A Theory of Smart Cities


  • Colin Harrison IBM Corporation
  • Ian Abbott Donnelly IBM United Kingdon Limited


smart city, system of systems, modelling, urban systems


We entered the 21st century with a strong, global trend to increasing concentration of the population in relatively few, large cities. Large, dense cities can be highly productive, innovative, and per capita very green and hence desirable for our future. However the rapid influx of new citizens presents overwhelming challenges to their governments. Along with the positive benefits that accumulate from dense, diverse cities come in equal measure the negative aspects such as informal development, traffic congestion, waste management, and access to resources and crime. The demand for services is immediate, but the tax revenues to fund them come later. At the same time, globalization has connected cities on opposite sides of the planet in forms of competition previously unknown – for capital, for resources, and for the Creative Class. These challenges lead to experiments with new approaches to the planning, design, finance, construction, governance, and operation of urban infrastructure and services that are broadly called Smart Cities. Some of these approaches are related to emerging roles of information technology. A new professional community – the Urban Systems Collaborative – has formed to foster mutual learning among members of the architecture, planning, engineering, transportation, utilities, information technology, operations research, social sciences, geography and environmental science, public finance and policy, and communications profession. One of its hypotheses is a new theory of cities that makes use of new, rich sources of information about what is going on in the city. Among other things, it seeks to understand the impact that information technology can have on the urban fabric and norms of behaviour. Systems Science, in particular work on systems of systems and scaling laws, has provided new observations of urban systems at a macro-level. The Smart City provides new instrumentation that enables observation of urban systems at a micro-level. This paper describes steps towards a model that can unify the perspectives of the professions in the Urban Systems Collaborative. It begins with examples of Smart Cities and why this movement is so active. It describes how information technology plays roles in shaping new norms of behaviour intended to facilitate the continuing growth of dense populations. It then explains a key hypothesis of the Urban Systems Collaborative that the increasing accessibility of information will enable us to develop Urban Systems models that are capable of helping citizens, entrepreneurs, civic organizations, and governments to see more deeply into how their cities work, how people use the city, how they feel about it, where the city faces problems, and what kinds of remediation can be applied.

Author Biographies

Colin Harrison, IBM Corporation

Distinguished Engineer IBM Corporate Strategy

Ian Abbott Donnelly, IBM United Kingdon Limited

Chief Technology Officer, Europe Big Green Innovations



How to Cite

Harrison, C., & Donnelly, I. A. (2011). A Theory of Smart Cities. Proceedings of the 55th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2011, Hull, UK, 55(1). Retrieved from https://journals.isss.org/index.php/proceedings55th/article/view/1703