Are Smart Cities the Key to Ensure a Sustainable Future?

Written by Rita —  April 1, 2014

smart city population

Global population is growing. Natural resources are becoming depleted and consequently, people are migrating from the countryside to the city, what are we doing to ensure a sustainable future?

The development of Smart Cities has moved up the political and social agenda. And, although the concept of smart city has not yet been formally defined, there are many initiatives, studies and approaches being undertaken worldwide which differ profoundly from one another.

Despite the fact that the supposed characteristics of the smart city change depending on who is using the term, it seems most people agree that the main point is the implementation of technological knowledge, in its broadest sense, to improve urban services management efficiency, therefore reducing costs and environmental impact while theoretically also improving the quality of life of the citizens.

For example, by placing sensors in waste containers, we could know whether they are full and therefore better plan collection routes. This way, trucks would only have to pick up those containers that actually have to be emptied, saving energy and money, as well as noise and inconveniences.

Even though the concept is barely coming to fruition, just in the last month there have been at least three major international events in this regard: on February, 26, 2014, Americas Society / Council of Americas hosted the conference Our Cities, Our Future: Making Cities Healthy, Green, and Sustainable in Washington D.C. In Uruguay, the International Telecommunication Union together with the UNESCO organized a series of events dedicated to the general topic “Smart Sustainable Cities” from March 11 to 14. And a speaker series on The City of the Future, coordinated by the Institute of Engineering of Spain and Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, took place in Madrid on March 6, 13 and 19.

This sudden popularity is not casual. Advances in data analysis and sensor devices, urban labs, pervasive connectivity and the development of the Internet of Things, along with the rest of emerging technologies, are allowing previously unthinkable city interventions. However, the motives, and, above all, the urgency with which the issue is being addressed, relate less to technology and more to the fact that social relevance of urban environments is ever increasing.

The Century of the City

A report by Cercle Tecnològic de Catalunya explains how, in recent decades, cities have become the main focus of economic development as population and economic activity are being concentrated in urban areas. Between 1950 and 2011, urban population increased nearly fivefold and, according to UN projections, 70-75% of the world population will live in cities by 2050 (in Europe, this figure would reach 80% by 2020). Indeed, developing countries are already experiencing massive migrations from rural to urban areas.

“The world is experiencing a period of extreme urbanization. In China alone, 300 million rural inhabitants will move to urban areas over the next 15 years. This will require building an infrastructure equivalent to the one housing the entire population of the United States in a matter of a few decades.
In the future, cities will account for nearly 90% of global population growth, 80% of wealth creation, and 60% of total energy consumption. Developing better strategies for the creation of new cities, is therefore, a global imperative.”

City Science, MIT Media Lab.

worlds urban population 2050 chart

Population concentration in urban areas is giving greater political and economic weight to cities.

“If the 19th century was the century of Empires, and the 20th century was the century of Nation States, the 21st century will be the century of Cities.”

Wellington E. Webb, ex-president of the Conference of Mayors and Mayor of Denver, during the first Transatlantic Summit of Mayors (Lyon, France, April 6, 2000).

However, this also shifts the great burden of creating a sustainable society from States to cities. Consider just one of the challenges that this huge urban population growth puts on the table —the issue of mobility.

In this sense, it is unfortunate we don’t need to base ourselves in predictions. It’s enough to visit Beijing to realize that the future is already here. In January this year, the levels of particulate matter (a measure of air pollution) exceeded 2.5 million, a rate similar to those achieved by the worst forest fires. Almost a quarter of these toxic gases can be directly attributable to carbon emissions from transport.

What’s more, according to a report by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) by 2050 there could be 2.5 billion cars on the planet, mostly in cities. Following our Chinese example, if car ownership levels in China equalled those of the U.S. (840 cars per 1,000 people), the oil demand from the Asian giant alone will surpass current world production.

If we don’t do something soon, damage to the environment will be irreversible. Hence the apparent urgency with which the issue of smart cities is being addressed. More and more researchers and universities are focusing on a new branch known as Science City, which scientifically studies towns to provide useful insights into how we could design and plan more sustainable cities. However, it is the local and regional administrations, in tight collaboration with private companies, who are seizing the initiative.

beijing air pollution

Smart or just Effective Cities?

Today each town is focusing its efforts according to its own idiosyncrasies. Some, such as Madrid and Stockholm, have concentrated on public safety and traffic management. In San Francisco, the transportation problem is being targeted by the SFpark pilot whereby people can use mobile phones to check in real time where there are free parking spaces, thus minimizing the time spent searching for a spot (and so reducing CO2 generation).

Barcelona, on the other hand, has leant towards a strong ICT uptake and a city model of self-sufficient neighborhoods. In 2012, a building construction and rehabilitation process based on the integration of solar covers, joint neighborhood heating, water recycling and use of electric vehicles was started so blocks of houses are energetically independent and more sustainable.

With the aim of becoming the benchmark for smart cities, the city of Barcelona has launched a Smart City Campus by signing an agreement with five major technology companies: Telefonica, Abertis, Cisco, Schneider Electric and Agbar.

Indeed, due to the sophistication required to build a smart city, it seems at the moment it can only be developed through cooperation between public and private enterprises. In the UK, for example, the strategic framework for the implementation of the Smart City has been designed by the multinational British Standards Institution while, in Spain as a whole, the process has been carried out by the private institution AENOR, influenced by Basque company IDOM.

This has turned the implementation of ICT for urban management into a new business opportunity, arousing great interest among companies like IBM, Indra, Cisco or GDF Suez. Which, in turn, raises questions regarding the democratic adequacy of these initiatives —in a time when many towns and governments are lacking funding, who will really decide our cities models? Are companies gaining too much influence in defining the future of our cities?

As far as the data goes, (for example, all details that are being generated concerning the mobility and flow of citizens), who is controlling it? And who can access it? While the open sharing of data (called open data) should strengthen the transparency of our governments, it also allows powerful information to be reused to generate economic value (e.g. creating services).

And the challenges go even beyond —how can we develop smart cities when there is still a digital divide between “native” and digital “immigrants”? To this day, there are major gaps among citizens with regards to ICT access and daily interaction, and the smart city could in all probability accentuate them.

Moreover, what sense does a smart city make in a world that is not smart? Unless all urban sprawls make the necessary changes in a coordinated way, these efforts will not make much of a difference… And then, if everyone did agree, what about electromagnetic pollution?

The Venus Project

It seems as if the notion of Smart City has been kidnapped at birth to focus almost exclusively on the development of ICT, leaving aside many urban issues of vital importance. Because, in the end, a truly smart city should comprehensively address urban sociology, governance, management, infrastructure and landscape.

Luckily, more and more independent initiatives are proposing workable plans for alleviating many of these social problems. The Venus Project, for example, is an initiative which works on the premise of caring for people and the recovery of the environment. It was founded by Jacque Fresco and Roxanne Meadows, whose goal it is to stop environmental devastation and other global social problems by (1) technically designing cities (based on the industrial automation of production, distribution and recycling); and (2) implementing the scientific method, science and technology directly to the social system in order to create abundance and access equality to goods and services, for the benefit of all people and the environment.

“The Venus Project proposes a system in which automation and technology would be intelligently integrated into an overall holistic socio-economic design where the primary function would be to maximize the quality of life rather than profits. This project also introduces a set of workable and practical values.”

the venus project miniature

Some of their goals are:

1. Realizing the declaration of the world’s resources as being the common heritage of all people.
2. Reclaiming and restoring the natural environment to the best of our ability.
3. Redesigning cities, transportation systems, agricultural industries, and industrial plants so that they are energy efficient, clean, and able to conveniently serve the needs of all people.
4. Sharing and applying new technologies for the benefit of all nations.
5. Developing and using clean renewable energy sources.
6. Manufacturing the highest quality products for the benefit of the world’s people.
7. Requiring environmental impact studies prior to construction of any mega projects.
8. Preparing people intellectually and emotionally for the changes and challenges that lie ahead.

Its promoters say The Venus Project is neither Utopian nor Orwellian. That it does not reflect the dreams of impractical idealists. Instead, it presents attainable goals requiring only the intelligent application of what we already know. And they strongly believe that the only limitations are those which we impose upon ourselves.

The cities of the future desperately need to understand the town as a whole, considering our built environments and the people who inhabit them. And, to build the cities that the world needs, we will need to choose freely and democratically what technology is going to help us achieve just that.

Photo credits: evStyle, earth 2.0.




Translator, content writer and geeky linguist in general. I believe information is a powerful tool.