Sustainability in the Era of Smart Cities



There has been much talk about the emergence and development of the new urban trend known as the smart city. The smart city concept stands for an intelligent, environmentally friendly, and highly efficient urban space, which seeks to improve the quality of life for its citizens. The term was first coined by IT consulting company IBM and defined as an urban entity offering a better understanding and control of urban life by optimizing resource usages (cf. Cosgrove et al., 2011, p. 1). The movement is predicated on ubiquitous wireless broadband and the embedding of computerized sensors into the urban fabric, so that bike racks and lamp posts, CCTV and traffic lights, as well as home appliances such as internet fridges and remote-controlled heating systems, become part of the so-called “internet of things.” Valued as a trillion dollar market, the concept has attracted enormous interest from both private players and local governments.

Cities that belong to the category of smart cities tend to be projects built from scratch, such as Masdar City in Saudi Arabia, PlanITValley in Portugal, and Songdo City in South Korea. These urban centers have been developed by private companies partnering with local governments and giant technology companies, such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Intel, and Microsoft as suppliers of technologies (Benedikt, 2016). According to Adam Greenfield, an urbanist who has written extensively on smart cities, we are observing an unusual movement in the history of urbanism because it is the first time large-scale IT companies become so deeply involved in the building-up of a city’s ideology (Greenfield, 2013). These information companies promise to transform cities’ infrastructure to be smart environments that can address problems including urban sustainability challenges.

Meanwhile, the notion of smart cities is also attracting more attention from city governments, who are eager to differentiate themselves from other cities in the urban competition for citizens and thus capital. Projects such as Songdo does not represent an one-off, singular development, as the developing parties plan to continuously improve the model and ‘copy and paste’ it into hundreds of cities worldwide, such as the ‘Meixi Lake’ development in China.


Smart Cities and Sustainability

In the Environmental Guideline for Smart Cities published by the Ministry of Environment, Sustainable Development, and Disaster and Beach Management in Mauritius, common sustainability parameters for smart cities include: judicious land use planning, attractively of natural conditions (green spaces), environmental protection and pollution control, smart energy including renewables and energy efficiency, sustainable (LEED-certified) buildings, waste recycling and water efficiency.

For the complete specifications in the guidelines, please refer to: Environmental Guidelines for Smart Cities

Case Study 1: Songdo, South Korea

Songdo International Business District (Songdo) is a new smart city or ‘ubiquitous city’ built from scratch on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land along Incheon’s waterfront. Construction began in 2003 and is slated to be completed by 2020. Considered the largest private real estate development in history, the Songdo project was conceived to promote green and low-carbon industry growth as an avenue for future development after 60 years of reliance on export-oriented manufacturing in South Korea. The nation launched a $38 billion economic stimulus package in January 2009, with over 80% of the total earmarked for green investment.


  • Green Spaces, Green Buildings

40% of the city is reserved for green space, including a 40-acre central park and 16 miles of bicycling lanes. This is 20% more than what is available in NYC, which tops US cities in terms of green spaces. Songdo residents can use water taxis, public transportation, or bicycles to move around without cars. There are even small plots of land for urban farming, many of which were given to Songdo’s former fishermen as reparation for the destruction of their fisheries. Lastly, all major buildings are in par or beyond LEED’s requirements.


  • Waste Management and Recycling 

Songdo employs an innovative waste disposal system. Every flat in the city has a pneumatic trash pipe. Once residents of Songdo throw their domestic trash in the pipe, it will be supplied to a central waste processing centre by the underground system and recycled there without having any trucks going around to collect trash. There are also waste containers on the streets to transport the garbage to the waste disposal plant. Such a system reduces city traffic and thus automobile emissions and makes the city cleaner. Among the first of its kind in the world, the system currently requires just seven employees for the entire city.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 10.27.01 AM.png     Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 10.31.21 AM.png

(Left) The door in the staircase opening onto a pipe, which transports household garbage directly into the the waste disposal plant. (Right) Automated waste disposal bins in front of a row of apartments. 

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Songdo is connected by an underground system of pipes. Garbage is sucked directly from people’s apartments into the “Third Zone Automated Waste Collection Plant,” where it is automatically processed. (Ross Arbes) 

In addition, grey and rainwater are also collected for irrigation and recycling. A water recycling prevents clean water from being used to flush toilets.

  • Energy Efficiency 

IoT sensors are installed in houses and buildings to provide real-time information on how much energy has been consumed and what measures can be taken to minimize utility bills on mobile applications. Other energy-saving measures include using movement detection sensors that turn on the system when someone approaches and turn off when no one is there. Below is a video revealing more what Songdo energy system can do to save non-renewable energy sources.

Cities of the Future: Songdo, South Korea – Energy


Case Study 2: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam Smart City is a unique partnership between businesses, authorities, research institutions and the people of Amsterdam. In contrast to relatively small consortium consisting of a few players in Songdo, since the years of its existence, Amsterdam Smart City has grown to be a platform with over 100 partners active in more than 70 innovative projects. Throughout the city, there are multiple living labs, or communities that act as petri dishes for ideas and initiatives to be tested before scaling them across the city.

One innovative project it has undertaken in recent years is Solar Roadways, which aims to replace concrete roads, driveways, and parking lots in the US with their innovative solar panels. The 70-meter stretch of pathway which receive around 2,000 cyclists a day have been extended to 100 meters in 2016 due to the tremendous success of the project. The energy generated from the pathway could be enough to power two to three homes. The potential from there speaks for itself and should the initiative be successful, and it is believed that up to 20% of the Netherlands’ 140,000 kilometers of road surface could be converted into solar roads “which could rake in a lot of energy”.

The panels are skid resistant, self cleaning and withstand the weight of solid steel balls being dropped on them; however, due to their location, the amount of energy stored and generated is around 30% less than panels mounted on roof tops. There is also the issue of outlay. This initiative costs €3 million. Fortunately, the cost will come down over time as further discovery, innovation and standardisation is performed.


Bike riders on the experimental solar panels road in Netherlands. 

Amsterdam is also one of the two European pilot sites for City-Zen, an energy saving program that will significantly lower the amount of carbon emissions and improve the city’s energy infrastructure. City-Zen stands for “city zero carbon energy,” and through projects like smart, future-proof energy grids and retrofitting buildings to be more sustainable, it’s expected Amsterdam will save 59,000 metric tons per year in carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the EPA, that’s roughly the same impact as removing about 12,000 cars from the road.

Criticisms of Smart City

Despite all the optimism and hype around future cities, critics of ‘smart city’ are suspicious of the rhetoric that has been promulgated by big technology conglomerates, engineering and consulting companies. Below is a summary of their main arguments.

First, critics question the role and rights of citizens in a smart city. It seems that the city-dweller is now reduced to a smoothly moving pixel in a colorful 3D graphic display as the city becomes an optimized panopticon. There is the fear that the free will of the people will be ignored. The individual steps in sustainability have already been programed into the machines so that it is not up to the individuals to make their separate choices. On the one hand, it does ensure the most optimal outcome in city sustainability management. However, on the other side, the people are not necessarily appreciating the process behind if they become highly automatic and behind-the-scene.

Jonathan Thorpe, the CIO for the American developer Gale International, which built Songdo, says, “It is the occupants who make a city” and that it is a challenge to replicate the diversity and vitality produced out of organic development in Songdo. While a masterplanned city like Songdo may have the most efficient and optimized infrastructure, it is not conducive to being a melting pot of diverse ideas and cultures. Machines and sensors are taking control over individual lifestyles.

Second, critics are especially suspicious of the private companies who stand to gain from the monetization of smart city technologies. Giant technology companies want to profit from enormous municipal contracts by persuading the cities to upgrade their infrastructure. In fact, as noted by Greenfield in his book Against the Smart City, he notes that “the notion of the smart city in its full contemporary form appears to have originated within these businesses… rather than with any party, group or individual recognized for their contributions to the theory or practice of urban planning.”

In addition, critics reject the top-down corporate idea of smart city because they sense that the real target of their advertising is that the future city leadership can attribute their decisions to data instead of personal beliefs, thus shielding themselves from the attacks of the opposing views.

Third, Benedikt argues in his essay, The Valuable Citizens of Smart Cities, that smart cities are exclusionary because they select their citizens and use technological systems to refigure into subjects deemed valuable to compete in the global knowledge economy. He argues, “The form of government to be found in this city is highly selective from a social standpoint and holds the potential to profoundly upend societal constellations, while pushing those who are already marginalized by the knowledge economy even further to the rims of society.” By eliminating low-skilled labor jobs in the sustainability industry, smart city is reserved for those who are able to handle the new information system.


Greenfield envisions three outcomes for Cisco’s smart cities: “One, you install the screens and nobody uses them, ever — people are set in their ways and the technology dies from disinterest. Two, there’s some initial uptake, but because you designed the system so rigidly, they give up. Three, the best case is that people take it up in some way that it is enormously successful, but it has nothing at all to do with what the planners and strategists ever imagined.”

Based on the examples of Songdo and Amsterdam, the benefits of smart cities to sustainability practices are unparalleled. However, the different structures in building the smart city could lead to differing impact on the communities. In Songdo, private commercial conglomerates are leading the way in the development. As a result, there is less active citizen participation in the creative process. The smart city project in Amsterdam is far more inclusive in the process of creating sustainability innovation. The governing structure plays an important role in shaping the role of citizens in smart cities and their sense of ownership of their own lifestyles.




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