Smart Cities: Efficient, Sustainable, Digitised Living

Our current global environment is undergoing significant changes that have never been experienced in the history of humanity. Coupled with an increase in rural to urban migration, the need to create sustainable communities and cities is more visible than ever before. We take a look at the notion of 'Smart Cities'.

Author RESET , 10.31.14

Our current global environment is undergoing significant changes that have never been experienced in the history of humanity. Coupled with an increase in rural to urban migration, the need to create sustainable communities and cities is more visible than ever before. We take a look at the notion of ‘Smart Cities’.

In the year 1800, only two percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1900, that number had increased to nearly 13 percent, and finally in the year 2000, the percentage of of people residing in urban areas reached 47 percent. According the United Nations’ ‘World Urbanisation Prospects‘ report published in 2014, 75 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas by the year 2050. Currently 54 percent of the global population is located in cities. Between now and 2020, the global urban population is expected to jump by about 1.84 percent per year. This surge towards urbanisation is, generally speaking, currently occurring at a higher rate in developing countries than in developed nations.

The map below represents the expected growth rate in urban areas between the year 2014-2030:

Licensed under: Creative Commons - Attribution UN

What’s Driving Urban Growth?

It’s difficult to pinpoint exact causes of urban growth, both in terms of physical land area and population size, and apply them universally. When discussing urban land expansion (the process whereby the planet’s surface is configured for urban uses), for example, a 2011 study found that growth in GDP per capita was highly influential upon urban land expansion in China and North America whereas this was less so the case in India, Europe and parts of Africa (where population growth plays a much larger role in urban land expansion).

It is generally believed that the boom in urbanisation is strongly linked to economic growth, industrialisation and the perception of better employment prospects. The United Nations views cities as drivers of economic and human development and argues that “a critical mass of people, ideas, infrastructure and resources acts as a magnet of development, attracting migrants, private firms, investors and developers. All of this enhances the prospects for more employment opportunities, wealth creation, innovation and knowledge, which are all major factors of prosperity.” While this may certainly be the case in some areas, it does not have a blanket effect. A 2012 article in The Guardian analysed and compared the role urbanisation plays in economic development in parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, finding that urban growth had benefitted the former’s economy far more than in the case of the latter.

Get Smart: the Need for Integrated Urban Design

Packing a growing number of people into the world’s cities puts an enormous strain on available resources and sees emissions in urban areas skyrocket. In an article written for the Guardian by UN under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Habitat, Dr. Joan Clos underscores the urgency of efficient, integrated city planning by outlining the way cities tip the environmental scale: up to 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions originate from urban areas yet they comprise only four percent of the planet’s land mass.

This trend towards an increase in the population in urban areas, coupled with the polarised economic growth (where global cities are responsible for over 65 percent of overall GDP growth), our rising reliance upon digital technologies in our daily lives and the need to decrease greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) is what’s pushing forward the need for so-called ‘smart cities’, meticulously-planned urban areas that incorporate digital infrastructure to promote accessibility, eco-friendliness, resource efficiency and safe management of an influx of residents.

What Are Smart Cities?

Due to the complexity of how cities are regulated, financed, planned and operated, there is currently no fixed definition for “Smart Cities”; however, the concept can be described as the process by which cities and urban areas become more efficient, livable and environmentally friendly. In other words (those of the Committee of Digital and Knowledge-Based Cities to be precise), “a city can be considered as ‘smart’ when its investment in human and social capital and in communications infrastructure actively promote sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, including the wise management of natural resources through participatory government”. A 2013 study by Harvard University economist Edward L. Glaeser found that while there is an overall correlation between economic and urban development, cities that support urbanisation with appropriate and adaptive policies, institutions and strategies fare far better than those that don’t

Depending on the situation, a smart approach to city planning may include some of the following elements:

  • The use of modern efficient, and intelligent infrastructures such as smart energy grids and effective waste management, etc;
  • A thoughtful approach to integrating information and communications technologies that support and enhance day-to-day urban life;
  • Urban design that is accessible and citizen centric with great emphasis on the role of public participation;
  • Adaptive urban design that accomodates new and existing residents and where city planners can learn from experiments and create new models;
  • Transparency, where all citizens have access to data from city services and establishments; and
  • Adaptation of pro-active city-wide policies, which give city authorities the tools to implement smart city programmes.

As mentioned earlier, there are various factors and actors involved in the development of Smart Cities. The majority of the current models for smart development recognise the following six as the main elements in smart city design:

  • Citizens: availability of proper education and training, e-learning with an all-encompassing emphasis on inclusion and social cohesion
  • Mobility: consideration for public transportation, Information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and availability of public internet access
  • Management: promotion of ICT in public services such e-voting, e-governance, public transparency
  • Economy: government support for entrepreneurship and creativity through financial promotion, diffusion of ICT in local business
  • Environment: active and adaptive response to environmental concerns
  • Quality of Life: access to e-health and effective health services

Urban and climate strategist Boyd Cohen refines this even further with his Smart Cities Wheel, breaking up the concept of smart cities into distinct six components, each with three sub-components: Smart Economy, Smart Environment, Smart Governance, Smart Living, Smart Mobility, and Smart People. Consulting firm Frost and Sullivan (who themselves identify eight components as essential to smart cities) predicts that by 2025, 26 cities around the globe will be classified as smart (i.e. meeting five or more of their eight criteria) with half of these to be located in North America and Europe.


Recent Developments in Smart City Design

Proposals for smart cities are cropping up in certain regions across the world – in Brazil, India, North America – as are a number of national and international programmes related to the promotion of Smart Cities. One of the most well-known proposals is the European Union’s (EU) initiative on smart cities, also known as the “European Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities”. The initiative, which was launched in 2011, currently has a budget of 959,988 million EUR (for the period of 2014-2020) and plans on “strategic partnerships between industry and European cities to develop the urban systems and infrastructures of tomorrow”.

The initiative looks to provide financial support as well as strategic advice to european cities to assist governing bodies in shifting city development towards so-called ‘smarter’ horizons. The EU’s broader, overall approach to making its cities more energy-efficient, inclusive and climate adaptive is structured around the following aims:

  • strengthen research, technological development and innovation;
  • enhance access to, and use and quality of, ICTs;
  • enhance the competitiveness of small to medium enterprises and the agricultural sector;
  • support the shift towards a low-carbon economy in all sectors;
  • promote climate change adaptation, risk prevention and management;
  • protect the environment and promote resource efficiency;
  • promote sustainable transport;
  • promote employment and support labour mobility;
  • promote social inclusion and combat poverty;
  • invest in education, skills and lifelong learning; and
  • enhance institutional capacity building and efficient public administrations.

This paper from 2013 (PDF) gives a more detailed breakdown of each point.

One of the main objectives of the EU’s Smart City initiative is to reduce citywide greenhouse emissions by 40 percent by the year 2020. The implementation of such a goal requires ambitious measures in regards to the design of transportation and energy networks and buildings. Addressing each of these areas specifically, the initiative proposes the following measures:

  • Energy Networks: use of biomass, geothermal and solar energy; employment of hybrid heating and cooling systems; promotion of Smart Grids and Smart Metering
  • Transport Networks: deployment of low carbon public transportation, intelligent traffic management, improve communication, promotion of walking and cycling when possible
  • Buildings: development of new-zero carbon emission buildings, renovation of older building with higher energy efficiency standards through innovative insulation material

Here you can see a roadmap of the EU’s Smart City Initiative: 

Licensed under: Creative Commons - Attribution EU

The website ‘european smart cities‘ gives a visual breakdown of how various european cities stack up in the ‘smart’ stakes.

Cities in North America, South America and Asia are also adopting smart principles to drive their cities towards efficient, tech-integrated futures. San Francisco is already renowned for promoting e-mobility, providing more than 100 charging stations for hybrid and electric cars as well as being home to ride-sharing giant Über; Seattle has placed huge emphasis on smart metering and energy conservation, assisting residents in configuring their homes to be more energy resourceful and showing them how to track and manage their own energy consumption; Rio de Janeiro has set up an integrated transport system that improves mobility in slums in the Rio Maré area; and Seoul uses innovative means of catching data to give real time updates on the city’s traffic.

Smart City Case Study: Copenhagen, Denmark

Over the last ten years, Copenhagen, through its ambitious vision for smart development, has become a leader in the Smart City movement.

On the environmental front, Copenhagen has set lofty goals for itself and is implementing some well-craft plans to meet them. The Danish capital, home to more than 1.2 million people, is determined to become the first carbon neutral capital by the year 2025. The city has already began to implement various innovative strategies to revolutionise:

  • water management: encompassing everything from establishing a foundation dedicated to supporting eco-friendly technological breakthroughs in water quality and availability to creating a benchmark for the last amount of water used to brew beer (Carlsberg);
  • energy: the Copenhagen Cleantech Cluster looks to attract companies looking to test clean technologies in a real urban setting;
  • waste management: only two percent of waste in Denmark ends up in landfill with the vast majority being recycled;
  • heating: 80 percent of Denmark’s heat is recovered from electricity stations while the rest comes from waste incineration, biomass and renewable sources;
  • and transport systems, including smart approaches to city cycling infrastructure.

Copenhagen’s robust digital infrastructure has undoubtedly facilitated its shift towards becoming a smart city. The Copenhagen Wheel, developed by the MIT SENSEable Lab and Ducati, is a project that transforms normal cycles into hybrid e-bikes that provide feedback on local pollution levels, traffic, road conditions and even allows users to lock and unlock their bikes using their smartphones.

Copenhagen’s smart city approach is based on two very important strategies. First, through careful planning, the city has turned itself into a ‘living-lab’ for sustainable green urban experiments (such as that by the Copenhagen Cleantech Cluster outlined above). The creation of the new sustainable neighborhood of Nordhavn (40,000 residents) is a perfect example of this measure. Second, the “sharing is caring” attitude of the city, coupled with its openness towards digital solutions and clean technology, has allowed it to become a hub for new technological advancement in the field of Smart City design. 

Want to know more about Smart Cities? Check out this free online course on “Future Cities” by EdX

Authors: Reza Marvasti & Anna Rees/ RESET editorial.

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