The Intersection Of Smart Cities And Sustainability

How Smart Cities' Sustainable Infrastructure & Design Is Pushing Environmental & Social Progress Forward

You don’t have to wait for 2049 to experience Blade Runner-esque urban living; sustainable smart cities are here, and they’re turning urban jungles into sustainable and eco-friendly environments for all. 

Using cutting-edge technology to improving energy consumption and waste management efficiencies, they turn sustainability from a buzzword into an integral part of daily life and urban infrastructure. 

But first, what is a sustainable smart city? And why are smart cities and sustainability integral to each other?

Let’s explore these and other smart city strategies which can drive environmental sustainability forward.

1. What Is A Smart City?

A ‘smart city’ can mean a lot of things, but the goal of the smart city concept is rather simple: to improve the overall quality of life for residents of both present and future generations.

The list of ways a smart city can accomplish this goal is as varied and locationally subjective as the numerous definitions of smart cities themselves.

To put it simply, a smart city is one that uses advanced technologies and data-driven approaches to manage its infrastructure and resources more efficiently and sustainably. 

How Smart Cities Work

By leveraging these tools, smart cities can improve the quality of life for residents by optimizing various legacy systems and services, like energy, transportation, waste management, public safety, healthcare, and education.

Collecting, analyzing, and interpreting real-time information using sensors, artificial intelligence, and other machine learning algorithms, enables a smart city to make data-driven decisions to optimize its systems, make its operations more efficient and responsive to the needs of its residents, reduce costs, and enhance its overall sustainability across three key dimensions.

But how do you move from a cli-fi city of the future to high-level real-world design?

Urban developers must be considersocial, economic, and environmental sustainability in the development of smart cities by incorporating the following:

  • Environmental protection: Smart cities use technology to optimize their use of resources, reduce waste, and reduce their carbon footprint to mitigate the impact of climate change.
  • Resource efficiency: Sustainable smart cities use data to optimize resource consumption, such as energy, water, and transportation. By reducing waste and improving efficiency, cities can lower costs and improve the quality of life for residents.
  • Social equity: Smart cities prioritize equitable access to resources and services for all residents, regardless of their socio-economic status. This means enabling access to affordable housing, clean water, reliable transportation, and other essential services.
  • Economic growth: Smart cities use technology to create new jobs and economic opportunities, particularly in the areas of clean energy, smart transportation, and digital innovation. Sustainable growth can help to promote long-term economic prosperity and improve the quality of life for residents.

2. Smart City Initiatives

Like the definition of what a smart city is, smart city initiatives are numerous, they vary from city to city, responding to local needs and priorities.

Some have primary objectives to reduce the carbon footprint of cities by optimizing energy consumption, reducing waste, and promoting sustainable transportation. 

Others aim to promote economic and social sustainability for its residents by leveraging technology to create new jobs, increasing access to education and healthcare, and enhancing public safety. 

Either way, smart city initiatives that are primarily concerned with convenience factors for residents still positively impact environmental sustainability.

Here are some examples:

  • Smart grids: Installing smart meters to monitor, control, and ultimately conserve energy consumption and emissions by using data and technology to manage energy production and distribution. 
  • Smart transportation: Implementing systems to reduce traffic congestion, create bike-friendly commuting, and optimize public transit routes. Aside from making resident commutes easier and encouraging greater use of sustainable transportation methods (public, biking, etc), this can also improve emergency response times and reduce crime rates.
  • Smart waste management: Using sensors and data analysis to optimize waste collection and recycling access, reducing landfill waste, and lowering costs of trash disposal.
  • Smart water management: Using technology to improve water management by monitoring water quality and usage, identifying leaks, and implementing water conservation measures.
  • Smart public safety: Using advanced, real-time monitoring technology to predict and prevent crime, improve emergency response times, and enhance disaster management.

Sustainable smart cities are a natural complement, so let’s explore the intersection of how a smart city and sustainable city are related.

3. Sustainability In Smart Cities: How Smart Cities Can Bring Sustainability To Urban Areas

At risk of asking the obvious, but why is sustainability important in smart cities?

Smart cities and sustainability initiatives go hand-in-hand because both, at their core, are concerned with providing a better quality of life for a longer period of time. 

Leaving sustainability out of urban planning will almost surely negate any life-improving (and extending) efforts made by the smart city.

Sustainable development is an essential goal of smart sustainable cities (or sustainable cities in general), as it aims to reduce the negative impact of urbanization on the environment.

What are the characteristics of sustainable smart cities?

As Allen and Hoekstra put it, “Sustainability is not an absolute, independent of human conceptual frameworks.

For the same reason, there is no one correct definition of sustainable smart cities. 

However, there are some common characteristics:

  • Integrated planning and decision-making: Smart cities use data and sustainable smart technology to integrate planning and decision-making across different sectors (such as transportation, energy, and waste management) to optimize resource use and reduce waste.
  • Energy efficiency and renewable energy: Smart sustainable cities prioritize energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources (such as solar panels and wind power) to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.
  • Sustainable transportation: Smart sustainable cities promote sustainable transportation options, such as public transit, walking, and cycling, to reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality, and enhance mobility for residents.
  • Green spaces and biodiversity: Sustainable cities prioritize green spaces (parks, green roofs, etc.) to provide habitats for wildlife, increase biodiversity, improve air quality, and reduce urban heat islands.
  • Waste management: A sustainable smart city often uses technology and data to optimize waste collection and recycling, reducing waste and lowering costs.

Most sustainable smart city projects also encourage citizen engagement.

They do this by using digital technology to improve participation in smart city planning and decision-making processes, promoting inclusivity, transparency, and interest in sustainability. 

You can see this in action by visiting The Crystal in London, which Siemens developed to educate and inform visitors about the goals and applications of smart cities. Similarly, the Nokia Modern Mayor “‘Green’ Sims Game” allowed users to build a city in Sim City-esque fashion but with a focus on ecological issues and problem-solving.

4. Examples Of Sustainability In Smart Cities

Smart sustainable city concepts and characteristics are good and well, but how do they actually translate in real life? 

Smart city sustainability applications being employed in some of the most forward-thinking cities today, here are some noteworthy examples:.

Philips LumiMotion Smart City Lighting

“Using no more light than is necessary”, the Philips LumiMotion system intelligently senses nearby activity in order to adjust the light levels as is needed. When there is no activity detected, light output decreases to a minimal amount, saving up to 80% in energy.

It’s been implemented in the Netherlands city, Ameland. And Barcelona has implemented similar technology.

BINgo Smart Bins

Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) is piloting their new BINgo system at specific public locations.

Equipped with AI sorting, smart sensors, and Internet of Things (IoT) technology, these bins are designed to not only auto-sort recyclables into their proper categories, but to encourage recycling and increase citizen participation overall.

GE WattStation™

One of the first major smart city initiatives, GE WattStation™ pioneered the way for electrical vehicle charging networks back in 2012. 

While GE discontinued the WattStation™ in 2021, leaving the job to numerous EV charging networks, its established technology and framework made a significant contribution to the development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, accelerating EV accessibility and ownership.

Songdo, South Korea Smart City

Songdo is a world renowned smart city built completely from scratch—no joke.

Development of Songdo began in the early 2000s, with the aim of creating a modern, sustainable city that incorporates cutting-edge technology and design.

Some of the features of smart cities and urban sustainability embodied by Songdo include:

  • Integrated infrastructure, with advanced systems for transportation, energy, water, and waste management
  • Smart waste system that operates through every home via an underground network of tunnels, reducing street pollution and dumpsters
  • Smart buildings that use technology to optimize energy efficiency and use of other resources
  • Smart transportation system that includes a network of bike lanes, electric buses, and a high-tech monorail
  • Incorporating green spaces, energy-efficient buildings, and a range of renewable energy sources
  • Smart grids that use data analytics to optimize energy use and reduce waste

For obvious reasons, it’s the test-case or “living laboratory” on the positive impacts and benefits of smart cities (enhanced livability, workability, and sustainability).

Cisco & Barcelona’s Fog Computing

Since 2015, the city of Barcelona, Spain has been piloting a new smart city technology called “fog computing”.

According to Cisco, “Fog computing is a new technology paradigm that allows building sustainable smart connected communities, and therefore enhancing citizen quality of life.”

Fog computing is a type of distributed computing architecture that extends cloud computing capabilities to the edge of a network by addressing its limitations, namely that the cloud can suffer from issues such as latency, bandwidth constraints, and security concerns.

In layman’s terms, it speeds up connections to a near real-time processing speed.

Internet processing speeds aside, perhaps the biggest benefit to fog computing is its ability to reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted to the cloud for processing and storage, which can drastically reduce the energy needed to power Internet servers. 

Denmark’s Bycyklen “City Bike” Share

Denmark’s Bycyklen is a smart bike-sharing system that allows residents to rent bikes through an app in order to encourage commuting via bicycle.

After registering, riders can use the Bycyklen app or locate a station using the system’s touchscreen kiosks, unlock their bike using the app, then ride it for however long before returning it to any station.

The city also uses smart traffic management systems to prioritize public transit and reduce traffic congestion.

Yokohama Smart City Projects

Japan’s cities of Hitachi and Yokohama are participating in a joint initiative aimed at creating a model for sustainable, energy-efficient, and smart cities that can be replicated around the world. 

Its features include:

  • A smart grid system that uses sensors and data analytics to optimize energy use and reduce power waste through inefficiencies and overuse
  • Energy-efficient buildings that use technologies such as solar panels and smart lighting to reduce energy consumption
  • Deployment of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure throughout the city to encourage sustainable transportation
  • An intelligent transportation system that uses data analytics to optimize traffic flow and reduce congestion
  • An advanced waste management system that uses sensors and data analytics to optimize waste collection and disposal
  • Strong focus on community engagement, with programs and initiatives designed to educate and involve citizens in the smart city development.

Amsterdam’s Energy Atlas

The city-wide Energy Atlas project uses data to identify energy inefficiencies.

Citizens have access to an interactive map which highlights the energy consumption of their neighborhoods and buildings, and provides insights on switching to renewables that meet their energy needs.

Its goal is to stimulate “the use of renewable energy, as citizens will become more aware of their own energy usage and realise that there are gains to be made”.

Cisco Connected Meeting Spaces

Designed more for individual building use as opposed to sweeping, city-wide implementation, Cisco’s Connected Meeting Spaces turns buildings into smart spaces capable of (but not limited to):

  • Alerting employees about building occupancy levels and air quality through interactive maps
  • Harnessing location data to track devices and occupancy in order to allocate energy most effectively within buildings
  • Create a more efficient, hybrid workspace to save costs

5. Why Sustainable Smart Cities Are Necessary

Eight billion people and counting. 

Urban population growth—and all the resource consumption and waste generation that comes with it—is placing enormous strain on our planet.

Especially considering that 65% of the world’s population dwells in urban (as opposed to rural) areas. And by 2050, experts estimate that number will reach 70%.

While urban areas account for 2% of the total land area, they produce 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Besides increased stress on city infrastructure, the impact on the environment will only compound.

In 2020, global municipal solid waste generation topped 2.24 billion tons, or 0.79 kilograms per person per day. This is projected to increase by 73% to 3.88 billion tons by 2050 and many municipal landfills are already approaching critical capacity.

As the world faces a growing climate crisis, cities must adapt and reduce their environmental impact. 

Sustainable smart cities can cut carbon emissions, improve air and water quality, optimize resource use, reduce waste, and promote the use of renewable energy sources. They’re also more resilient to shocks and stresses (such as natural disasters and pandemics), and can prevent or mitigate these events.

And by promoting healthier lifestyles through clean spaces and biking programs, smart cities can also improve public health, too.

Smart cities and environmental sustainability are a critical step towards addressing the urgent challenges facing our planet, promoting economic growth and innovation, and improving quality of life for residents.

By leveraging technology and sustainable development practices, we can create more livable, resilient, and prosperous cities for present and future generations.

Closing Thoughts On Smart City Sustainability

The continued boom of cities worldwide underscores the need for sustainable, smart city solutions now more than ever. 

Smart cities offer a vision of the future where technology and sustainability intersect to create more livable, efficient, and resilient urban environments. 

While environmental sustainability is a driving agenda behind smart city technology, does that mean smart cities are the future of sustainability?

Unfortunately, the existence of the technology is not an answer in and of itself. While sustainability technology and the evolution of smart cities are directly connected, it comes down to cooperation.

According to Smart City Emergence, Smart cities require not only technological development but also collaboration among actors and institution.”

One thing is clear though, smart city technology will grow in both need and demand, but its adoption in favor of a healthy, sustainable future is no guarantee.

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