Taking the smart route to inclusive, sustainable and connected cities

A view of Gangding Station of the Guangzhou bus rapid transit system in China. Photo by: Benjamin / CC BY-NC

Organized efficiently, cities can be engines of economic growth. But poorly planned urbanization can have serious long-term consequences — leading to water shortages, skyrocketing rates of air pollution, gridlocked traffic and outbreaks of disease.

The challenges presented by rapid urbanization are even more complex in the “global south,” where cities are already struggling to cope with economic inequality, urban slums and inadequate sanitation, while facing additional pressure from rapid population growth.

To address these diverse and complex problems, stakeholders are increasingly looking to build “smart cities,” a city-planning concept that draws on new and existing technologies to make cities more efficient, inclusive and sustainable. But what exactly is a smart city, and how do stakeholders successfully implement one?

What makes a city ‘smart’?

According to Jean-Michel Huet, partner at technology consulting company BearingPoint, a smart city is a digital ecosystem within a city that enhances its livability, workability and sustainability.

“Smart cities are not limited to a certain territory, but instead are zones where technology and connectivity play a central part in infrastructure,” Huet said. “To address the issues of urbanization, sustainable development, technological needs, economic development, and offer a place to live, learn and work.”

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Inclusiveness is another key element of smart city, according to Philippe Orliange, director of strategy, partnerships, and communication at the French development agency, Agence Française de Développement.

“Smart cities are about changing the fabric of urban policy so that citizens are involved in the design of the city, so that policies address real needs, and are socially inclusive,” he said.

Sunil Dubey, senior advisor to Metropolis, the World Association of the Major Metropolises, takes the concept of inclusiveness one step further.

“Smart cities should be centered on the needs of local communities,” he said. “Everything in a smart city — technology, policies, infrastructure — works towards the goal of improving the lives of the people living there.”    

Hyoung Gun Wang, a senior economist at the World Bank, added that smart cities must also be innovative — both in how they are administered and how they engage the public.

“Many people make a mistake of thinking that smart cities are about technology,” said Hyoung. “But smart cities are really about how local governments create collaborative, open partnerships among the public, the private sector and people, and apply technologies that make things more efficient and make city life better.”

‘Smart’ basics: Good governance and communication

Smart cities start with strong city governance, according to Dubey.

“City leaders need to have a strong vision, informed by what its residents actually need,” he said. “Without that, we can try to build a smart city, but they will never deliver the things the people really need.”  

In order to realize this vision, city leaders must have the administrative power and financial backing to make key decisions for their city, without having to get approval from regional, state or national leaders.

“This is critical,” said Dubey, citing cases in India’s largest cities where the mayors are the political representatives of the people, but don’t have implementation power.

“They have to link up through several layers of bureaucracy to get approval, making it difficult to get anything done. Compare that to Guangzhou, China, where city leaders were able to build 600 kilometers of metro rail and bus rapid transit lines in 15 years. That sort of project is only possible when city leaders have profound powers of implementation.”

Once city leaders have the power and budgets to make major urban decisions, they must create systems that facilitate interdepartmental communication and collaboration.

“One of the biggest challenges facing city leaders in the developing world is getting their different departments to speak to each other,” said Dubey. “Often, they don’t, leading to wasteful redundancies.”

To facilitate such collaboration, BearingPoint’s Huet advocates that smart cities adopt information technology platforms that are adaptable, scalable and responsive, enabling city leaders to work with partners, embrace future technology and act fast, while maintaining the trust of its citizens.

Leveraging the power of innovation and technology

Leveraging context-appropriate technology is fundamental to the success of any smart city. Such technology can take many forms: from online platforms and programs that facilitate interdepartmental communication, to designing smartphone applications that map public transportation routes, to lamp-posts equipped with weather and emissions sensors.        

The age of “big data” has also allowed city planners to collect citywide information on a scale previously unimaginable.

“Thanks to mobile data and internet revolutions, we now have the ability to collect large amounts of data in real time,” said World Bank’s Hyoung. “We can use this to learn more about the locations and needs of the most vulnerable people in a city, to inform public service providers to respond to real time needs, or uncover emerging problems before they turn into crises.”

Additionally, open data and citizen engagement through social media also promote accountable and transparent government and civil society, according to Hyoung.

“Smart city technology doesn’t necessarily need to be new to be effective, and in the ‘global south,’ the most effective solutions often involve innovative uses of existing technology.”

— Philippe Orliange, director of strategy, partnerships, and communication, Agence Française de Développement

“The applications are endless,” he said.

BearingPoint’s Huet believes that technology’s key role in smart cities begins with building “technopoles” — technological hubs that nurture innovative businesses, create employment, encourage education and training, and showcase a country’s strengths. For example, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have already built successful technopoles, demonstrating that “a technological revolution spreading across global south countries is seeing connectivity become a reality,” he said.

According to Huet, the success of smart cities also hinges on the monetization of city services, so that sustainable business models support the city’s ecosystem. Such monetization can range from installing paid parking meters, to collecting public macro-data — for example, car parking spaces, congestion, bins, energy and water use, satellite imagery, population density, and crime statistics — and converting it into useable information, accessible through commercial subscriptions.

“To be successful, smart city ecosystems need more than a product,” he said. “They need monetization and orchestration platforms that are scalable so the cities can collaborate with partners and embrace future technology.”

But while technology is a fundamental component of any smart city, the best solutions aren’t always high tech.

According to AFD’s Orliange, technology should be seen as a tool — not a goal — of smart cities.

“The best applications of technology solve specific problems,” said Orliange. “Smart city technology doesn’t necessarily need to be new to be effective, and in the global south, the most effective solutions often involve innovative uses of existing technology.”

For example, in the cities of Jinzhong and Taiyuan in China, AFD was brought in as a consultant to create more efficient and sustainable urban heating systems. Due to low water pressure, water wasn’t heating. Rather than ripping out the pipes and installing a newer, more high-tech solution, AFD was able to install a simple pump system into the existing system that moved water more efficiently — instantly and inexpensively delivering hot water.  

Planning inclusive spaces

Smart cities are responsive to the needs of their citizens, and require a high level of communication between the public and city leaders. This sort of citizen-led design is a cornerstone of any smart city, according to Orliange, who noted that the successful initiatives that AFD has been associated with — from relocating slum dwellers in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to building public transportation systems in Medellín, Colombia — has been due to the high degree of dialogue with the people concerned.

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“This dialogue is what fed the design and implementation of the policies,” he said, “and was clearly the reason behind its success. If you don’t have that communication from the very beginning, implementation can get messy.”

In the “global north,” meanwhile, cities increasingly rely on innovative uses of social media to interact with citizens — from targeted Twitter campaigns, to mobile surveys. In developing countries, however, most effective engagement campaigns still rely on in-person methods.      

That’s where working with nongovernmental organizations can help. For example, when the city of Surat, in the Indian state of Gujarat, was devastated by an earthquake nine years ago, city planners approached NGOs with pre-existing community relationships, and armed them with laptops, mobile phones and GIS-mapping software. By going door-to-door in their respective communities, the NGOs collected mapping data from residents that was critical to successfully rebuilding the city.

“This sort of data is the lifeline of smart cities, and it can only be collected if the city is truly inclusive,” said Dubey. “Having data also helps make cities more inclusive and resilient. For example, thanks to the data we collected from residents in Surat, if another earthquake happens we can rebuild these buildings up to the last detail of their drainage pipe or façade.”

Building sustainable and resilient cities

Perhaps the biggest challenge to incorporating smart principles in developing countries relates to environmental sustainability: Currently, cities are responsible for generating more than 70 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing that footprint is a problem that smart city stakeholders are still struggling to address.

“To begin to address cities’ environmental impact, a certain cultural shift is necessary,” said Dubey. “We have to start to change how people work, how they think about social mobility, how they engage with urban spaces.”

One way to reduce traffic, for example — and thus emissions — is to incentivize companies to encourage their employees to work from home a certain number of days per month, or to promote e-health solutions for certain types of prescriptions, reducing unnecessary hospital visits.

Dubey also encourages cities to refurbish existing spaces whenever possible, rather than demolishing and building new ones.

“The fact is we are running out of resources. We can’t keep building at the pace we are building now,” he said. “We have to start thinking about how to innovate the infrastructure we already have, and stop defaulting to always building new.”  

Given the rapid pace of urbanization, building smarter cities is imperative if we are to comfortably accommodate the next generation. This requires a strong vision from city leaders, engaged citizens, effective partnerships, and the application of appropriate technological solutions and information sharing among global metropolises.

“Irrespective of whether cities are located in India, China, or Africa, cities have a lot of common issues they need to address, which is why we need to build a global network of cities,” said Dubey. “With more than 50 percent of humanity living in cities, the focus has to move from nations to the creation of smart cities.”    

Over six weeks, Devex — along with our partners Agence Française de Développement, BearingPoint, UN-Habitat, and XII Metropolis World Congress — will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Malia Politzer

    Malia Politzer is an award-winning long-form journalist who specializes in international development, human rights issues and investigative reporting. She recently completed a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs in India and Spain. For three years, she worked as a feature-writer at Mint, India’s second-largest financial newspaper, where she wrote about international development, strategic philanthropy and impact investing. She holds an M.S. journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Stabile Fellow for Investigative Journalism, and a B.A. from Hampshire College.