The Top 10 Smartest North American Cities: 1: Boston



The Top 10 Smartest Cities In North America

Which cities are pushing the envelope of technology, sustainability, and better living conditions?

Some cities are adding high-tech infrastructure. Some are implementing revolutionary sustainability plans. Others are fostering innovative business and science developments. But which city combines these qualities and others to be the smartest city? A few weeks ago, Co.Exist published a ranking of European smart cities (A global smart city ranking was published earlier this year). Now we are publishing the top 10 cities in North America.

Smart Cities Wheel.

The rankings are based on a device I developed called the Smart Cities Wheel, which contains six key components of smart cities and three key drivers for each component. The data sources used are included below. The only data source not currently publicly available is the U.S. e-governance rankings conducted by the E-Governance Institute at Rutgers University. I am grateful to Dr. Marc Holzer and his team for agreeing to forward me their latest rankings which have not yet been published.

The best rankings would involve a large scale effort to capture primary data directly from cities on more than 100 indicators. Resources do not permit that, so I hope these rankings still provide cities with some basis for comparison. Here, then, are the top 10 cities in North America

1. Boston. I recently wrote about Boston’s impressive entrepreneurial ecosystem, which is supported by the mayor through the city’s Innovation District initiative. Aside from having a world-class innovation system (as evidenced by things like New Urban Mechanics office, which "serves as the City’s innovation incubator, building partnerships between City agencies and outside institutions and entrepreneurs to pilot projects in Boston that address resident and business needs") Boston also has some of the smartest residents in the world. It helps that Boston is home to more than 70 universities and colleges, eight of which are dedicated research universities with $1.5 billion in annual R&D expenditures.

2. San Francisco. San Francisco is a vibrant city with a high quality of life and a thriving entrepreneurial economy. San Francisco has become a destination for technology and civic-minded entrepreneurs: Aside from the well-known tech-world heavyweights, it is also the home to numerous organizations like Code for America, which definitely bodes well for its smart future.

One of the areas where San Francisco really stands out is in its environmental leadership. In the Siemens Green City Index, San Francisco rated No. 1 of all North American cities. Out of 30 leading North American cities studied, San Francisco rated among the top three in several categories, including in energy, buildings, waste, and air quality.

3. Seattle. Seattle impressively scored in the top three in four of the six components of the Smart Cities Wheel. Seattle achieved top billing in smart governance, grabbing a No. 1 position in the e-governance ranking from the E-Governance Institute. Seattle has been a North American pioneer developing its first e-government strategy in 2004, and more recently using both RFIDs to track waste and Twitter to communicate about stolen vehicles.

Seattle has always done well on green rankings and showed leadership early by helping to establish the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The city also performed well on the Smart Economy component. In fact, Seattle had the highest economic performance rank of U.S. cities in this ranking (in the Brookings Institute study). Brookings measures economic performance as a function of GDP, employment, population, and income.

4. Vancouver. Vancouver has not yet built a reputation as a leading player in the smart cities arena, but it deserves to. Vancouver was second in North America behind San Francisco on the Siemens Green City Index. And along with San Francisco, Vancouver was the only other city to achieve a top-10 ranking in all nine index categories. With help from visionary Mayor Gregor Robertson, Vancouver aims to become the greenest city in the world by 2020.

Vancouver has the highest quality of life in North America as measured by Mercer: Low crime rates, good education, temperate climate, and easy access to nature are among the city’s redeeming qualities, though increased cost of living is threatening the quality of life for locals. Vancouver is not yet a leading city in the use of smart ICT solutions, but it does have a thriving ICT sector so it is probably only a matter of time until it becomes one.

5. New York City. It is hard to separate the city of New York’s efforts from the individual efforts of billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been instrumental in growing the innovation economy, supporting the greening of NYC and striving for climate leadership and resiliency as the leader of the Clinton 40 Climate Initiative. This will probably come as no surprise to residents of New York (or to urban planners and transportation experts) but the city came in first in every one of the studies I used to rank smart mobility. It had the highest walkability score, the highest transit use, and the No. 1 position on the transit component of the Siemens Green City Index.

Aside from transit, New York also scored top honors in open data, an indicator of smart governance. New York’s 1,306 open data sets make it the clear leader in North America and Europe. In the future I hope to improve the indicators for open data beyond just the number of data sets, but NYC is clearly committed to involving the developer community as evidenced by its pioneering effort with its NYC Big Apps competition.

6. Washington, D.C. While D.C. did not lead in any of the six components of the smart cities wheel, it was amongst the top five in three (economy, governance, and people). D.C. is one of the top cities in the U.S. for transit use and e-governance (D.C. was 2nd amongst this list according to the E-governance Institute rankings). Washington D.C. has been a pioneer in the adoption of new technology, including the launch of a private cloud in 2010 and the early use of mashups to become a "GIS model city."

7. Toronto. Like Vancouver, Toronto scores high in Smart Living as measured by the Mercer Quality of Life index. Toronto was also rated as having one of the smartest populations among big cities in Canada according to Maclean’s recent ranking. Furthermore, Waterfront Toronto recently built and launched Canada’s first open-access broadband community network that uses fiber optics.

8. Chicago. Former Mayor Richard Daley helped usher in numerous innovations and was committed to greening the city, and under Rahm Emanuel, the city seems to be headed toward even more smart city improvements. For example, Chicago has committed to open data; it now has 851 open data sets. As part of an initiative first launched in 2007, Chicago’s Digital Excellence Smart Communities Program is working with five local communities in an attempt to close the digital divide for the elderly and lower-income residents of the city.

9. Los Angeles. This entry may come as somewhat of a surprise. Los Angeles is famous for its sprawl and traffic jams, which are reflected in a low rate of transit use (11.6%), the lowest by far of any of the cities in this ranking. However, L.A. is starting to break out of the box with increased density, growing its network of pedestrian and cycling paths and increased use of renewable energy. L.A. also is starting to create a thriving technology entrepreneurial ecosystem and is rated fourth globally in the inventive cities ranking.

L.A. is now home to dozens of technology accelerators and incubators, including Launchpad L.A., which funded and supported 23 ventures between 2009 and 2011. Nineteen of those ventures received funding of $80 million in total.

10. Montreal. One of the most "European" cities in North America, Montreal is also one of the more dense cities with high-quality public transit (ranked fourth among these cities in the Siemens Transit index). You may notice another trend: It has the third highest quality of life rating here behind its two Canadian compatriots (rated 22nd globally). The heat map from shows why Montreal is one of the best cities for cycling in North America. Montreal has plenty of room to improve as a smart city but it is on the right path.

All cities around the globe must work harder to improve quality of life—and equal opportunity for all—while reducing their ecological footprint, all in the face of reduced access to national funds and increased strain on infrastructure due to urban migration. These 10 cities have all demonstrated a willingness to begin the journey.

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  • scsj

    Can you explain better how you decided which cities to include in your study, and also list the cities you did include? You say "out of 30 leading North American cities studied" - well, which 30?

    The most notable exclusion I see here is Minneapolis, which is an obvious peer of Seattle and consistently scores at the very top of the scale in health, cultural vibrancy, education, and environmental consciousness.

  • Wize Adz

    These articles always feature the same dozen or so major cities, ranked.  That's not particularly useful because all it says is "all big cities attract knowledge workers".

    When articles cover smaller cities or tech clusters, it usually looks like it's a contest to see whose Chamber of Commerce is the most cooperative.  That's no too useful either.

    Occasionally, I see an article like this that's based on some sort of objective criteria.  That's a start, I guess.

    As a tech worker, one of the things that I find more interesting is the specialized nature of tech clusters.  For instance, Washington DC requires all of the same skills as Silicon Valley, and also has a lot of the same economic constraints.  But Silicon Valley tech work tends to focus on consumer, media, and platforms while DC tends to focus military and government.  Both clusters need (for instance) Java programmers, but a promising young Java programmer looking for a higher purpose may be more likely to find it in one cluster or the other, depending on their personal values.

  • Joe

    While your Euro city smart list seemed to have some criteria that held together, t is difficult for me to see this as anything other than something related to where the most Private Equity resides. And Chicago????  On the list for pitiful transportation, corruption,a sagging economy and a regular humans underwater on their mortgages. Well still keep up the rankings, and keep refining.

  • Madelyn Clair

    Something is wrong with these measurements, perhaps how the criteria is weighted, if L.A. can appear ANYWHERE in a list that is known for being a smart city. The fact that you can't get around this city except between midnight and 4:30 am put quite a damper on its effectiveness as a city. The public transportation issue is PATHETIC.  PATHETIC!!!!

  • An observer

    Nothing beats the "technology, sustainability and great living conditions" of the cities ranked.  Here are some great examples:1) The average commute time in Los Angeles is over an hour, with stinky traffic fumes, horrendous jams, and outrageously expensive housing.

    2) San Francisco experienced a 17% jump in its already-outrageous rents year over year.  Housing is poor quality (often seismically unsound) and unaffordable to all but a few millionaires.  San Franciscans get to experience awesome quality of life, including stepping over the excrement of homeless people that piles up on the sidewalks, trying to ignore the persistent smell of urine in most of downtown, and trying to avoid having the windows of their small cars broken when they street park.  Extra credit points for earning the $120,000 it requires on an annual basis to rent a tiny studio apartment at 45x rent/earnings requirement.  Good luck "bootstrapping" an innovative entrepreneurial startup when you have to make $120K a year just to get by.

    3) Chicago is an even bigger basket case, with a population that plummeted by 10% this decade, horrendous weather, and a decidedly anti-innovation bent in its local government.  Its local government made the tech news for launching all-out war on innovative ride-sharing, space-saving and sustainability initiatives like Uber and Airbnb, primarily for the benefit of the corrupt taxi and hotel cartels who provide extensive payola in the form of campaign contributions.

    4) New York is New York -- a city by and for the wealthy.  In addition to its outrageous rents (and poor quality housing), it also suffers from a business climate that favors the wealthiest.  Fortunately, the VCs will step in and take a mere 95% of your ingenious idea in exchange for enough cash to rent out an old, cold building with rats scurrying through the walls.

    5) Montreal has a dreadful business climate, high taxes and the persistent threat of a sovereignty referendum.  You get the added benefit of the tongue troopers fining you if you use the "wrong" language at work (such as Chinese, when dealing with a Chinese client, or English when dealing with a US or English Canadian client).  Rents are relatively low, but the housing bubble in Canada will leave many thousands of working Montrealers deep underwater ($100K or more) when it pops.

    6) Toronto has skyrocketing costs, killer rents and relatively low salaries versus the high living expenses.  It's a better business climate than SF or NYC, but that's hardly saying much.

  • Dekkard

    Why does this list not surprise me coming from someone who is apparently a disciple of Al Gore - you know, the guy who just sold his "network" for a ton of oil money (and did so just in time to avoid paying his patriotic Obama Taxes.  Chicago, home of some of the most stringent gun control laws, had five-hundred or more murders last year - yeah, a great place to live.  I guess it is low carbon because dead people don't exhale.  San Francisco?  Oh so "progressive"; the question is progressing towards what? an open sewer pit?  Low carbon because like the rest of Peoples republic of California the sane are leaving and the homeless don't drive.  Ditto on Seattle: once a livable city turned into rats nest by the feel good policies of the left (who all live in the 'burbs.   NYC? So bad, God finally decided to give it a bath.
    Seriously, even the IPCC has given up on man-made global warming, you should get out more.  Maybe Al Gore will fly you on his private jet to one of his many homes.

  • Matteo


    vancouver, toronto and montreal are canada's entries?
    these are the dirtiest cities in canada!
    what, no ottawa? no quebec city? no calgary?
    all much, much better and greener too!

  • keller23

    Where's Boise on the list? Find any list of "best cities to live" and Boise is usually in the top 5. You find a city that size with cleaner air. You can buy a nice house for $200K and you can walk downtown at 1am without fear of getting killed/raped, virtually no rush hour traffic, great bar scene and within an hour some of the most amazing skiing in N. America.

    But it's in one of those evil red states so it's a no-go for the co.exist list. Only broke cities with smog, high crime rates and $3000 a month 1 bedroom apartments make the list.

  • Mountain_Goat

    Having lived and worked temporarily in Boise for 9 months, I agree with you Keller.  Just an all-around great place to settle.  Hopefully the economy will remain strong, despite setbacks in   high tech.  I'm not as sanguine about life in the nearby suburban cities of Nampa and Caldwell, however, where high rates of ag-associated unemployment and illegal immigration prevail. 

  • keller23

    Pretty much every city here is fiscally bankrupt. Oh but they have "green" initiatives so they're well run cities. 

  • Mountain_Goat

    This goes to show how narrowly focused the Smart Growth crowd is.  Southern California long ago passed the point of relative self-sufficiency (read "sustainability"), and would not exist in its present over-developed form had it not depleted the water resources of the southwestern U.S.

    "Progressive" San Francisco continues to fight efforts to remove Hetch Hetchy Dam, thus creating a twin Yosemite Valley.  Why?  Because the City enjoys the benefits of pure mountain water (no need to treat it), and relies on the 100-year old dam on federal land to retain near-free water.  Oh-so-correct San Francisco always finds a way to excuse its own environmental blind spots, while chastising others for bad behavior.

    Both California cities look great when viewed through an academic prism 3,000 miles away.  Mr. Cohen might try living a real life someplace in Califonria other than L.A. or S.F.  He might see things a bit differently.

  • Joshua Pasos

    Agreed. LA is the armpit of California. So what if they have the lowest car usage you still can't get around.  Lets not forget that they are built on a desert and use half of SF water.  That city is not SMART in any means. 
    Your rhetoric completely contradict itself.  On the one hand you want a SMART/Sustainable city but on the other you are willing to destroy a beautiful habitat to get water. Progressive is the gradual ability to move forward and advance.  In San Francisco they are progressing towards a true SMART city. 

    And yes I am a San Franciscan or at least was.

  • Jim

    Aren't all these American cities bankrupt?  NY, Chicago, DC, San Francisco, Boston, & LA are.  (The state of CA is about ready to collapse.)  Do we really need to make up more metrics to make "green" look important?

  • Steve

    I guess Toronto's problems with it's not-so-smart Mayor recently have dropped it from #2 on the PLANET to #7 in NA??

  • Fred Harris

    Very strange list Boyd - I like Fast Company the mag - can't get it now since I move around a lot -and already have an "e" overload.  You might want to make your criteria more clear; after reading your article I must surmise your biases.  As a young thinker, you still have the liberal brainwash of "Higher Ed" showing behind your ears.  And as a LEED devotee, you obviously like coastal cities (yes I consider Chicago coastal).  The air is cleaner, no thanks to the stockyards.  But "holy smoke" (pun intended), how can you call any CA city smart - and NY?  These places are politically "Solyent Green".  They will soon be void of humanity with budgets imploding.  How about one more try with a tad more balance?