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Can cities be both Smart and Sustainable?

Can Smart City and Sustainable City go hand in hand? While it is true that there are nuances between these two terms, the fact remains that these two visions are intrinsically linked. Our researcher Jessica Clément takes a look at the complementarity between Smart City* and Sustainable City* which is not always obvious, and at some ways of combining the two approaches. 

* Or more broadly "intelligent territory" and "sustainable territory".
SmartCity mouvement piétons 2 image large 
With successful smart city projects now found in regions throughout the world, the concept of the Smart City is quickly being embraced by decision-makers and territorial actors as a way to support the development of local areas. Recently, this is especially the case for supporting sustainability objectives, such as reduced carbon emissions or improved energy efficiency.

The smart and sustainable city : a utopist vision?

However, there are some barriers that have emerged that complicate the vision of cities that are both smart and sustainable. 
For example, as the Smart City concept often emphasises technology, there are criticisms that this aspect dominates environmental considerations in territorial transformation processes. A similar observation is that in some cases the Smart City proposes a digital/digital upgrade, without addressing social concerns such as equity and social justice. Yet these are often crucial criteria when it comes to sustainable transition.
Another issue raised is that Smart City projects - since they generally involve the adoption of technology - could lead to an increase in the use of raw materials. For example, some “smart mobility” projects include new installations of sensors and cameras around a city. The potential increase in material use often is not accounted for, and can have environmental and social implications along material supply chains.
Given these considerations, it is natural to ask: can a Smart City also be sustainable? The rest of this article will help you understand how our cities can become both smart and sustainable.

What is the difference between a “Sustainable City” and a “Smart City”?

First of all, let's take a quick look at these two concepts. Similarities exist between the concept of a “sustainable city” and a “smart city”, but there are some important differences to note. For instance, research has shown that sustainable cities focus more on environmental and social aspects, while Smart Cities - besides technology-related aspects - emphasize more the economic and social aspects of a city (Ahvenniemi et al., 2017).
Indeed, a narrower environmental focus characterizes sustainable cities. Sustainable cities are said to have needs that are within the capacity of their surrounding areas (Kennedy et al. 2007). Sustainable cities also attempt to reduce their consumption, in order to reduce negative impacts that city life has far beyond the territory itself (Höjer & Wangel, 2014). This leads sustainable cities to pay attention to, in addition to environment concerns, concepts like justice and equality, both at home and abroad.
However, despite an initial smaller weight put on the importance of environmental factors, the Smart City concept seems to be shifting toward addressing sustainability issues.

A progressive orientation towards more sustainability for Smart Cities

Indeed, this more 'holistic' vision of the Smart City has emerged both in the academic literature (Meijer et Bolívar 2016 ; Mora et al. 2019 ; Sharifi 2019 as well as the various works and publications of the Smart City Institute since 2015), and in International or Regional Organizations, such as the European Commission. In fact, the way the European Commission views Smart Cities is directly addressing how cities can leverage technology to improve resource use, lower emissions, and upgrade urban transport and waste disposal facilities.
In a parallel way, a separate, yet closely related concept of the “smart sustainable city” has emerged, which can be defined as a city that uses technology to improve the sustainability of a local area.
This is the vision that the Smart City Institute has been supporting through its research and outreach activities since 2015. Read more about our vision of the Smart City

How can we make Smart Cities Sustainable?

So what can our territories do to be both smart and sustainable? As all cities have unique contexts, there will be no one size fits all solution to become a “smart and sustainable city”. However, some points of attention raised by our researcher, Jessica Clément, provide some suggestions:

Integrate and monitor environmental indicators

First, municipalities can incorporate more environmental indicators in their Smart City strategies*. To begin with, this will help cities understand some basic environmental metrics of their city, such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration, greenhouse gas emissions per capita, and municipal waste produced per capita. After, cities can begin to track and measure these indicators**. This not only tracks overall environmental progress, but also shows if smart city policies or projects are helping to improve sustainability outcomes in the city.
*For more information on developing a Smart City strategy, see our Smart City Practical Guide #1.
**Methodology for monitoring and evaluating Smart City projects: see our Smart City Practical Guide #5.

Guiding decisions with real-time data

Secondly, if ICT solutions have been implemented as part of their Smart City approach, municipalities can use real time data gathered to provide inputs for evidence-based policy making that supports sustainability. For example, in one area of Stockholm, energy and material flows are measured in real time to understand the demands of the district. Understanding these flows can help lower energy use, pollution, and waste (Bibri & Krogstie, 2020). In general, smart sustainable municipalities can use this type of data to guide their decisions and direct the orientation of the smart city development.

Think about the resources mobilised

Third, municipalities aiming to become smart and sustainable can actively account for the materials that are required for any technology solution. Planning for a long-term use of solutions (such as sensors, mobile phones, new transport methods like a public shared bike scheme, etc.) helps ensure that the materials are used to their fullest to avoid unnecessary waste. Adopting solutions that have smart designs using reduced materials can also support this goal.

These two practices can be paired with city-sponsored take-back and refurbishing schemes to either properly dispose of materials in technological devices or attempt to give used products a new life.

Promoting equity and social inclusion

Finally, Smart Cities can be built in a way that supports an equitable society by developing smart and sustainable solutions that serve the majority of the population, such as free public Wi-Fi throughout the city. More generally, Smart City initiatives can involve public* input from the early stages of their development, ensuring multiple societal opinions are considered, which leads to outcomes that improve the quality of life for citizens at large.
*How to make citizens actors of their territory? Our Practical Guide #2 accompanies you in your reflections.

Sustainability: the ultimate goal of any Smart City approach

In conclusion, while our cities and municipalities are significant contributors to pressing environmental issues, such as climate change, they also have a great capacity to fight these problems. This is why smart and sustainable cities can help support sustainability transitions around the world. Rather than opposing these two visions, they should be seen as complementary.
As we at the Smart City Institute explain, sustainability is intrinsically linked to any Smart City approach, since "the ultimate objective of the latter is to reinvent our daily behaviour (the way we consume, produce, move, etc.), in order, ideally, to provide a sustainable response to the major challenges of our time.
By considering these suggestions, municipalities can begin to rethink how to become smart and sustainable.This calls on policymakers and local stakeholders to consider these types of initiatives in their own local areas.
To go further - References and articles

Photo credit : Mauro Mora on Unsplash

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