Skip to main content Skip to footer

Smart from scratch: brownfield vs greenfield smart cities


While many lavish greenfield smart city developments have been catching headlines lately, the reality is that most will be brownfield developments, integrated into existing urban spaces. Brian Coombs explores the unique challenges of smartifying our cities.

When we think of smart cities, we often imagine futuristic metropolises built from scratch, with cutting-edge technologies and innovative designs. Examples of such projects include ACUD in Egypt, Songdo in South Korea, and The Line (Neom) in Saudi Arabia.

These new build cities – greenfield developments – are created on undeveloped land or open space, like in deserts or reclaimed land, with the integration of advanced technologies and sustainable infrastructure from the start. They aim to create sustainable, efficient and liveable urban environments that leverage the Internet of Things, AI, big data and cloud computing.

Greenfield developments start with a clean slate and offer the opportunity to design and build smart cities from scratch. However, the truth is that most countries already have mature cities where most of their population lives, and those countries have neither the means, nor the land to start again and build a brand-new city, but that doesn’t mean those cities aren’t becoming smarter by the day.

Brownfield developments revitalise existing urban areas, retrofitting existing infrastructure with smart technologies that enhance efficiency, liveability and sustainability. Indeed, with the challenges most big cities face from congestion, pollution, aging infrastructure, social inequality and climate change, it’s arguably even more important for them to become smarter as quickly as possible.

There are many examples of established cities that have introduced smart digital services for their populations. One such example is Amsterdam, where the city has implemented a smart parking system that allows drivers to easily find available parking spots and pay for them via a mobile app. This system not only makes it easier for drivers to find parking but also helps to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, preventing drivers from circling around looking for a spot in a city where parking space comes at a premium.

Another example of a smart digital service is Toronto's water billing system. The city has implemented a solution that allows residents to view their water usage in real-time and receive alerts if they exceed a certain threshold. This not only helps residents to better manage their water consumption but also allows the city to bill for water usage more accurately, while conserving use.

In Barcelona, the city has implemented a smart lighting system that uses sensors to detect when streets are empty and automatically turns off lights to save energy. The city has also introduced a smart waste management system that uses sensors to monitor waste levels in containers and automatically alerts waste collection teams when they need to be emptied. These systems not only make the city more efficient but also help to reduce energy consumption and improve overall sustainability.

Perhaps one of the most impressive examples of a smart city is Singapore; the city-state has implemented a wide range of digital services that are designed to improve the lives of its residents. For example, the city has a smart traffic management system that uses sensors and real-time data to manage traffic flow and reduce congestion. The city has also introduced a smart water management system that uses sensors to detect leaks and prevent water wastage. All these systems are then combined under a central Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP) so they can work together. These systems have helped to make Singapore one of the most liveable cities in the world.

Of course, implementing smart digital services in established cities is not without its challenges. One of the biggest is integrating these systems with existing infrastructure. Many cities have outdated IT systems that are not compatible with newer technologies, which can make it difficult to “smartify” them.

Addressing this requires planning across many departments, making sure that where existing infrastructure plans are already in place, they are augmented with the services or connectivity required for a smart city, even if it’s not going to be used in the short term, or introducing a service in a smaller area as a limited trial before rolling it out citywide. This gradual approach also provides an opportunity to train and acclimatise city staff in these new systems.

There can also be resistance from residents who are hesitant to adopt new technologies or who are concerned about privacy and security issues, so bringing in strong data protection laws and investing in security infrastructure are also critical prerequisites.

Despite these challenges there are many examples of established cities that have successfully introduced smart digital services for their citizens, and the benefits are clear. These systems can help to improve efficiency, reduce energy consumption and improve overall sustainability. Additionally, they can help to improve the quality of life for residents by making it easier to access services, reducing congestion and ultimately saving money.

Both greenfield and brownfield approaches have their own advantages and challenges, and the choice between them depends on factors such as available land, existing infrastructure, community engagement and the overall vision for the smart city's future.

One thing that’s certain is that we will continue to see more and more smart digital services being implemented in established cities in the coming years as the demand and expectations continue to grow.

Cerillion Metro automates smart city operations and unlocks the full monetisation potential of city services across both consumer and enterprise segments – get in touch today to learn more.

About the author

Brian Coombs

Product Director, Cerillion

Keep up with the latest company news and industry analysis