How smart cities can power a sustainability revolution

By Georgia Wilson
Energy Digital looks at what it means to be a smart city, and how to develop an effective framework for sustainable and energy efficient benefits...

What is a smart city?

A smart city is a framework designed to harness the capabilities of innovative technology to connect, protect, and enhance the lives of a city’s residents. 

By harnessing information and communication technologies (ICT) and the internet of things (IoT), a smart city collects and analyses data from multiple channels to ‘sense’ the city’s environment, providing real-time information to help governments, enterprises, and citizens make better and more informed decisions to improve the overall quality of their lives. The eleven core focuses for a smart city framework are: air quality, communication architecture, environment, lighting, parking, public wifi, safety and security, transportation, urban mobility, waste management and water management.

Developing a smart city framework

Outlined in Eden Strategy Institute’s most recent ‘Top 50 smart city governments’ report, the organisation researched the key factors that are considered by leading cities when developing a smart city framework.

“Developing a smart city vision involves multiple stages: defining the relevant smart city concepts; designing the planning process; engaging and drafting approaches with stakeholders; as well as prioritizing initiatives and crafting the roadmap.” 

Within its report the Eden Strategy Institute LLP details six steps for an effective smart city strategy. These include: taking stock of a city’s natural strengths and assets, to build the foundations for a smart city vision; engaging with citizens when it comes to determining the smart goals and areas of development; encouraging private sector involvement; identifying focus areas; establishing a specific criteria for the city in order to prioritise the multiple opportunities available; and ensuring that each initiative is planned, sequenced and validated. 

When it comes to developing a smart city, “budgetary limitations often constrain the pace at which cities can realise their smart city visions. The top 50 cities have turned to innovative ways to secure funding, including competitions and hackathons, partnerships with private companies, smart procurement policies, or national and state-level funds. In many cases, these acted in concert to improve funding outcomes,” highlighted the Eden Strategy Institute.

Of the top 50 cities within the report, 37% have access to national and state level funds to develop their smart city frameworks; while 23% rely upon private-sector participation; 18% use hackathons and competitions to identify worthwhile smart city project investments; and 9% utilise smart procurement policies and practices, to optimize the use of public funds. 

“Done correctly, smart cities have the potential to transform the character and liveability of a city, rejuvenate its economy and heritage, enhance its resilience and sustainability, and even tighten the social compact with the government and among citizens,” stated the Eden Strategy Institute.

Digital inclusion, building a smart workforce and open data

“A city only becomes truly ‘smart’ when all citizens are ready for it. Urban planners and innovators might develop personas of the ideal ‘smart citizen’ as they prepare future plans for their cities. These often assume that citizens enjoy internet access, and are tech-savvy enough to use and interact with the city’s spaces and services. Reality, however, presents a wider range of city users, and cities risk excluding entire segments of their population from the smart city experience if efforts are not made to bridge the digital gap,” emphasised the Eden Strategy Institute.

As a result it is important when developing a smart city framework that every group within the city is accounted for to ensure that the readiness of individuals to adopt technology within the city isn’t overestimated. A part of ensuring that the city is ready for such innovations, it is equally important to provide accessibility to both the internet and the devices to utilities online capabilities, as well as having the technological skills to utilise the capabilities of a smart city.

Building a smart workforce is another aspect of ensuring that smart city initiatives are adopted. A holistic strategy ensures that all ages have access to technology, education and the opportunities to add value and have a part to play in developing the city.

As industries face increased demands for transparency and accountability particularly when it comes to the environment, open data has emerged as a cost efficient way to improve transparency, accountability, efficiency and responsiveness. However, to best utilise this technology, it is important to not only have the technological skills for effective use, but also to establish open data policies.


Co-creation and shared knowledge via districts and conferences

“We have observed a ready willingness for many of the top-ranked cities in our study to accept that they may not have all the answers,” commented the Eden Strategy Institute. In order to really drive innovation and ensure that the city is striving to connect, protect, and enhance the lives of a city’s citizens, cities should look to involving outside stakeholders - businesses, startups, students and the public - to develop a larger variety, volume, and quality

of insights, ideas, and feedback to establish the most cost-effectively and functional smart city.

Currently, “cities around the world are increasingly experimenting with geographically-concentrated innovation ecosystems.” This approach develops an ecosystem of shared knowledge and well connected capabilities to drive innovation that is tailored to local needs. Smart district models have been successfully developed in two ways: top-down strategies which are decided and led by the government or local authorities, or bottom-up ones which are initiated and driven by the private sector. The result - an innovative culture at the heart of the city. 

When it comes to shared knowledge via conferences and expos, 86% of the top ranked cities in the Eden Strategy Institute’s report are hosting these types of events as well as other shared knowledge mechanisms such as joint ventures, collaborative planning, and developing specialised knowledge and industry clusters.

When establishing a smart city framework it is important to have a clear leadership model. Some of the most successful cities it has seen have used a single dedicated office for their initiative with flexible pathways for leadership to evolve naturally. However other successful smart cities have also used models that distributed responsibilities across departments as well as forming partnerships with the public and private sector.

How smart cities can drive sustainability goals and energy efficiencies

Having the capability to advance Sustainable Development Goals by 70%, smart cities can deliver a cleaner and more sustainable environment. With increased urbanisation, industrialisation and consumption comes the addition of increased environmental challenges. While technology is only one element that can help to address these challenges, overall analysis by McKinsey highlights that “deploying a range of applications to the best reasonable extent could cut emissions by 10 to 15%, lower water consumption by 20 to 30%, and reduce the volume of solid waste per capita by 10 to 20%.”

Greenhouse gas emissions

For cities that find structures as a major source of emissions, McKinsey reports t hat building automation systems can lower emissions by just under 3% in most commercial buildings and 3% in residential homes. Other technologies that can significantly impact emissions are dynamic electric pricing, ride-hailing and demand based microtransit, intelligence traffic signals and congestion pricing.

Air quality

While some of the above can improve air quality, to directly address this challenge requires implementing air quality sensors. While this does not automatically solve pollution, the technology can identify the source, providing the ability to make more informed decisions. McKinsey reported that Beijing reduced its deadly airborne pollutants by 20% in under a year by closely tracking the source of pollution and regulating traffic and construction. 

In addition, sharing real time air quality information provides the public with the capability to take protective measures to reduce negative health effects by three to 15% depending on the current levels of pollution.

Water conservation

Harnessing water consumption tracking technology paired with advanced metering and digital feedback messages can reduce consumption by 15% in higher income cities where residential water is high. However, McKinsey notes that its effectiveness depends on whether it is paired with a pricing strategy.

In developing countries, the biggest source of water waste is leaking pipes. Utilising sensors and analytics can help to cut the loss by up to 25%.

Solid waste reduction

With low-tech recycling reaching its limits, McKinsey reports that technology could help to further reduce the volume of un-recycled solid waste. An example of this could be to harness digital tracking and payments, however this should be considered alongside other policy initiatives particularly for developing economies with tight household budgets.


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