“Smart Cities” Offer Communication Pros a Myriad of Opportunities – and Risks

“Smart Cities” Offer Communication Pros a Myriad of Opportunities – and Risks
14. April 2019 Falk Rehkopf

“Smart Cities” Offer Communication Pros a Myriad of Opportunities – and Risks

New technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) are already penetrating many aspects of our daily lives. IoT in combination with the soon to be launched 5G networks will bring never before seen levels of interconnectivity. This, in turn, will allow for large amounts of data – often referred to as ‘Big Data’ – to be collected and turned into valuable insights. Together, IoT, 5G and Big Data applied within urban areas will soon make the once futuristic concept of ‘smart cities’ a reality for many of us. In fact, the smart city industry is projected to grow to a $400 billion market by 2020 spread over 600 such cities worldwide. By 2025, the cumulative economic output of smart cities is expected to be equal to an impressive 60% of the world’s GDP.

What does this development this mean for PR & Marketing professionals? In this blog post, we take a deep dive into smart cities and the opportunities – and challenges – that come with these for communication pros. Read on to find out more.

What are smart cities?

In a nutshell, smart cities are urban areas that collect and process data to improve the quality and performance of urban services and, hence, their citizens’ quality of life. How do they do it? The data that smart cities collect, via many different internet-enabled devices, is being used to generate insights to help manage assets and resources more efficiently. Gartner expects that, by 2022, family homes in affluent, mature markets will have more than 500 smart devices – each. But, already today, the city of Barcelona, for example, uses data from smart water meter technology to manage a remote control irrigation system. With the help of this approach, the city secures annual savings of $58 million.

Smart cities promise to be of great value to the global economy: the Global Commission on Economy & Climate reports that smart cities are estimated to produce savings around the globe in the value of about $22 trillion by 2050. Other expected savings are to come from innovative solutions to problems such as traffic congestion and deteriorating infrastructure.

On top of that, according to data from the United Nations, the global human population is set to reach almost 10 billion by 2050. With two-thirds of us expected to live in cities, governments worldwide are preparing to manage upcoming challenges through smart city-approaches. That’s one of the reasons why, as data from IDC shows, annual investments in smart city technologies were already at $80 billion in 2018 and are expected to grow to $135 billion by 2021.

Smart Cities in the making

Not everyone realises this, but there are already plenty of examples of smart city type applications in existence today:

  • Yinchuan, China. Here, smart waste bins trigger alerts to the local rubbish company when they need emptying and air and water monitors are on constant standby to detect pollution hazards;


  • New York, USA. The New York City Fire Department relies on data mining and predictive analytics to assign fire risk scores to over a million buildings to lower the number of fires that occur every year;
  • Berlin, Germany. The city is has become a leader in the development of smart grids, storage concepts and innovative solutions to synchronise energy supply and demand.

Smart Cities carry big risks

We’ve spoken about some of the advantages that smart cities deliver, but on the flip side, smart cities also carry a number of risks. First and foremost, there are cybersecurity issues. The 2.3 billion IoT-devices connected in smart cities across the world open opportunities for criminals. These include privacy, data and identity theft and denial of service or man-in-the-middle attacks allowing remote control and malicious use of devices (see visual; credit: Rambus). As an example, in 2017 Dallas’ tornado sirens were easily set off by hackers and in a joint 2018 study by IBM Security and Threatcare it was confirmed that sensors powering smart cities are indeed vulnerable to hackers.

Risks in Smart Cities

Then there is the issue of data ownership. The city of Toronto, Canada, collaborated with Sidewalk Labs to create the world’s first digitally planned neighbourhood. Brand strategist and author Jeannette Hanna notes that while this was a “great coup” for Toronto, the project surfaced plenty of “thorny issues” around who owns the data generated. Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of TechGirls Canada, commented that Sidewalk Labs failed, “to inform residents how their data are part of either the city’s or the company’s revenue model“.

Some feel that smart cities are simply one big surveillance project. Citizens are promised everything: an efficient government, sustainability, climate protection, security, comfort, convenience and more. But, the risk that cities under control of IoT sensors “reduce their citizens to mere consumers, change consumers into data sources and our democracy into a privatised service” is very real.

Smart Cities Offer New Opportunities for Communication Pros

For smart cities to be a success, both, communication driven by PR and marketing pros as well as choosing the appropriate communication technologies will be crucialThe huge amounts of data in combination with lightspeed connectivity will provide marketers and branding professionals with numerous communication opportunities to reach many different types of stakeholder groups. As Stephanie Himoff, UK Managing Director of Outbrain, notes: “Whether it’s the bathroom mirror, the fridge door, or a shop window, consumers can be engaged with as they move through their smart homes and cities”.

Two of the currently dominating trends in communication are automation and personalisation; in smart cities, we’ll see these becoming commonplace and much more sophisticated. In just a few years, for instance, we expect marketers to use automation technology to trigger different sets of ads to display, depending on factors such as time of day, weather, etc. On the other hand, where personalisation is concerned, marketers can rely on the treasure trove of data that is generated by IoT to deliver highly targeted messages to their audience. Wearables, whose market is projected to hit $34 billion by 2020, generate a goldmine of personal information that marketers can gain access to and use to inform product, service and content personalisation. Brands who are able to tailor the content they offer and to ensure that this content is highly relevant to consumers’ personal lives, will undoubtedly leapfrog ahead of competitors.

Communicators: Preparing for the New Reality

From a communications perspective, how can you prepare for the advent of smart cities? As not a single industry can afford to resist going digital, consider how your company will need to adapt its current offerings: already today, utility companies are rolling out smart meters, pharmacies are experimenting with telemedicine kiosks and retailers are introducing smart fitting rooms. Case in point: John Lewis partnered with micro-location specialist company Localz to use smartphones to identify customers’ exact location in order to trigger a customer’s click & collect order to be picked up as they enter a shop or a carpark or to help them make their way around the store based on their own online shopping wish list.

On top of that, think about how, for example, digital marketing strategies will change in the next 5 to 10 years. We already know that consumers are increasingly choosing to ask their voice assistants a question rather than typing a Google search – so, it might make sense to start focusing already today on Voice Search Optimisation (VSO) as opposed to SEO only. Going a step further, consider the different ad types that might pop up assuming that the general population becomes increasingly dependent on wearables and other IoT device types. Also, think about how you might craft compelling messages delivered via these new ads and devices.

For PR pros, personalised brand interactions at scale – conversational PR – may become ubiquitous. And, on the journalism side, working with increasingly AI-driven newsrooms exploiting the potential of smart cities in terms of developing new data-driven storytelling techniques will force PRs to change their media relations strategies and tactics also.

Last but certainly not least, be prepared for any technology-induced crises that might come your or your clients’ way. 

Smart Cities – a Golden Future for Communicators?

Given that we are in the early stages of the era of smart cities, the specific opportunities and risks for communicators are yet to be determined. However, as communicators, we’re looking forward to the radically new ways we will be able to market our brands and communicate with audiences.

Chief Marketing Officer