It is speculated that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, as people will have more opportunities for work, education and quality of social and cultural life. Population will reach 4 billion by 2030 – with the greatest growth occurring in emerging economies — which means the demand for services and resources will grow exponentially.

The concept of Smart Cities was born in an attempt to ensure that the benefits of urbanization are fully shared and inclusive thanks toadvances in digital technology. Cities are dealing with serious urban challenges that go from economic (globalization, automation, robotics…) to social (urbanization, immigration…) to environmental (climate change, water availability and quality, clean air, toxic chemicals…). To solve these issues, cities need to implement solutions enabled by digital transformation that involves citizens, businesses, government and non-governmental institutions.

Experts argue that ICT is a means of achieving intelligent resource management in a city, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the city is meant to be successful in being smart and sustainable at the same time. Smart Sustainable Cities can be seen as an aggregate concept. Smart technology can be used in cities without contributing to sustainable development, it’s only when we combine these aspects when smart technologies are used for making cities more sustainable.

In some definitions of Smart City, sustainable is an integral part of it, so one might argue that a Smart City is automatically a Sustainable City, and thus there’s no need to pay special attention to the word ‘sustainable’. However, not all Smart City concepts include sustainability, although they, arguably, should. Any scorecard for a project would or should include the weighted value for Sustainability. There are good examples where the weighted score for Sustainability could be quite low, based on the requirements of that Smart City application. For an Emergency Medical Technology team, other than ensuring that the ambulance is an EV, Sustainability – beyond human life – isn’t a high priority.

The notion of a “technologically interconnected city” or Internet of Things (IoT) using Big Data is promoted to achieve the efficiency and intelligence in managing cities’ resources. In this scenario, this aggregated concept can be a priority to ensure that sustainability is not ignored at the expense of growing the technological capability.

What’s a smart city?

As technology reshapes the way we interact with our communities, transportation, homes, and even politics, the use of ICT provides a level of intelligence and coordination of information around us so they can work in concerted action. That way, smart systems are capable of managing their own resources, and are connected and interconnected with each other.

Smart transcends everything that has thus-far been done in ICT. It’s not just the next step – it’s the next giant leap. A Smart City is when you connect all household solar users via a blockchain based AI-enabled microgrid to balance loads and ensure more clean power is available on the city or regional grid. A Smart City application is one where there are IoT sensors throughout the community’s sewer and water system to predict failure and required maintenance.

Smart Cities are not so smart without a reliable and fast Internet that connects and integrates sensors, cameras and other smart devices, as well as the Big Data needed to maximize computation and algorithmic capability. And this is why the cloud network “Edge” is so important – because it moves AI analytics out to the point closest to the sensored, monitored and metered data is collected for immediate, autonomous response. For example, traffic light systems that change their timing automatically based on traffic congestion on a moment-by-moment basis. Such a system autonomously improves Sustainability by ensuring traffic is flowing in the most efficient way possible. 

From an ICT perspective, a Smart City is a city that uses ICT, Internet, IoT and Big Data analytics to solve its modern problems, but we have to aim for a Smart City that goes beyond that and focus on achieving economic, social and environmental stability in order to improve the quality of life of citizens.

What’s a Sustainable City?

Historically, the term “sustainability” is usually used to emphasize the environmental aspects in society, especially in terms of how ICT can improve the use of clean energy and reduce carbon emissions. Other important aspects of sustainability (such as social, cultural and economic) are under-represented. In order to broaden the reach of the concept, UNESCO defined sustainability as “a paradigm for thinking about the future in which environmental, societal and economic considerations are balanced in the pursuit of an improved quality of life”.

A Sustainable City must be built on social development, economic development, environmental management and urban governance to ensure having a low ecological footprint and eliminate transferring economic, social and environmental hazards to other locations and future generations.

Sustainable development goals are deemed to be interconnected and require integrated thinking across all sectors of the city and provide incentives for collaboration between national and international organizations as well as citizens to participate in the decision-making.

What’s a Smart Sustainable City?

Traditionally, the sustainability of a city was focused on the impact occurring within the city’s administrative boundaries. However, due to the processes of urbanization, industrialization and globalization, there has been an increase in the consumption of goods manufactured far away. This means that the environmental impact of consumption is scattered across the globe. Consequently, the concept of Smart Sustainable Cities requires a global perspective in which sustainability assessments and urban development are made in a way that takes into an account the global consequences of local action.

There are many factors involved in these Smart Sustainable City projects that can be measured by six main characteristics defined by the Center of Regional Science at the Vienna University of Technology: Smart Economics, Smart People, Smart Governance, Smart Mobility, Smart Environment and Smart Living.

Recent studies have found that smart city concepts don’t set up any common baseline for sustainability or define what it is and which aspects it includes. While some initiatives include plans for “Smart Environment” and “Smart Mobility”, it’s hard to find a plan that includes all aspects of what makes a city sustainable. A definition of sustainability and what it implies is important to know the end goals, what it strives for, and what possible conflicts between sustainable objectives can arise. None of these definitions provide a hierarchy of smart aspects, so in some cases they’re assigned the same value and, in others, environmental issues are automatically moved to the top. It’s important to know how to prioritize in case of conflicting interests, such as issues between sustainability dimensions or even within themselves.

For this to work, we need true collaboration between all the pieces of the chess game. Big companies have the resources to fully implement the assessments, but that can lead to a dangerous monopolization of the development. Citizens have great potential for innovation when it comes to identifying and solving problems, but it can be very hard for them to take these ideas to the next level, which usually results in many fragmented small-scale solutions that don’t have the power to make a big difference. Cities are the key players here but they are weak customers, as they don’t have the capacity to adequality specify their needs or evaluate the offers they receive. This often leads to bad investment decisions or paralyzed decision making. As the middlemen between big companies and citizens, they need to scrutinize offers from ICT companies as well as play role in balancing top-down and bottom-up approaches and solutions.

Different infrastructures have made it possible to create and develop more efficient systems for trade and business, but it has also made it possible to ruin ecosystems and exploit natural resources. ICT is, in a way, doing that too (such as the potential negative impact 5G can have on our wellbeing). Cities must craft mitigating measures at the same time as they encourage technology for efficiency improvements and they must follow closely how ICT is shaping society.

Connecting the concepts of Sustainable Cities and Smart Cities raises awareness of the potential of using ICT to promote urban sustainability among planners, IT companies and policy makers. This concept can be a common framework for elaborating collaborations, business models and ways of carrying out urban development, as well as avoiding getting caught in only the technical challenges of the development.

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