The next-generation city: Resilient, smart and sustainable

Cities across the developed world and in emerging economies are already positioning themselves to be more climate resilient, competitive, sustainable and, essentially, smarter. Photo by: Abt Associates

As world leaders gather in Paris to discuss climate change and measures to control global warming, it is becoming clear that cities will bear considerable responsibility in implementing proposed solutions and management strategies.

Indeed, cities across the developed world and in emerging economies are already positioning themselves to be more climate resilient, competitive, sustainable and, essentially, smarter.

Since the 1990s, city officials worldwide have invested in information and communication technology and infrastructure overhauls to create smart, machine-to-machine interactions aimed at achieving cost savings and improving efficiency, governance and transparency within their communities. Fueled in part by the Internet of Things and big data trends, typical smart city projects have targeted crowd control and policing, parking, street lighting, transportation planning and mapping, water and energy management and waste collection.

Lately, however, there is a shift in smart city thinking. And the developing world is in a particularly interesting position to help lead the way forward as new models are defined and created. Phrases such as climate proofing, citizen enablement and empowerment, disaster planning and recovery, information access, quality of life gains, resiliency, social equality, sustainability, technology justice and urban competitiveness are finding their way into today’s smart city vernacular.

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“The general concept of smart city has evolved quite a bit over the years,” said Hari Bansha Dulal, senior associate for climate change at Abt Associates. “Unlike in the 1990s, whereby the focus was solely on the role of communication infrastructure, Internet/communication infrastructure is no longer the smart city identifier.”

With an increase in climate-induced extreme weather events, he said, resources use and associated pollution, urban sustainability — both social and environmental — and climate resilience have emerged as major strategic components of smart cities.

“In order for cities to become and remain smart in a real sense, they will not only have to be able to learn and use technology, but also adapt and innovate,” said Dulal.

Expanding needs for expanding cities

The evolution of smart city concepts comes with a sense of urgency as municipal officials watch their city populations swell and are compelled to try out new practices that address greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, waste management, disease control, flooding, drought and other environmental and social changes.

By 2050 more than two thirds of the world’s population are expected to live in cities, a significant jump from the 54 percent living in urban areas today, according to a thought piece by Zurich Insurance Company Ltd.

Complicating matters, the rapid, inadequate and poorly planned expansion of cities often leaves “urban populations highly exposed to the effects of climate change.” Although migration from rural areas to cities is partially caused by the increasing prevalence of extreme weather, cities tend to be situated near the sea or natural waterways and face greater flood risk. The Zurich report states that of the world’s 20 megacities — those with more than 10 million inhabitants — 15 are located in coastal zones threatened by rising sea levels and storm surges.

Climate-proofing cities while making them smarter

City officials, therefore, are re-examining their smart city approaches, looking at reducing emissions and other pollutants, and incorporating the idea of resiliency and sustainability into action plans. They want to build urban hubs that are able to bounce back quickly in the aftermath of floods, mudslides, storm surges or other natural disasters likely to wreak havoc on their doorsteps.

To some extent, the developing world has a distinct advantage in addressing these issues. Unlike their developed counterparts, emerging or mid-tier cities are not bogged down by legacy systems or infrastructure that requires simultaneous maintenance and upgrading.

Cities in developing regions can leapfrog ahead, implement more modern solutions running on better technology and execute projects through a broader array of public-private partnerships that have become more commonplace today. It’s not much different than what happened when wireless, mobile communications became the new normal.

In years past, countries and cities were set up on the then-common technology such as back-end systems, computers, software interfaces and fixed phone lines, said Ruthbea Yesner Clarke, research director for smart cities at IDC.

Many of the world’s rapidly growing cities today bypassed those technologies and were able to go straight to mobile and wireless setups, giving them increased flexibility when applying smart city concepts. They also were able to see what technology and systems worked or did not work in other cities and decide what to apply to their rollouts.

“They have been able to jump a level and better use the technologies that were implemented in the developed world,” she said, adding that places like Singapore are taking the smart city idea even further.

The city went beyond including sensors in city streets and buildings; it has equipped students with sensors to get a clearer picture of how people are truly moving around the city and interacting with city services.

One of the things missing in the developing world, however, is project management expertise and governance, Yesner Clarke noted. This will continue to be a challenge in the short term as more developing cities forge the organizational and priority-setting skills needed to handle a growing population, increased infrastructure needs, climate changes and other dynamics plaguing cities.

Still, a number of smart city projects are underway in the developing world that could be models for other cities going forward.

For instance, in many coastal regions, implementing robust community warning systems and pre-disaster prevention and post-disaster recovery mechanisms are winning attention.

5 ways to move smart city projects ahead

Martín del Castillo and Pascal Blunier from HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation shared five tips for developing countries, municipal agencies and development organizations to move smart city projects ahead:

1. Manage knowledge and promote better and more systematic ways to produce, share and use information, while also developing models and pilots that are replicable.

2. Promote an integrated approach where economic, social and environmental challenges are addressed comprehensively.

3. Promote climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies.

4. Identify and integrate the most disadvantaged people in the development and transformation of the urban space.

5. Advocate for better funding mechanisms, ensuring in particular that subnational actors have fair and efficient access to resources in the framework of the global agenda on climate change.

One example is Mozambique — which is particularly vulnerable to climate change and often experiences flooding, droughts and tropical cyclones. The country is experimenting with these kinds of services, said Casimiro Antonio, deputy chief of party for programs at the USAID Coastal City Adaptation Project, implemented by Chemonics.

The project, which started in two small cities in 2014 and will be expanded nationwide, uses SMS text messaging to warn about coming storms and provides communities and residents with updated disaster preparation information, water supply issues and other emergency management data. Down the road, the project may include vulnerability mapping, showing which areas are more prone to flooding or sea surges and helping city planners better understand where the weak spots are and whether to build in certain areas.

“People in Mozambique continue to be negatively impacted by climate change,” Antonio said. “These projects help increase people’s understanding of how climate change is affecting them and it encourages people to participate in identifying problems and potential solutions.”

Dovetailing on disaster preparation is the idea of creating sustainable economic development for local communities.

“Increased focus on community involvement for preparation of disaster preparedness and response plans in urban areas is on the rise,” said Edward Gardiner, vice president at Tetra Tech Inc.

Plans, according to Gardiner, include preparedness training such as flood warning and evacuation plans, and hazard mitigation such as levee inspection.

Gardiner cited an example in the Philippines, where city managers are learning how to maximize opportunities and engage with local enterprises to support sustainable climate proofing. In the Visayas region of the Philippines, for instance, coconut husks are being used to weave nets that are used for slope stability and to prevent erosion for roadway reconstruction projects. This initiative, while not dependent on smart technology, creates a sustainable and innovative loop for the community — the coco nets are locally made, come from an abundant local source, foster growth of new vegetation, and retain water, Gardiner said.

Planet Worth: An online conversation exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change hosted by Devex in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich.

Upping the smart city ante

While there have been some early successes, bringing more smart cities online in the developing world will come with its share of challenges. One such obstacle is changing people’s mindsets and behavior.

Information is power. With this in mind, smarter cities will be the ones where informed decisions are made possible, said Martín del Castillo, co-director of the Gestión Ambiental Municipal Project in Bolivia and deputy country director at HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation, and Pascal Blunier, an environmental engineer at CSD Engineers SA, and co-director of Gestión Ambiental Municipal Project, in a jointly written email response. “ICT are part of this change, and may in some cases offer an efficient way to bridge information gaps.”

Nevertheless, redefining the link between administration and citizen is not only dependent upon technology. “Co-responsibility and the development of a culture of citizenship and participation are key actions,” said del Castillo and Blunier. “Prior to thinking about the computerization of services, there is a need to develop services for people, provided by people, generating better living condition and employment opportunities, but also answering to the specific condition of such a country, in particular its accelerated urban growth.”

This ties in directly with the idea of technology justice, said Colin McQuistan, senior policy and practice adviser for disaster risk reduction and climate change at U.K.-based Practical Action.

Technology justice, at its core, is a guiding principle in which everyone has access to technologies that are essential for life. It also implies empowering local people to innovate and develop new technologies and allowing them to tweak existing technologies to better serve their needs.

As McQuistan puts it, it’s not about giving people fish to eat or fishing rods so they can learn to fish; it’s about developing the skills they need to create a sustainable livelihood and to know which fish will sell at the market.

“Too often when it comes to disaster and climate change management, solutions are parachuted in from external sources and do not involve locals,” said McQuistan. “Locals may not be familiar with the materials that were used to build flood barriers, for example, and may not know how to fix them when they break. Nurturing local innovation and technology development to meet the community needs helps ensure sustainability and longer-term adoption.”

“Climate change and sustainability are part of the same discussion, requiring a comprehensive understanding of the context, analysis of different dimensions of sustainability on a regular basis, scenario analysis and a multisectorial approach to the various problems,” del Castillo and Blunier added. “In this context, the capitalization of experiences is key to developing strong processes of good governance, effective participation and organizational development, sustainable use of resources consistent with the population’s needs.”

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

  • Jennifer Baljko

    Jennifer Baljko is a freelance technology and business writer currently based in Barcelona, Spain. She has covered a range of topics in her 20+ year career, including conflict minerals mining; corporate and municipal risk management and resiliency development; e-waste reuse and recycling; mobile reading in emerging markets; and sustainability and natural resources planning.