Are all cities sustainable cities?

The word “sustainability” is often used in discussions about smart cities, but what does this really mean? How are sustainable smart cities defined and measured? 

When we look at cities now compared to 20 years ago we see a huge transformation when it comes to their ability to provide opportunities for both long-term residents and migrants in areas like education and work. This shift has encouraged more people to make the move from the periphery to urban centers which in turn has helped stimulate economic activity and attract better-skilled workers. With cities accounting for more than 70% of the world’s economic growth and generating 80% of the global GDP, it is estimated by 2050 that nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. 

To sustain the economic growth and productivity in these urban hubs, it is crucial to foster innovation and emerging ideas as it is speculated that emerging economies’ population will reach 4 billion by 2030. This population boom and increased growth in urban settlements will lead to a dramatic increase in resource and service consumption. In light of this reality, ‘sustainability’ has dominated discussion in forums around the world, addressing the significant environmental, social and economic challenges facing cities today as well as possible solutions and reforms. Smart city initiatives were identified as one of the solutions to address the need for innovation in cities’ management as a crucial element in connectivity, public health, social welfare, economic development, and infrastructure to (1) serve the massive expected urban growth, (2) help improve the overall quality of life in cities and (3) preserve the environment, its resources, and ensure its sustainability for years and generations to come. 

When it comes to defining what is a smart city there are many definitions used. From an “Information and Communications Technology” perspective, the word “smart” implies the use of technology like IoT and Big Data. However, if viewed from an urban planning and development perspective, “smart” suggests that a smart city’s goal is to achieve its economic, social, and environmental sustainability to enhance the quality of life. 

The main characteristics that have been attributed to smart cities, such as quality of life and sustainable development, in principle belong to the concept of sustainability. This means in essence that smart cities’ main goal is achieving sustainability. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), in order for a city to be labeled as a smart sustainable city (SSCs), Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) solutions needs to be implemented only after the iterations of the sustainable development efforts which means that SSCs exist only when smart ICT is used for making cities more sustainable. 

Smart Sustainable Cities
Source: ITU-T

Furthermore, the ITU defines SSC as “an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operations and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects.” 

So, in order for a city to be labeled as “Smart”, it has to have key characteristics to be considered as a “sustainable smart city”. An SSC must have achieved sustainability in areas like governance, pollution, climate change, quality of life in financial and emotional well-being, and intelligence in improving economic, social, and environmental standards for its citizens. 

With the challenges facing cities today like air quality, poor health, and climate change, sustainable cities are the best solution to address these problems so as to achieve a better quality of life for its citizens and preserve the environment.

So we must ask ourselves these questions: Are all cities sustainable cities? Or have we deviated from the core reason of why we started the pursuit of making cities smarter? Are we more concerned in implementing tech-savvy solutions regardless of how sustainable they are?


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