Striking the balance between smart and sustainable cities

The Fifth Estate’s UK correspondent and prolific writer David Thorpe has a new book in the works, which is soon to be released. The following is an extract from his chapter about the role of sustainability in the smart cities revolution. 

To what extent will the one planet city rely on technology? And isn’t a one planet city smart by definition?

Science fiction stories about highly automated futures with cities run by computers frequently contain dire predictions. The Matrix Trilogy has humans completely taken over by machines. Stories in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror television series feature control systems breaking down with unfortunate results. Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano is a variant on the Luddite theme of workers smashing machines that have put them out of jobs. 

But perhaps the template for this kind of dystopia was EM Forster’s The Machine Stops published as long ago as 1909, in which people live in little boxes and rarely go outside, communicating via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing network and worshipping a deity called The Machine. They have forgotten that humans created the Machine, and its self-repair mechanism has begun to fail, a development regarded as heretical because of the supposed omnipotence of the Machine. It was the inspiration for a David Bowie song, Saviour Machine, which contains the chorus line: “You can’t stake your lives on a Saviour Machine”.

India’s drive for smart cities

Nevertheless, that seems to be exactly what we are doing. All over the world, cities are being wired up for all kinds of supposedly good reasons. Perhaps the most ambitious program is the 100 smart cities mission launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, estimated by consultancy Sustainability Outlook to cost $45-50 billion over the next five years. The idea is to put cities such as Pune, Jaipur, Surat, Kochi, Ahmedbad, New Delhi, Chennai, Visakhapatnam, Ludhiana and Bhopal at the forefront of the 21st-century urban experience. 

There is a parallel project for 50 “solar cities” to enable at least 10 per cent of electricity to be supplied from solar panels over five years. Among the technologies being suggested by Western technology companies such as Cisco and Ericsson, hungry for the business of fitting out these cities in the second most populous nation on the planet, are high resolution cameras for city surveillance; sensors for managing parking; smart meters for measuring, billing and reducing energy use; solutions for managing waste and renewable energy provision; intelligent street lights and traffic controls.

Indian chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said of the projects slated for his home town Nagpur: “We are trying to ensure that infrastructure development in the city keeps pace with its growth. Transportation, water, sanitation, health care and unauthorised development.” 

Transport projects include a Metro and the Nagpur-Mumbai Super Expressway. While the latter is not particularly sustainable, other projects, such as those in Pune, incorporate the redesign of streets, footpath retrofitting, making space on roads for social activity, rainwater harvesting, low income skill development and health care, LED lighting, solar rooftops, and an e-governance centre including grievance redressal and smart customer services through online apps. Quite a list.

A main focus is on public transport, with the installation of GPS and real-time tracking of buses through a mobile app, a vehicle health monitoring system, intelligent road asset management, traffic mapping using mobile GPS and e-challan (official document) for paying traffic fines.

While this will be very impressive for Indian cities, Western cities are already, if you forgive the pun, streets ahead. They have learned that smart cities are about much more than technology. The overall aim of the smart city project for them is to help government perform better and the public to receive services better.

The need for open data

It’s a given that open data, in other words transparency, is an absolute necessity for projects to succeed in a democracy. The inclusion of the populace – tapping into the wisdom of crowds – is the ability given by the technology to enable information sharing and communication to be not just one-way (top-down) or two-way (up and down) but every way. It is crucial for success – or “citizen buy-in”.

According to Dario Hidalgo, director for integrated transport at EMBARQ, “smart” does not necessarily mean “sustainable’. “In order to be sustainable, a city needs the sustainability parts first as a design prerequisite before implementing smart components,” he said. In a webinar I ran on this topic, Melanie Nutter, a former director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, agrees. She says that policies should come first; other elements follow. Sensors, for example, can be an enabling form of assistive technology. 

For her, the original idea of smart cities, which we can call Smart Cities 1.0, focused on technology and engineering. But the concept behind Smart Cities 2.0 is putting people first. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” she said. “Smart by itself is not a measurable goal or strategy. We must answer questions like “do we want smart sprawl or revitalisation?’ Technology is about data but community revitalisation is about wisdom.”


Borrowing technology derived from the smart energy metering of commercial buildings and the use of CCTV cameras and sensors for traffic control, mobility has been an early focus for Smart Cities 1.0. Apps are assisting the sustainable transport agenda by pulling in transport data from all aspects and aggregating them. For example, traffic sensors are used to control traffic lights to speed up the flow of traffic dynamically and unblock hot spots of congestion.

One main cause of air pollution and congestion is drivers hunting for parking spaces. Milton Keynes, a city in England, has tackled this with sensors to manage the use of 20,000 parking spaces, allowing information to be provided on roadside displays and smartphone apps to guide vehicles towards available parking spaces. As well as optimising the use of existing parking infrastructure, “smart parking” systems of this type potentially reduce fuel consumption and emissions from vehicles. After detecting an arrival or departure, the sensors send information wirelessly to lamppost-mounted solar-powered repeaters which transmit the data to a hub where it is processed and displayed on the council’s public information dashboard and smartphones, with parking bay status displayed as red (occupied) or green (free) on Google maps. 

Smart traffic management can be used to ensure that service deliveries are made at night time when they interfere less with other traffic. Storm Cunningham, publisher of Revitalization News, cites the widespread prevalence of Uber, Google Transit and car sharing apps. He believes that the next thing will be “the wider use of congestion pricing (as in London) and parking management and traffic management which is green since it reduces emissions”.

But for Dario Hidalgo, the only fully sustainable vehicle is the bicycle, and in many cities people are going back to it. It is the main mode of transport in some cities such as Copenhagen. Its connection to the “smart” agenda is about efficiency, cheapness and health. He does not think that driverless cars are particularly sustainable, although they do hold the promise of being able to slash fatality and injury figures from traffic accidents. “Cycling,” he says, “can be helped by smart technology such as bike sharing projects.”

Storm adds that walking, too, is properly sustainable. “Pedestrians need to be formally incorporated into transit plans and we need a better analysis of where the blocks are to encourage walking. Revitalisation of community districts to make them more attractive for walking through should be high on the agenda.”

The smart city agenda has huge advantages for compact, connected cities such as Barcelona, which has rushed to adopt it. Contrast this with a city as sprawled and car-dependent as Atlanta. For Dario, the only way for this type of city to reduce its traffic impacts is “to become less centred and more dependent upon nearby local hubs for services and jobs. Properly sustainable programs will encourage people to shift to more sustainable forms of transport or not travel at all by creating homes next to jobs and services rather than to drive their cars more efficiently.”

Melanie Nutter agrees: “Real-time data will reach everywhere. The ‘smart cities’ hype does not represent a silver bullet solution to all the problems cities face. Cities thinking about implementing the technology need to engage with providers properly and be fully informed before engaging in procurement and talking to the private sector about the best way it can fulfil the aims of the sustainability agenda”.

Smart cities need a new type of management

While the smart city idea works on a project basis, it does not work so well at a systemic level, Storm Cunningham believes. “The basic decision-making rules of civic government need changing to accommodate the cross-departmental and cross-sectoral opportunities of the technology available. The places where the smart city agenda is working is where it focuses on renewal, re-purposing existing infrastructure and reconnecting existing assets. Humanity itself needs to adapt as it moves into cities and is destroying the world’s ecosystems. Up until now, humanity has been in adaptive conquest mode. Now we need to move into ‘adaptive renewal’ mode.”

Melanie Nutter cited a survey of 300 urban sustainability directors which found that they had to take a step back in order to examine how to best implement a smart city strategy. They needed to examine the way their city was governed, managed change and integrated new technology. For restructuring of city governance in order to successfully implement smart technology, the order of implementation should be: vision first, then strategy/ies, then plan(s) or programs, then projects. To achieve buy-in by both city officials and citizens, their confidence in the agenda needs to be raised first by pilot projects.

“It needs a lot of ground work to be done,” Melanie advised. A task force to define a digital strategy and how the city is to use data needs to be created as a next stage, followed by the appointment of data officers. Included in the strategy should be a means of helping the private sector better understand the administration’s needs.

The World Council on City Data (WCCD) is attempting to standardise city data so cities can learn from each other, share and compare experiences and improve the quality of life of citizens. It encourages the use of open city data and provides a consistent and comprehensive platform for standardised metrics, using ISO 37120 Sustainable Development of Communities: Indicators for City Services and Quality of Life, the international standard discussed in Chapter Three. Their website publishes the results of the open data collection for certified cities ranging from Mexico City to Makati (Philippines), via Minna (Nigeria) and Makkah (Saudi Arabia). Remember, it is aimed towards the urban Sustainable Development Goals but not sustainability within planetary boundaries.

The idea of a smart city presents a big opportunity for medium-sized cities, which can change faster than huge metropolises that are more complicated in management. Kielce (population 200,000) was one of the first cities in Poland the WCCD assisted to obtain ISO 37120 Platinum Certification. Data is collected using the standard about all aspects of the city and published for all to see using an online map as the interface. Its mayor, Wojciech Lubawski, sees one advantage of certification being that data on the city’s performance “is so reliable that we do not question it at all. The goal of each mayor, the goal of local government, is to raise all these standards to a higher level. Making the wrong decision can affect the quality of people’s lives. And that’s why all this data, knowledge and statistics are extremely necessary.” 

Often, data collection using the ISO means that unexpected things are discovered. “We might discover that we should allocate more money on something that is needed and expected by residents, or discover through those external entities what our strengths and weaknesses are that should be dealt with more thoroughly,” said Lubawski. “People often follow the path of least resistance, but they should be aware that they may have poor outcomes if they make decisions that do not reflect research.”

Ms Jadwiga Skrobacka, Kielce’s manager of the Office for Intelligent Management of Sustainable Development added some other advantages: “Everyone looks at decisions from their point of view and sees only a fragment of reality. But describing the context in more detail and showing it on the map, as we try to do, seems to create much more opportunity to include residents in the process. Including residents is more common, and in the smart city idea, data sharing is crucial. Everyone learns, both the employees who have their responsibilities and the residents who are informed about the city’s activities. It becomes possible to agree on common directions… on certain key values, according to which we imagine the future of our city, and these values guide the various activities that we will undertake. It becomes easier to prioritise investment decisions. I also think that the educational role of city-to-city learning is very important.”

The “wisdom of crowds”

Cities can also use social networks to tap into the “wisdom of crowds”, but this needs to be conducted sensitively. For example in a referendum in Vancouver on transit strategies people were asked to mail in their ballots, which reduced participation; responses should also have been possible via email or text. In the interests of total inclusivity of the population, off-line approaches are just as important as online ones. No ballots should be self-selecting. 

Another example of a self-selecting group is the use of technology to get momentum behind a project. In New York City the example of an iconic piece of urban walkable greenspace is often given of the Highline, a 2.33 kilometre-long elevated linear park, greenway and rail trail created on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the west side of Manhattan, that would not have happened without substantial public campaigning. The organiser of this project used the crowdsourcing fundraising website Kickstarter to establish support and to raise $100,000, making it an offer the administration could not refuse, allowing them to bypass the restrictions of the planning system. Although a desirable outcome was reached, this has been criticised as a development for educated, well-off, middle class people – and all views need to be heard.

The democratic idea of citizen-led social innovation is central to the URBACT Smart Cities network, a European-funded initiative. In a 2012 paper on Social Innovation For Smart Cities, Peter Ramsden observes that “the smart cities of the future will be innovating in how they deliver social policies as much as they do in organising transport networks or reducing their carbon footprint. Smart cities will be innovating to prevent problems happening rather than trying to solve problems when it is too late. Most of all, smart cities will organise their innovation effort to focus on priorities and to look for new solutions. Citizens should be in the driving seat. They should be invited to participate and respected for their views. They should be able to share their needs and speak truth to power while trusting that working with officials and experts will lead to new solutions.”

Five years later Rasha Elgazzar and Rania El-Gazzar argued that, “ICT is a means of achieving intelligent resource management in a city, but it does not necessarily presuppose that the city is successful in being smart and sustainable.”

Measurement and verification

In Smart City 2.0+ then, applying the approach of using standards to check and compare progress, smart technology provides the opportunity for cities to measure their sustainability and include citizens’ views. 

It’s also possible to use modelling with feedback from sensors around the city. In Taiwan, the g0v Air Pollution Observation Network involves distributing hundreds of air quality sensor “airboxes” which, using IoT (Internet of Things – the implementation of ubiquitous interconnectivity) technologies, permits citizens to provide real-time air quality information from wherever they are. Thousands of citizen contributors have accumulated a massive database, revealing the air quality in the places where they are active. This is connected to the Civil IoT programme, which has a four-year budget of TWD 4.9 billion, and collects an enormous amount of environmental data on air quality, meteorology, water resources, earthquakes, disaster relief, and more, integrating them into a high-speed computing environment, to permit collaborators to discover correlations between social activities and environmental phenomena more quickly.

I agree with Storm Cunningham, that while smart infrastructure projects can be beneficial, their overall impacts needs to be estimated and measured as part of the decision-making process on whether projects should go ahead. City administrators are often bedazzled by salespeople from technology companies proclaiming the wonders that digitisation and the IoT can achieve. They are touting for business and their own interests are paramount in their minds. Administrators need to conduct their own cost-benefit analyses; these should include a full life cycle analysis of the impacts of installing the technology, including the embodied energy. A project cannot be sustainable if the environmental cost of installing and maintaining it is greater than the benefit. Rather than mounting sensors expensively on infrastructure around the city – technology which can go out of date remarkably quickly – it is better to, as Taiwan has done, employ mobile apps and citizen engagement. 

Additionally, keeping the data open (as the above ISO requires) rather than as intellectual property owned by the commissioned companies (which may be a condition of their contracts) will also multiply the uses to which the data can be put by the city. 

Different cities will go different ways according to their culture. Singapore is nominally a democracy, but one party has been in control for a long time. It is an extreme example of technology taking over a city; Singaporeans accept a level of intrusion into privacy that would not be acceptable in other countries. Its top-down solution is to put sensors all over the city to create a 3-D x-ray map, monitoring everything from temperature, climate and pedestrian movements, to toilet flushes and appliance behaviours inside apartments, 80 per cent of which are public housing. The motivation, accepted by citizens, is that it enables the city authorities better to look after its occupants. This might be the closest city on the planet to some of the dystopias imagined by science fiction writers.


Contrast this, to say, Amsterdam, an example of a city that runs hackathons. Hackathons are events where anyone with coding ability is given access to all sorts of sources of city data and invited to come up with creative ways of using it to improve quality of life. In that city, winners of a competition included projects to adapt the existing cameras of an arena into a smart facial recognition systems for better security, safety and experience; a Stadium app solution alerting fans for availabilities of bathroom, food and beverages in a venue; and a crowdsourcing app helping citizens fix the city by engaging and initiating projects with fellow citizens. 

A hackathon in Stockholm came up with the idea of installing cheap noise and air pollution sensors around the city to measure and visualise noise levels and air pollution in different areas, in order to help control excess noise and reduce pollution. In Germany a company called Indalyz Monitoring & Prognostics (IM&P) has developed a unique piece of prognostic software that uses artificially intelligent algorithms to predict when which component of a machine will break down and have to be replaced. 

Cynics might say that the only thing needed to make EM Forster’s prediction come true is that the machine then repairs itself and takes over the running of a city like Singapore.

But optimists would argue that although human ingenuity is constantly coming up with new ways to use the Internet of Things to make improvements supposedly for our benefit, other international standards are being developed to make sure that all of these talk the same language and provide guidelines to help cities (and their possibly hidebound and technically illiterate officials) plan with greater wisdom. ISO/TS 37151 (Smart community infrastructures – Principles and requirements for performance metrics), for example, outlines 14 categories of basic community needs from the perspectives of residents, city managers and the environment to measure the performance of smart community infrastructures.  

Among its promises are to assess the abilities and qualifications of city planners and consultants, and to guarantee the safety and security of residents. Of course, cities would have to choose to adopt this standard first. Ultimately, it’s up to citizens themselves to ensure that their governments adopt this type of practice.

Cities and national governments need monitoring systems that produce accurate and close to real-time data and information, to design and inform their actions, and policies aimed at uplifting urban services and the quality of life of their residents. The appropriate disaggregation of data at different levels and forms is necessary in order to report consistently on performance at the urban, subnational and national levels. 

Countries with many cities, and those with limited human resources and funds, need to adopt various strategies to cope with large data demands. A national ‘sample of cities’ approach to assist this has been developed and piloted by UN-Habitat. It is an important mechanism to aggregate national urban performances in a consistent and systematic manner. The sample offers a low-cost option of monitoring fewer representative sets of cities consistently, rather than all cities, and being able to report, seamlessly, national level performances.

Ultimately the level of digitisation in service of the smart agenda is going to be a trade-off between cost versus benefits, the degree of open citizen engagement that can be tolerated by a government, and the overall social and environmental impact. To refer back to the webinar I conducted on this topic, the conclusion was: “a city is only as smart as it citizens” – and its leaders. Information, evidence, equity and education are the pillars of a smart, one planet city. Technology is its servant, not its master.

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