From Johannesburg to Barcelona, smart cities are becoming the norm all around the world. Just imagine that the smart city market is expected to reach USD 2036.10 billion by 2026. The concept behind that is that by combining innovation with technology it is possible to improve the lives of millions of people living and working in cities.

The topic appears to be of the uttermost importance as by 2050, it is estimated that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities. Such numbers require sustainable and innovative solutions to increase the livelihood of the cosmopolitan cities we are living in.

But what is a smart city?

Smart Cities: Using Technology for Sustainable Development

BBVA defines smart cities as “a complex and interconnected system that applies new technologies to manage everything, from the proper running of public and private transport systems, and the efficient use of power or water resources, civil protection plans, to socio-economic aspects, such as the vitality of public spaces and the commercial fabric, or the notification of incidences to visitors and citizens.”

In other words, smart cities integrate technology to make our lives easier. For example, Dublin has a dedicated Smart City team that runs projects spanning from transforming public services to a Smart Tourism work program. Furthermore, in 2018, Dublin City Council launched a unique initiative called “Smart Docklands” in which innovators and entrepreneurs provide solutions to real local challenges. This ambitious program relies on partnerships with tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Deloitte, and IBM.

Even more crucially, during the pandemic, several cities in the world have used technology to enable smarter approaches to COVID-19. Seoul adopted a clever solution to communicate transparently with its citizen. The city used technology and data to create dashboards providing the same information as the mayor. 

Smart Cities for Sustainable Development

As we have seen at the beginning of ‘Smart Cities: Using Technology for Sustainable Development’, nowadays the focus is on building cities that can rely on technology to become more sustainable. It is understandable as saving our planet has become one of the major concerns of citizens. 

According to the biggest ever opinion poll on climate change, two-thirds of people think climate change is a “global emergency”. The poll was conducted by the UN Development Programme and surveyed 1.2 million people from 50 countries in the world. What appears clear from the poll is that people -and younger generations especially- want concrete actions to tackle one of the biggest issues of our century.

Some cities are already setting the example, showing how a more sustainable future can be a reality. Helsinki has set up a project called Helsinki Metropolitan Smart & Clean Foundation in which 29 public-private partners are joining forces to develop green solutions that encompass transport, energy, construction and the waste and water sector.

On the other side of the world, Singapore is planning one of the most ambitious projects ever seen. The “Tengah Project” is a forest town where technology and green spaces will live in harmony. As reported by the World Economic Forum: “Tengah will feature a 100-metre-wide ‘forest corridor’ that runs through the centre of the town. This will connect a nature reserve and a water catchment area, as well as providing safe passage for wildlife, and a recreational space for residents.” Additionally, Tengah will deploy technology to reduce energy consumption at its maximum.

The benefits of going green go beyond its ethical implications, as being sustainable has a positive impact on the economy. In Barcelona, the government has managed to save around 49 million on water costs through smart IoT deployment strategies. 

Inclusive Smart Cities

Smart cities will play a major role in helping us create a better world where sustainable development is a reality. However, ecosustainability means very little if it doesn’t include everyone. With this concept in mind, cities all around the world are developing projects to make cities more accessible to everyone.

Medellín provides an outstanding example. Once associated with poverty and drug-related violence, it has seen a dramatic change in the last decades. Technology was crucial to achieve these results and in 2021, Medellín was awarded the title of “Innovative City of the Year.” 

The city council built a metro cable car system to connect poor hillside neighborhoods to commercial and industrial centers. This has reduced commutation times, enhanced mobility, promoted social equity as well as environmental sustainability and spurred private investment. The scheme, considered as a best practice, has been replicated in other cities like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

And how not to mention the advancement made in Kolkata, India? A pioneering project has used geocoding technology to provide addresses to more than 120,000 slum residents. As a result, they were able to access government services and open bank accounts.

Inclusion involves way more than socio-economic factors and encompasses people from all walks of life. For example, In London, Google awarded a $1m grant to the Royal London Society for Blind People to help vision-impaired people navigate the public transport system. 

What Can Go Wrong with Smart Cities

As we have seen in ‘Smart Cities: Using Technology for Sustainable Development’ technology can be used to do extreme good. It can help us fighting a global pandemic or living more connected with nature. It can also be an enormous asset in creating more inclusive cities, where inequalities can be leveled up. 

However, smart cities are not a perfect solution and can hide some challenges.  “Inclusive Smart Cities” by Deloitte reveals that, during the design, implementation and reflection phases, there are some common missteps that can mine the final results. In particular, failing to engage community members or a lack of transparency can inadvertently obtain the opposite results. The study cites cases in which smart cities initiatives deepened existing inequalities instead of resolving them.

Another major concern regards data privacy. Smart cities can be a reality only with the use of data collection, but citizens are rightly concerned. Brad Smith suggests that governments and companies should work together to ensure the privacy of citizens.

Will Technology Help us Create Smart Cities in Line with Sustainable Development Goals?

In the not-so-distant future, we will see an increase of smart cities projects. Technology is the means to achieve more liveable and sustainable cities. It is also a golden opportunity for innovative entrepreneurs and companies to develop actions with a strong social impact. As we have seen in the case of London or Dublin, tech giants are establishing partnerships with governments, city councils and NGOs to achieve a better future while propelling economic growth.

But cities are not the only actors responsible for the wellbeing of the planet and society. Private citizens can play a fundamental role too. If you are interested in understanding how, you can read more about the entrepreneurial project of Yara Lopes, one of our students of the Master in International Business Innovation. Since 2019, she is using business innovation to achieve sustainable development. In particular, her goal is to reduce consumption of single-use products by adhering to sustainable options to reduce plastic pollution.