsinki does not have a bike sharing program and they have a small fleet of shared vehicles.

Flickr user Presence Inc


Singapore is unique in that it is a city-state. As a nation, it has recently unveiled a bold Smart Singapore strategy which aims to convert the city-state to the first true smart nation through a range of initiatives leverage intelligence, integration and innovation to become a major player on the world stage. Part of this strategy involves the rollout of smart boxes containing sensors and connected via fiber optic cables which will sense the city and deliver real-time information to cities and citizens.

Clean and organized city, the city has excellent public transit and a handful of powerful incentives to discourage personal vehicle use, like an advanced electronic road pricing scheme and very high permit and sales tax rates for new vehicles. The city also has a very active smart governance program including a strong commitment to online service delivery (98% of all government services are accessible online). Singapore is very committed to greening its infrastructure reflected in the fact it has 2,155 certified green buildings, by far the most of the responding cities


Challenge: Singapore is already a major player in the smart cities arena. Yet one challenge I see for its progress is to not just innovate from the top-down but rather to more actively engage citizens in the transformation of the city and support citizen co-creation. They need more programs to foster entrepreneurship which is still often a less desirable career path in Singapore than working in the many multinational companies which have established headquarters there.

Flickr user r.a. paterson


Vancouver has a soft spot in my heart given that I lived there from 2006 to 2011. Like Copenhagen, its credentials as a green city are quite evident. In fact, Vancouverites participated en masse in a program to develop a long term strategy for the city which resulted in an ambitious (and probably unreachable goal) of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020. It helps that 97% of all energy in Vancouver comes from renewable energy sources (mostly hydro). Vancouver was also a pioneer in providing major incentives for green buildings which helped to foster an entire ecosystem of green building expertise from architects and engineers to producers of building products.


Vancouver also scored very well in the smart people and smart living categories. A full 48% of Vancouverites were actually born outside of Canada. Diverse cultures tend to breed more innovation. Also Vancouverites have the longest life expectancy (almost 84 years!) compared with citizens from the other cities in the survey.

Challenge: While Vancouver’s quality of life and green credentials are competitive globally, Vancouver has yet to really take a lead on smart city initiatives, especially compared with the leading European cities discussed above. In order to stay competitive on a North American and global scale, Vancouver will need to continue to invest in digital technologies and support the rollout of broadband throughout the city.

Flickr user ActiveSteve



Vienna is last alphabetically, but definitely not least amongst these leading smart cities that participated in the survey. The city appears fully committed to growing its presence in the smart cities arena. It has a dedicated team of experts focused on growing their smart cities portfolio, which already contains more than 100 active projects.

Vienna is innovating across the spectrum of smart cities initiatives. For example, the city possesses the most EV charging stations of all the cities sampled (440) and has very active bike and car sharing programs. Unlike other cities on the list (e.g. Barcelona), their bike sharing program is fully accessible to visitors, not just residents.

One of my personal favorite projects Vienna has developed is called Citizen Solar which allows citizens to co-invest in new solar projects in a collaboration with the local energy company, Wien Energy. More importantly, however, Vienna has one of the most ambitious smart cities strategy (Vienna Smart Cities Framework Strategy), which is planned out to 2050. Furthermore, Vienna took the extra step of incorporating the strategy into law to minimize the risk of future mayors throwing the plan out to start over.


Challenges: The city needs to do more to proactively support and promote entrepreneurship. Vienna has done much to support local universities to conduct research and development but there is a need for more entrepreneurial spirit. Also, the city needs to do more to promote itself as a smart cities leader. It is known for a fantastic quality of life and a commitment to social equity, but it is under-represented in global conversations about leading players in the smart cities movement, given its impressive credentials.

Emerging Smart Cities

Flickr user Bert Knottenbeld


Brisbane was the only city from Australia/New Zealand to report this year. It is not surprising that it performed best in the smart living category since that region of the world is known for its excellent quality of life.


Brisbane has one of the lowest Gini Index scores of the cities studied (.32). The Gini Index is a measure of income inequality in a reason and the lower the score the better. While inequality, or lack of it, may not seem to be directly related to smartness, I believe it is. It is not of much use to have smart infrastructure if only a minority of the population have access to it or can benefit to improve their quality of life. Brisbane has embraced the sharing economy with an active bikesharing and carsharing program. Similarly, the City Council has initiated a smart program to facilitate more collaboration between the city and the private sector, particularly in the area of sustainable innovation.

Flickr user jondoeforty1

Los Angeles

Los Angeles has long been perceived as an unsustainable, sprawled and congested city (i.e. far from smart). Yet Los Angeles is on a mission to transform itself. Surprisingly, LA had the second highest number of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in the sample (300). LA also counts some innovative partners such as LA 2050 which is helping to drive a smart agenda in the city through citizen participation in the creation of a bold vision for the city’s future. Goals established include targets for youth education and employment, innovation and jobs creation, increased equality, access to green space, citizen engagement, and healthy food systems.

Flickr user Artur Staszewski


Montreal scored best in the smart living category. Of course, Canadian cities in general score well in this area. Montreal has also been a pioneer on the North American stage with respect to bike and carsharing with more than 5,000 bikes and 1,300 vehicles in their sharing programs respectively. Montreal also has a strong commitment to public transit and has an advanced smart card for use across the public transit system. Montreal also recently implemented a real-time traffic monitoring center for integrated transit planning and routing.

Next Stage Cities

Flickr user Tijs Zwinkels


Despite being Colombia’s capital city, Bogota has obtained much less attention from the media than Medellin. In fact, Medellin recently was recently selected as the most innovative city in the world. Yet, Bogota has made a lot of progress towards becoming smarter in recent years. It has the largest fleet of EV taxis in Latin America. It has one of the best examples of bus rapid transit systems (Transmilenio) in the world. Bogota also boasts one of the most expansive designated cycling networks in the world as well.

On the digital technology front, Bogota has 50 operating Wi-Fi zones throughout public areas in the city and throughout their Transmilenio network as well. Bogota has also been progressive in trying to address the digital divide through the creation of web and computer labs in poorer areas throughout the city.

Flickr user Serious Cat


Finally, Lima is also making an effort to join the smart cities arena in Latin America and around the globe. Lima’s economy has been improving, and diversifying in recent years. For example, 37% of their streetlights are now connected to a real time traffic management system, while nearly 80% of government services are available online. Finally, Lima just announced a collaboration to study how to transform its infrastructure and economic activity to low-carbon in areas ranging from energy and transport to buildings and local ecological systems.

I hope this summary of 11 cities has been useful to those interested in expanding our collective understanding of what cities are actually doing around the globe. Smart cities movement is here to stay. Yet there is also a movement afoot to expand into adjacent areas, like sharing cities. Cities like Amsterdam and Seoul, are leading the way in providing technology and incubation support for sharing economy innovators.

I recognize that this study is incomplete, with so many leading cities such as Amsterdam, Boston and San Francisco not included. Yet compiling the list was also an experiment in determining how transparent and accessible this type of data is in leading cities around the globe. The cities that reported, and those that didn’t, all articulated the value of this type of benchmarking exercise while also the difficulties in collecting the data. I hope that future iterations can leverage more digital tools to capture key aspects of what makes a city smart, so that other cities can keep learning, growing, and evolving what we think of as the smartest cities on Earth.


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