Q: I understand what a “smartphone” is, and the buzzwords “smartwatch” and “smart TV” are growing on me, but I heard something recently about “smart cities” – what in the world are those supposed to be?

A: What, are you from Dumb Town or something?! Smart cities are obviously…um…well, it turns out that the term is still pretty vague and depends on who you ask. You might say the definition is big enough to drive a solar-powered, sensor-laden, self-driving truck through. We wouldn’t say that, but you might.

At the highest level, “smart cities” are about using technology to help city governments better serve their citizens. This approach to governing consists of three parts: collecting data (usually with sensors), analyzing patterns in the data, and using that knowledge to increase efficiency. For example, a city might change trash collection schedules based on feedback from sensors placed in garbage bins.

Within that broad definition, examples abound: Pittsburgh is testing traffic lights that use cameras and radar to monitor traffic flow, then coordinate with each other to optimize how they respond to changing traffic patterns. They’ve been able to cut idling time by 40 percent, travel time by 25 percent, and emissions by 21 percent (bit.ly/2fjZKZz).

Columbus, Ohio recently won $40 million in the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. Among other improvements, they plan to install “smart lighting” – motion-activated street lights that will turn on when people are around, but save energy when they’re not. The light posts will have Wi-Fi access points installed to serve areas without access to high-speed Internet (http://read.bi/2fzxZNM).

Outside the US, city planners built Songdo, South Korea to serve as a testbed for multiple smart city initiatives. One of those was a pneumatic trash collection system – a “garbage grid” that allows citizens to deposit trash into bins and have it sucked away to a central dump. Tired of that loud garbage truck waking you up every Thursday morning at 6:00 am? Move to Songdo – they don’t have garbage trucks! Of course, there’s no local version of Oscar the Grouch there either, so consider the trade-offs (bit.ly/2fzA0JR).

As with any new technologies, there are still some kinks to work out. Soap dispensers in city-run public restrooms might be able to report back to City Hall whenever they’re empty, but does that cut maintenance costs enough to justify their increased prices?

And anything connected to the Internet now has to contend with malicious hacking attempts. In 2016, researchers were able to take control of “smart lightbulbs” being used in an office building by exploiting a security weakness in their software. Using drones and a van parked a quarter of a mile away, they turned out the lights and made them blink “SOS” in Morse code (http://engt.co/2fzwizA). What used to happen only in 80’s horror movies might soon become a common occurrence – hooray Internet!

In a more serious breach, the smart meters used by a Puerto Rico utility company in 2012 were hacked, leading to losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars (http://bit.ly/2fzy182).

Another issue is privacy. Americans are used to having their water and electricity usage monitored for billing purposes, but the idea that our waste output and vehicles might be tracked is going to raise some alarm bells, even if it means cleaner streets and less traffic congestion. The data collected by sensors will have to be made anonymous and analyzed in aggregate, not on an individual basis, to quiet these concerns.

But the benefits can be worth the extra effort to address these issues. Singapore is experimenting with smart city concepts in several areas (http://engt.co/2fzF2G5). For example, their Elderly Monitoring System (EMS) places motion sensors in doors and rooms so health professionals can be alerted if no activity is detected after a certain period of time. Think of it as this century’s “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”

Singapore’s plans don’t stop there. A sophisticated network of sensors in streets, street lights, and buildings will allow them to track all kinds of statistics about the environment, from air quality to crowd density to noise levels. They can use this data to build a computer model of the area (“Virtual Singapore”) and then predict how the addition of new parks, roads, or buildings will affect their citizens’ quality of life.

And just to anticipate your next question, yes, someone somewhere has already begun to use the term “smart state” so cities aren’t the only governments having all the fun (bit.ly/2fzLfSn). And here we are, sitting in Idiotsville, grumbling about how early the garbage truck woke us up this morning.