Smart Cities for Sustainable Development

The global urban population is expected to grow by 63% between 2014 and 2050 against the 32% total population growth in the same period, the fastest increase occurring among megacities hosting over 20 million inhabitants and located mostly in developing countries. The trend creates unprecedented sustainability challenges. In 2015, 828 million people lived in slums, lacking basic services such as drinking water and sanitation; the figure increases by 6 million people every year. Cities also witness instances of social instability due to rising inequalities and unemployment, air and water pollution, traffic congestion, and urban violence and crime.

However, cities also create tremendous opportunities for economic development – 80% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product is created in cities; for career development – urban citizens earn on average three times the income of their rural counterparts; and for sustainability – people living in larger cities tend to have smaller energy footprints, require less infrastructure, consume less resources, and have higher productivity levels. For example, a city of 8 million has 15% more productivity and 15% less infrastructure needs than do two cities of four million each.

There are several urbanization models that incorporate digital technologies to address some of the urbanization and sustainability challenges: Digital Cities feature the integration of digital technology into the city’s core infrastructure systems; Intelligent Cities rely on the digital city infrastructure to build intelligent buildings, transportation systems, schools, enterprises, public spaces, public services, etc. and to integrate them into intelligent urban systems; and Smart Cities – deploy intelligent urban systems at the service of socio-economic development and improving urban quality of life.

Smart City initiatives can help overcome the limitations of traditional urban development that tends to manage urban infrastructure systems in silos. By leveraging the pervasive character of data and services offered by digital technologies, such as Cloud Computing, the Internet of Things, or Open Data, they help connect different city stakeholders, improve citizen involvement, offer new and enhance existing services, and provide context-aware views on city operations. Smart City development is, however, highly complex, challenging and context-specific. The challenges include different discourses used by technologists and policymakers, lack of capacity to connect urban sustainability challenges to actionable approaches, and pressures on social and territorial cohesion requiring unique governance solutions.

Funded by International Development Research Center (IDRC), this project conducted a reconnaissance study that examined a thesis that Smart Cities can advance Sustainable Development. The study examined 876 scientific publications, policy recommendations issued by 51 think tank organizations, and 119 Smart City initiatives, and conducted 7 interviews with urban policymakers, managers and researchers.

Based on the analysis, the study concluded that Smart Cities have a lot of potential for the circumstances of many developing countries but this potential is not being fully utilized, and a number of structural factors could actually widen the gap between the potential and reality. In terms of research capacity, only 12% of the most published Smart City researchers are from developing countries. In terms of policy capacity, only 8% is the Smart City policy organizations are based in developing countries. Weak research capacity can hinder the contextualization required for Smart City initiatives. Lack of indigenous policy organizations means that developing countries tend to adopt policy frameworks provided by and tested in developed countries, which may not be optimal, or even desirable for their own circumstances.

The full report produced by the project documents and substantiates such findings, and provides a number of policy recommendations and a research agenda framework for Smart Sustainable Cities.

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John Marwel


Within this program, we can deliver to governments and cities the possibility of implementing Smart City projects from idea (vision) to the final stage of implementation.

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