Creating Smart Sustainable Cities: Challenges and Opportunities

by Ayyoob Sharifi
Over the past several years the smart city concept has gained significant momentum in science and policy circles.

At the same time, many smart city initiatives have been developed across the globe. Through technological innovation and integration of a wide range of advanced Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), Big Data, and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, smart city initiatives aspire to improve efficiency and effectiveness of urban operations and resource management.

Smart city development and use of IoT applications is considered as a promising development for revolutionizing urban management and planning; fixing various urban issues; and creating climate compatible, low-carbon, and resilient urban environments.

The Global Carbon Project-Tsukuba International Office, a Future Earth project, has been coordinating and steering the project titled “Urban and Regional Carbon Management (URCM)” for over 10 years. To build on its experiences, the GCP organized a Workshop on “Towards Green Smart Cities in the IoT Era” from March 19-21 at The University of Tokyo. The workshop was organized in collaboration with the Future Earth, The University of Tokyo, and Georgia Institute of Technology.

The main objective of the workshop is to bring together academic and industry experts, company executives, and developers to discuss how smart technologies and the Big Data can trigger transformations towards smarter systems of cities that are low carbon, capable of improving well-being of citizens, and ultimately contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The workshop featured a combination of oral presentations and panel discussions on a broad array of issues related to smart cities.

Participants presented a wide variety of works related to smart cities and discussed both theoretical and empirical issues related to the topic. One recurring issue during the workshop was that the ultimate goal of smart city programs should be to enhance quality of life of citizens and facilitate transition to sustainable development. Through developing smart city technologies, planners and decision makers are seeking to deliver urban services in a more effective and efficient way. Several success stories demonstrating how smart city technologies can contribute to enhancing mobility, resource efficiency, economic productivity, and disaster management were presented and discussed.

There was a strong emphasis on the importance of data procurement, management, and processing for development and implementation of smart city programs. In the era of IoT, data can be a source of value creation. Its pivotal role in transforming urban environment is comparable to that played by fossil fuels during the industrialization process of our economy. To make the most of the opportunities provided by the increasing availability of Big Data, industries and organizations need to take appropriate measures and make some transformations in their structure. The sub-systems of an urban system do not function in isolation. Appropriate data governance measures are needed to harmonize/standardize data collection/management protocols and promote data brokering/exchange to enhance interoperability between the systems. As presented by Dr. Mochizuki (NEC Vice President), open source platforms such as FIWARE can be used to enhance the capability to connect various platforms, facilitate cross-domain data utilization, and provide flexible data depending on the actual data needs.  This is, however, not enough and the importance of providing data security should also be considered. Stakeholders and their concerns should be at the center of smart city initiatives. Public trust is important for stakeholders to get engaged. Building public trust hinges on enhancing transparency, addressing privacy concerns, preventing data misuse, and finding ways for people to gain benefits from getting engaged in smart city programs. Industry representatives provided examples of how different stakeholders and their priorities should be addressed in the process. This also included discussions on strategies that need to be taken in order to facilitate collaborations between different stakeholders.

A separate, but related stream of presentations and discussions was focused on measuring performance of smart cities. If conducted in a participatory manner, smart city measurement can help to achieve a shared future vision that provides guidance on implementation and offers multiple benefits in terms of transparency, accountability, and verifiability of urban policies and programs. Smart city measurement requires obtaining input from various stakeholders. This provides opportunities for establishing linkages between a complex web of actors with potentially different perspectives, breaking down disciplinary silos, and establishing a co-designed approach. There is already a great deal of measurement activity underway globally. Many measurement tools have emerged over the past few years to help decision makers evaluate the level of smartness of smart city programs. It was discussed that government-led approaches towards measurement are not moving in a desirable pattern. This is likely due to the lack of participatory engagement of different stakeholders in development and implementation stages. Participation is needed to develop realistic tools that have better buy-in prospects in the society. It further helps to ensure that indicators are not biased. Regarding smartness indicators; the importance of manageability, global applicability, measurability, and transformability was highlighted. Currently many indicator sets exist that are not necessarily applicable across different contexts and are also not measurable using open data. This makes the measurement process complex and renders indicators not suitable for benchmarking purposes. A more manageable set of globally applicable indicators is, therefore, needed. Transformability is essential because dynamic indicators and benchmarks are needed to inform smart city planning in a way that is compatible with the speed of socio-economic and environmental transformations.

Several key issues that were discussed in the workshop and need to be considered for future development of smart cities are as follows:

  • Smart city programs should be developed and implemented in a proactive manner;
  • Building strategic partnerships between academy and industry is critical for future development of smart city projects;
  • There is a need for a paradigm shift from sector-based programs to more integrated smart city initiatives that can deliver multiple benefits;
  • While significant success has been achieved in implementing small pilot projects, more attention to their scalability is warranted;
  • Future of smart city development depends on promoting innovation. For this purpose, it is critical to reduce the costs of innovation;
  • Boundary limits for ICT should be considered. It should be acknowledged that beyond a certain point, ICT and smart technologies may just increase complexity and not make significant contributions to human well-being and urban sustainability;
  • Research on the potential contribution of smart city programs to decarbonization is limited. Smart technologies can provide disruptive decarbonization solutions and this area of research warrants further exploration;
  • Smart city indicators and smart city certification can drive urban transformation and should be further pursued at the city level;
  • Potential contributions of smart city solutions to achieving climate stabilization targets should be clarified;
  • Possibility of co-designing performance-based certification systems that are compatible with SDGs and can be used for promoting sustainable development at the community scale should be explored;
  • Standardization of city indicators and its viability (considering the variations in terms of growth in different cities and the acceptance by stakeholder of the standards) should be investigated;
  • Better understanding on Key Performance Indicators and their potential contribution to tracking achievement of climate stabilization targets (motivating cities, companies, etc. to significantly reduce GHG emissions, verifying their commitments and performance) is needed;
  • It should be examined how cities can drive global decarbonization by setting examples, changing consumption patterns, driving innovation, etc.? How does this work in combination with ICT/IoT as catalyst? How can Open Data and Open Source as concepts be useful?
  • Urban sustainability assessment has been practiced for several decades. It is suggested to integrate smart city indicators into such assessment systems. This can produce a one-stop platform that can inform planners and decision makers in their efforts towards creating smart sustainable cities. 

Overall, we must tap into the opportunities provided by smart technologies to create smart cities that contribute to achieving global sustainability. We look forward to collaborating with academic, governmental, and industry groups who are interested in addressing the above-mentioned issues. Please contact us if you are interested.

The Workshop program and presentation slides are available at: