This is the fifth Challenge paper in the Projecting the Future series.

It examines the emergence of smart cities, the ongoing trend of urbanisation, and the drive to improve connectivity – in urban areas and beyond.

The global number of city dwellers is rising inexorably, exacerbating existing challenges and creating new ones: from reducing pollution, adapting to the effects of climate change, and using resources sustainably, to improving infrastructure, connecting with surrounding towns, and providing a standard of life that meets residents’ rising expectations. Smart city systems have the potential to meet these challenges.

This paper briefly summarises some of the contributions to this conversation

Download feedback paper 

Download original report



Cities are more important to humanity than ever before. Some 55% of the world’s population now live in urban areas, and rising: it is set to hit 68% by 2050. As the fourth industrial revolution gathers pace, the application of 5G-enabled technology in cities will accelerate, with the potential to transform many aspects of urban life for the better.

The field of ‘smart cities’ is primarily about the use of digital technology and cyber-physical systems that help to manage urban life. It comprises digital connectivity, transport management, crime and security, development and regeneration, utilities, support for business growth and the economy, and more.

But technology is the means, not the end. As McKinsey has put it:

“The entire point is to respond more effectively and dynamically to the needs and desires of residents. Technology is simply a tool to optimize the infrastructure, resources, and spaces they share.” The result of implementing smart city systems should be “not only a more liveable city but also a more productive place for businesses to operate.”

So, the challenges involved in creating smart cities are not just about 5G infrastructure, new ways of managing traffic, or improved public transport: they are about generating insights and analysis in ways that citizens share and can use to inform their own decision making.

Smart city thinking has evolved in recent years to recognise that citizen behaviour is every bit as important as technology. ‘Smart’ systems only work if citizens are ‘smart’ in using them. In practical terms that might mean the development of apps that provide timely, relevant information, enabling people to adapt their behaviour around the city.

Important as digital connectivity is to city life, it is also vital outside of cities. There are significant challenges facing the UK in delivering high speed internet connectivity in rural areas. Although it is recognised as a crucial component of national infrastructure and future productivity, high-speed internet remains unavailable in many rural areas.

In the UK, the discussion about smart cities takes place in the context of a tentative policy trend towards localism and the redistribution of political power, on the basis that local needs are best met by local decision makers – although sceptics query how far political rhetoric has yet been accompanied by genuine budgetary and decision-making power. Still, changes have recently been visible in the creation of eight metropolitan mayors across the UK, including in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and the Tees Valley. If implemented, the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse initiatives will lead to significant transformational projects, not least in transport infrastructure. Project professionals will play key roles in delivering these and other significant projects.


To view the full list of challenges and opportunities, download the challenge paper at the bottom of the page. 


We look at some of the potential implications of the challenges that lie ahead in the field of smart cities, urbanisation and connectivity.

How do you expect these challenges to affect the project profession? We look forward to hearing your views, and your examples of how the project profession is delivering the future through innovative projects today.

In many ways, smart cities bring into focus several of the challenges already considered through Projecting the Future. That means that project professionals will undoubtedly be at the heart of creating connected communities and smart cities in the years ahead.

The benefits of smart city systems could be wide-ranging: better infrastructure, greater sustainability, better human health and a higher quality of life. Smart cities could be a stimulus to development and regeneration with better transport links for previously neglected neighbourhoods. They should provide for future economic growth, offering entrepreneurs access to better business information.

There are of course challenges. Public trust, consent and participation in smart city projects will be vital. That is a significant challenge for civic leaders and politicians, at both national and local levels, but it also affects project professionals involved in designing and delivering change. It puts an emphasis on wide-ranging and effective stakeholder engagement techniques and the creation of opportunities for meaningful involvement, finding ways to crowd-source input and co-design smart city systems. Smart city systems are not smart because of clever technology: they are only smart if they reflect the needs of residents and deliver benefits to them.

The global trend towards urban living and the diversity of approaches to creating smart cities has allowed for experimentation and, in effect, for different cities to pilot different solutions to common problems. Another opportunity for project professionals will therefore be to share and transmit the insights, lessons learned, and expertise needed to help cities implement solutions that are right for their situations.

This is an area where the UK has much to offer. As the Future Cities Catapult and Arup have argued, the UK’s track record – from the 2012 Olympics to its role in regeneration in Doha – shows that the UK can confidently offer expertise, products and services to the global cities market.

That same expertise should deliver transformational change at home too, though there are challenges. Building successful smart cities demands solid foundations: smart road networks, for instance, are only a realistic proposition when basic road infrastructure is in place. While city leaders’ attention, and resources, are stretched across other challenges, their appetite for more ambitious projects will be limited.

And the UK faces major challenges in delivering upgraded urban infrastructure when so many of our cities rely on ageing systems, like Victorian water networks and sewers, that are hard-pressed to meet the needs of today’s populations. As the chief information officer for Manchester, for example, has noted: the city aims to be ambitious on smart city technology, but “there are still quite a lot of core things we have to do.”

The trend towards urbanisation and connectivity will only continue growing in the years ahead. Projects will be at the heart of creating smart cities that can meet the quality of life and standards of wellbeing we all demand.


Throughout Projecting the Future, we want to explore the questions that matter about the future of the project profession.

We want to hear from you: from individuals, teams, departments, organisations, institutions and communities. We want your views, ideas and evidence relating to these questions – and we are keen to hear about case studies that show how the project profession is starting to adapt to these challenges.


  1. What do you believe are the most important challenges facing the project profession in the fields of smart cities, urbanisation and connectivity?
  2. Do smart city projects give sufficient time and space for communities in those cities to input and shape the projects? What is the profession’s role in making sure that people’s voices are heard?
  3. How can the project profession best share insight and expertise between different cities globally to support effective delivery of smart city technology?
  4. What examples of excellence from city projects around the world could UK cities learn from?
  5. What opportunities exist for the project profession to spread expertise from the UK to other cities globally?
  6. What are the implications of the issues raised here for projects intended to deliver benefits to communities in non-urban areas?
  7. There are significant connections between the issues outlined in this paper and the topics covered in other Projecting the Future papers, including the fourth industrial revolution, climate change and rising human longevity. How can smart city approaches bring these things together to maximise benefits for residents?



Continuing the conversation

Projecting the Future has been defined by discussion and a spirit of collaboration about solving the challenges, and seizing the opportunities, ahead of the project profession. That will continue to be vital as we take forward the ideas and actions outlined here.

Stay up to date and contribute through APM’s social media channels.


This paper briefly summarises some of the contributions to this conversation

Download feedback paper 

Download original report




Join APM

Sign up to the APM Newsletter.