Making Smart Cities Sustainable
by Jane Marsh
City infrastructure is often antiquated, making the world’s most populated cities shift to more innovative and sustainable urban planning. Most discuss smart cities and sustainable living in the same breath, as smart technologies often catapult sustainable initiatives.
The data Internet of Things (IoT) technology provides with sensors can help city developers allocate budgets, discover energy-intensive centers and design resilient structures. But are these priorities a part of current smart city agendas or are city planners ignoring sustainability obligations altogether because of unspoken hindrances?
When Is a City Considered Smart and Sustainable?
Smart cities encompass many qualities, with the use of technology to improve quality of life being the most vital requirement. Public Wi-Fi is an example of this transition, as it adapted to citizens’ needs when smartphones and laptops became more commonplace. Another example is e-bike sharing programs, which leverage technology and sustainability to improve people's quality of transit. If cities implement these technologies with eco-friendly objectives, they become sustainable smart cities. Cities must be both to support a booming population with the most severe and intense energy needs in human history.
City planners have countless motivations for moving toward smarter cities focusing on sustainability, including mitigating construction pollution and meeting global sustainable development goals. However, sustainability is still an afterthought in the face of glittering, new IoT technologies that constantly analyze city performance for accurate data gathering.
Leveraging big data collection about everything from the city’s plumbing performance to traffic patterns means insight into efficiency improvements that could save cities millions — sometimes at the cost of environmental sanctity. Smart, sustainable cities must balance the compelling desire for rapid, real-time advances with the slow-burn benefits of making more sustainable choices. However, smart technologies aren’t always the most eco-friendly, and bridging the gap between them is essential for positive change.
What Improvements Can Smart Cities Make?
An influx of IoT technology reduces specific negative environmental influences, like water overuse via automated management. It can also monitor still-present threats like poor indoor air quality.
However, constant energy consumption from these devices and resource-intensive installation produce ecological concerns of their own. Here are the main reasons why smart cities aren’t as sustainable as they could be right now:
- Improper e-waste management and disposal, including peripherals like lithium-ion batteries
- Lack of efficient recycling infrastructure
- Inadequate cybersecurity infrastructure to prevent tech degradation and destruction
- Wasted funds on replacement technologies because of planned obsolescence
- Toxic and damaging environmental degradation due to e-waste
- Higher energy consumption because of increased device count
- Inability to prevent unsustainable practices
Humans can mitigate and eliminate all of these unfortunate smart city byproducts. However, the city also must work with other efforts like environmentally driven construction focused on reclaimed materials or retrofitting buildings for smart adaptation. It also should consider local flora and fauna and incorporate ways to maintain their health and wellness on top of advancing the city. Most smart cities need to be growing with a holistic picture.
What Obstacles Stop Smart Cities From Being Green Now?
Cities prioritize implementing smart technologies over sustainable shifts for a few reasons. First, citizens crave the convenience and quality-of-life improvements smart tech brings. There are tangible benefits that garner instant gratification from the public. Imagine IoT sensors notifying televised public transportation hubs of immediate delays to morning commutes.
Oppositely, there aren’t noticeable boons for public transportation having solar panels to reduce energy expenditure. Environmentalists will appreciate the incorporation, but more people find practical value in smart tech the advantage over eco-friendliness.
Another stopgap is financial motivation. Though smart tech is expensive, it has a quicker return on investment than investing time and resources into making a city more eco-friendly. These two barriers minimize the relevance of sustainability in a smart city for those making the most impactful decisions. Stakeholders may not want to consider investing in a concept as intricate as interweaving smart technology with natural fixtures.
For example, how could a smart city enhance local farmers while maintaining carbon neutrality? These are more complex problems shielded by a mindset that natural processes cannot mingle with smart tech, as they're too disparate and incompatible. However, smart tech can make more resilient crops, improve ecosystem resilience and execute biomimicry to bolster natural systems.
How Can Smart Cities Implement Sustainable Practices?
The minds behind smart cities know how and where to implement sustainable solutions, but it will take time and funding to make it the least disruptive to city infrastructure. The most significant moves smart cities can make to ease their massive energy footprint and technological burden include but are not limited to:
- Overcoming the need for instant gratification and pressure to expand q-commerce.
- Inventing solutions for out-of-date processes like recycling and waste management.
- Informing citizens what to expect so transitions are more streamlined and accepted.
- Moving to renewable energy sources to meet energy demand, like geothermal energy or wind turbines.
- Advocating against environmentally damaging concepts like planned obsolescence and fossil-fuel-driven building methods.
- Promoting greener ideals like modular construction and biophilic design.
- Creating digital twins to visualize priorities and recognize asset inadequacies through predictive modeling.
There are many moving parts from numerous sectors, and all must communicate more thoughtfully to achieve a smart and sustainable city. Everyone from local builders, water treatment plants, landlords, and city officials must work together to make priorities more cohesive. Utility providers will have to accept decentralized energy distribution and generation, just as much as the postal service will need to shift to an electric fleet.
If every industry sees the benefit, urgency will increase — an automated, aware city means optimized budgets and improved efficiency in workforces. Getting everyone on the same page and focusing on collaborative efforts will be the key to making a smart city achieve sustainability alongside efficiency.
Sustainable Priorities in Modern City Plans
It’s apparent sustainable smart cities are advantageous for the planet’s longevity. However, it also benefits residents and neighboring communities if smart cities become more sustainable. By analyzing resource allocations and identifying buildings needing updates, IoT technologies could reduce a city’s carbon footprint while acting as a model for developing cities. Smart, sustainable initiatives on a massive scale will also outline precedents that, no matter the size of a project, the technology exists to make it greener.
Article by Jane Marsh
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of