Boston and other smart cities run better, but they should be even smarter, report says

America’s cities are smarter than they used to be, as municipal officials are increasingly using digital sensors to track everything from traffic to trash collection. And a report from McKinsey Global Institute, issued on the eve of the United States Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston, suggests cities can get even smarter about deploying new technologies.

McKinsey researchers studied 50 urban centers worldwide that deploy computers, data networks and digital sensors, and other new technologies to monitor and manage aspects of urban life, such as traffic patterns, water and electricity consumption, emergency calls to police, and even the number of potholes.

“It is a real tool and a powerful tool for improving a city’s quality of life,” said McKinsey partner Jaana Remes.


Boston, for example, has a smartphone app called StreetBump that lets drivers collect and share data about potholes and other roadway problems merely by driving around.

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In New Orleans, fire safety officials used Census Bureau data to determine which households were most likely to lack smoke detectors and then handed out thousands of the devices to those people.

Chicago uses algorithms to predict which restaurants are most at risk for food-safety violations and then concentrates its inspections on those locations.

The McKinsey report will be featured at a Boston Globe event Friday afternoon, dubbed “Smarter Cities, Smarter Skills,” on disruptive technologies. The event will include comments from several chief executives of US cities who are attending the annual mayors conference.

Among the cities studied by McKinsey, Boston ranked in the top tier for deploying digital systems in search of better ways to deliver services.


“Boston has always been one of the pioneers in this space,” Remes said. “Overall, we think that Boston is doing well.”

But the McKinsey study also found there’s plenty of room for improvement in Boston and other cities, and in some instances even analyzed the improvements in quality of life and public services if more of these technologies were widely deployed.

For example, Seoul digitally monitors how much trash each home throws out and charges higher disposal fees to those that produce more waste. Adopting that technology more broadly, McKinsey said, could reduce the amount of waste generated per person by 286 pounds per year.

Similarly, Beijing uses air pollution monitors to regulate automobile traffic and the construction of buildings, helping to reduce the level of airborne pollutants by about 20 percent.

Remes said many cities could shorten commuting times for workers by as much as 30 minutes a day using smart traffic lights, smart parking apps, and real-time traffic alerts to warn of delays and recommend alternate routes.


Cities could also make their streets safer by using policing techniques that predict high-crime “hot spots” and by synchronizing traffic lights to clear the road for first responders en route to crime and accident scenes.

Remes said that in high-crime cities like Rio de Janeiro, such systems could save up to 300 lives per year.

This weekend’s conference of mayors will place a high priority on smart city tech.

On Sunday morning, five entrepreneurs will compete for $18,000 in seed funding for their startup ideas to enhance city life.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.