With the global population set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, two thirds of which will be living in cities, according to United Nations projections, governments worldwide are already facing an array of challenges in ensuring the sustainability, security and success of an ever-more-crowded planet.

The urgency of these challenges underscores the importance of smart cities continuing to fuel growth, innovation and cultural dynamism amid this wave of continued urbanization. To do so, they’ll need to harness data analytics, smart infrastructure, sensing technologies and innovation networks to improve civic services, manage day-to-day operations and make cities attractive destinations for capital.

But while the case for smart cities is straightforward, the path to building them is not. Key hurdles stand in the way of unleashing the full potential of smart cities.  Here’s a look at five of the most pressing challenges that will need to be addressed.

Privacy fears

Amid fierce debates about how tech giants have made use of data, smart cities have become yet another flash point in the war over digital privacy. Even among those who support smart cities, there are fears that in practice, smart city technology will give Big Brother—be it big government or big tech—too much visibility into citizens’ lives.

In Toronto, which has partnered with Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to build an innovation hub, a privacy expert consulting on the project recently resigned over alleged shortcomings in data privacy protections, sparking calls for more measures against third-party exploitation of individual information.

As cities grapple with urbanization, digitization, and the growing abundance of data, public debate over how to realize the benefits of smart cities without sacrificing privacy will intensify—and while privacy safeguards will always remain a matter of contention, with no neat and easy solution, serious discussion on privacy today will help bring to fruition the smart cities of tomorrow.

Incomplete data

Even as privacy advocates voice concerns about too much data in the public sphere, there’s also a data shortage that demands attention.

For example, all but a fraction of the data used to power connected vehicles are visual data—but to more intelligently control traffic and ensure road safety in smart cities, planners should turn their attention to harnessing data that are not visual. For example, we as humans can “feel” and respond to certain road conditions based on that feel, conditions such as black ice, potholes, windy conditions and so on. Yet autonomous vehicles and the mapping technology required to train them are often missing this element. Compounding the issue further, many methods of visual data collection can be extremely costly, difficult to scale, and inaccurate, as is often the case with data collected from cellphones.

Faster connections in a 5g world

Boasting fast connection speeds with ultralow latency, 5G will drive smart city development. For residents of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento, commercial 5G service is already a reality, and more municipalities are preparing to enter the 5G era themselves. Although the introduction of 5G will pave the way for a number of benefits, including better and faster communication between municipal systems and services, implementation will be no walk in the park and the difficulties are embodied by the providers such as AT&T coming under fire for “fake” 5g service.

Microcells, the small-cell antennas that enable coverage, will need to be linked up with cell towers that relay signals to end-users once 5G is rolled out. This may entail the construction of millions of new cell towers, which is certain to provoke fierce debates over cost, aesthetics and even public health. To return to our earlier case study, connected cars require high bandwidth to support the collection of visual data—and with millions more of these increasingly sophisticated computers on wheels set to be deployed, cities can’t afford to delay addressing the infrastructural hurdles.


Given fiscal constraints, smart cities can’t be bankrolled by governments alone. Public-private partnerships, however, provide a pathway for funding smart-city initiatives and enabling local innovation.

Cisco, to take one example, announced in 2017 a $1 billion City Infrastructure Financing Acceleration Program, in partnership with a group of financial firms, to jump-start technological innovation in smart cities. As population growth strains infrastructure and places greater demands on local authorities, we’ll need more of such partnerships to play a vital role in supporting smart cities’ growth. These public-private initiatives can also help overcome public resistance to the costs of major investments like high-speed rail.

Data storage

Smart cities will run on big data, and those data will need to be stored: no cheap feat.

IT storage spending worldwide is projected to reach $51.3 billion in 2019, and ensuring the security of municipal data—a paramount priority, particularly given privacy concerns—will require additional investments and protocols, while new investments in edge computing will enable data to be processed more efficiently.

All this data storage comes with an additional cost: to the electric grid, and more broadly, to the environment, which absorbs increasing carbon dioxide emissions due to the massive amounts of energy data centers consume. While more sustainable mobility and energy ecosystems are key benefits of adopting smart-city initiatives, these benefits can be magnified with the use of green solutions that are easier on the grid.

Forging a future in which our cities are smarter, safer, greener, more competitive and more livable will require public and private players to come together to tackle the technological, economic, environmental and political costs associated with smart-city innovation. The return on these investments of time and resources will be tremendous. For the sake of the globe’s long-term health and well-being, there’s no time like the present to get to work.