Event Management

How Are Smart Cities Like Dubai and Tokyo Changing Events?

Skift Take

Smart cities use technology to improve services and make life more efficient, but specific projects vary greatly depending on the locale. While many smart, urban features are still hypothetical, event professionals can take advantage of cities prioritizing emerging tech. 


Hosting an event in a city that incorporates smart technology can be a major draw for attendees, but planners may emerge from their research with mixed results. There are some smart cities being built from the ground up, but you’ll most commonly discover a host of urban centers investing in specific smart technology.

In this post, you’ll find out what smart trends are emerging in cities, how major events are paving the way for innovation in 2020, and how smart cities can help you improve the attendee experience and achieve your event objectives.


What is a smart city?

Smart cities use technology and data to improve services for residents and visitors and there  are multiple ways an urban center can do this.

Smart infrastructure is an area in which local governments across the globe are investing heavily. Private companies also play an important role in contributing to infrastructure development. For example, mobile carriers are leading the push to rollout 5g coverage in select cities for lightning-fast internet connections. Not only does this help with connectivity, it also serves as a foundation for cities to incorporate additional communication platforms and data collection processes.

Transportation is another area in which private and public entities are partnering to create innovative solutions to public transit, even in smaller markets. The city of Peoria, Arizona, for example, recently announced an autonomous shuttle pilot program in partnership with tech companies Beep and NAVYA.

A major trend in the realm of smart cities is data collection. With the internet of things, municipalities will be able to better strategize things like transportation needs, street lighting, and even waste management. This ties directly into helping local governments make better policy applications. By monitoring traffic or utilizing sensors to detect when a public garbage can is full, technology is becoming an increased focus in urban planning.


How do smart cities contribute to event objectives?

The concept of a smart city is still an emerging one. Sidewalk Labs, a division under Google’s parent company, Alphabet, plans to launch a brand new smart neighborhood within Toronto, using emerging technology from the ground up. However, the project recently faced backlash as concerns surrounding data privacy arose. The site was reduced from a proposed 190 acres to just 12 late last year.

Still, there are plenty of cities that have already launched individual initiatives for event planners to explore, albeit on a much smaller scale than the plan for Sidewalk Labs. We talked to Greg Oates, senior vice president of innovation at MMGY NextFactor, about current smart city initiatives and how they’re impacting the world of events.

Portrait of author

The smart mobility theme is where we’ll see some interesting opportunities for planners in the future, but we’re still in the early days.


SVP Innovation, MMGY NextFactor


Cities leading the charge are taking extra steps to connect visitors with their tech innovations. Columbus, Ohio is a leader in this space, with the Smart Columbus Experience Center as a prime example. Located just minutes away from the city’s convention center, visitors can test drive electric and hybrid vehicles and explore other initiatives being spearheaded by the city, serving as an experiential activity for event attendees. Multiple data collection projects are integrated into these initiatives, including a multi-modal trip planning app across both public transit and private services as well as a connected vehicle environment that will glean infrastructure data in Columbus.

Oates also notes the rise of innovation districts as a place where events and smart cities intersect.

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Companies want to commercialize local innovation, and they’re looking to meet with planners to develop new business partnerships by leveraging business events more intentionally.


SVP Innovation, MMGY NextFactor


These clusters help connect local companies with industry events to augment the event experience in the destination city. Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, opened the Innovate ABQ complex in 2018, which serves as a tech hub for government, academic, and private labs. The initiative works in partnership with Visit Albuquerque to connect planners with this intellectual capital while also taking advantage of the state-of-the-art meeting venues.


2020 Global Events Use Smart Tech from the Ground Up

If all goes as planned, the potential for smart cities impacting events on a much larger scale can be explored at two major international events this year: the Dubai Expo 2020 and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

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The two events, really for the first time, are leveraging smart city innovations at scale to elevate the attendee and sponsor experience because the events were purpose-built with urban tech platforms at the core of their development since inception.


SVP Innovation, MMGY NextFactor


In Dubai, technology is set to enhance the World Expo through multiple channels, including digital ticketing, smart car parking, and even crowd management. While details aren’t confirmed yet, event organizers have cited digital maps and crowd analysis tools to help with navigation and bottleneck issues in real-time. All of the benefits associated with smart city solutions also apply to event goers, particularly relieving congestion at events and in surrounding areas.

The Tokyo Summer Olympics plan to use technology to create a smart city that reduces CO2 emissions and other environmental impacts. These energy-saving measures include:

  • LED lighting in competition venues
  • Next-generation vehicles, including electric cars
  • The Tokyo Cap-and-Trade Program

From an event management perspective, the Tokyo Olympics are also using smart tech in exciting ways. Autonomous taxis will add to existing infrastructure by moving people from the airport to sporting venues. The Tokyo games are also set to display algae as an alternative fuel source. Planners in industries with carbon footprint and sustainability goals can look to cities with these types of initiatives as event destination choices.


How should planners take advantage of a smart city?

Smart technology means different things in different cities. As a planner interested in accessing the benefits of a “smart city” for your next event destination, home in on the aspects that are most beneficial to your base of attendees.


When first narrowing down a list of destination options, don’t assume that the largest cities automatically have the most innovative features. Many smaller cities are investing in new initiatives in order to become more competitive. Atlanta’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, for example, has been promoting “micro-sites” to help event attendees explore more of the city beyond the traditional downtown center. One of their creative resources supporting the initiative is a smartphone app that’s customized for each individual event and imports neighborhood calendars and other relevant information.

Event planners who are brave enough to consider smaller markets can end up crafting a truly unique experience for attendees, even if it’s not completely futuristic.


Events that require most people to travel in order to attend can benefit greatly from cities integrating smart transportation options, from the way they ride to the way they pay.

More cities are rolling out integrated single payment transportation apps.

Whether event attendees want to ride the metro or rent a scooter, cities participating in single payment apps make it fast and convenient. Plus, foreign travelers can worry less about counting out new currency and more about where to go for dinner after the closing keynote address.

Sacramento is another leader in smart transit, launching an electric car-sharing program in late 2018. For a daily flat rate, drivers get free parking throughout the city and complimentary access to charging stations across Sacramento. Destinations that invest in improved transportation options such as these can be attractive to event attendees who spend an extra day or two in the city. Comprehensive car-sharing programs like the one in Sacramento also give planners more flexibility to plan activities off-site because attendees have more transportation options and don’t have to worry about parking.


Explore Smart Venue Options

While smart tech has the ability to help with arriving and navigating in the host city, planners can also look for cities with smart venues to host the event itself. Our in-depth report, The Rise of the Smart Venue, identifies multiple tech-related experiences to consider:

  • Immersive digital environments
  • Intelligent lighting
  • Charging stations with lockers
  • Enhanced Wifi
  • Flexible layouts and movable walls



Most cities aren’t able to check off every smart technology feature on a list; instead, most destinations choose to invest in specific areas. Depending on your event and preferences, explore cities with focus areas that matter most to you. Your available options may come as a surprise and lead to an unexpected — and successful — event in an emerging smart city.