Differentiating between sustainable and smart cities

07 April 2022
Atkin's Rony Hobeika shares his insights on the variance between smart and sustainable cities, while explaining why the differentiation matters

In the last few years, there has been a notable shift in cities seeking ‘smart’ instead of ‘sustainability’ goals.

The two concepts share many similarities: their aim is to achieve lower impact development while improving growth and quality of life.

Nonetheless, they are also fundamentally different concepts, and their confusion can misguide results.

The absence of a comprehensive framework for sustainable cities and the dependence on universal definitions has led to the proliferation of many different understandings of what sustainability means.

In parallel, rapidly evolving technological solutions that can improve the functioning of cities have become so widespread that the two terms have become synonymous and are being used interchangeably. There is now a pressing need to understand the relationship between the two concepts, where they intersect, and how they differ.

Smart and sustainable are different

Definitions of a sustainable city are countless. One generic definition is of a city whose “conditions of production do not destroy over time the conditions of its reproduction”.

Another definition might include its target to improve social equity, preserve the environment, and achieve economic growth and material prosperity.

Nevertheless, all definitions share a common implied mission statement: The city should strive to realise the highest economic output with the least environmental and social impact possible.

Smart city, however, is a more practical concept, promoted mostly by businesses that see a burgeoning market for cutting-edge services and equipment.

Definitions often do not equally balance the three sustainability pillars; however, a common thread among them is that a smart city adopts digital technologies in communication and information systems to revolutionise city operations.

This is mainly sought by employing technology to modernise services, infrastructure, and facilities creating smarter, leaner, integrated, and cost and resource-efficient processes.

Sustainability encourages restraint

Sustainability suggests that moderation is desirable. This can best be achieved by structural transformations that rely less on technology and more on design.

Thus, a sustainable city can be thought of as a holistic, design-oriented approach, in which urban practitioners optimise the city’s structure relative to the limitations of local and regional conditions—topography, microclimate, availability of water and other resources for agriculture, manufacturing, power, construction etc.

Also known as a ‘passive’ strategy, sustainable city design creates a fixed and efficient spatial configuration. The city’s footprint, street layout, blocks and parcels shape, diversity and distribution of land uses, population density, vegetation coverage, and design and construction of buildings can limit baseline resource need and waste generation.

Examples of passive design strategies are numerous. New York City recently passed the ‘Zone Green’ amendment which would help reduce the city’s baseline demand for energy by removing impediments against the construction and retrofitting of green buildings.

In another case, Copenhagen lowered its carbon footprint by restructuring its streets to encourage and favour low-tech bicycle riding over car mobility.

Smart is not always sustainable

Technology can contribute to the reduction in resource consumption and increase in renewable inputs.

For instance, cities can leverage technological applications and data modelling to improve performance in systems as diverse as agriculture and food provision, power, water, construction, transport, and manufacturing processes of all kinds.

However, if they are not embedded within circular systems, singular technology applications can fall prey to ‘greenwashing’.

Although many green technologies do reduce carbon emissions, they can be more resource intensive or waste-generating, causing collateral environmental damage.

Photovoltaic panels are one case in point. Touted as the primary ingredient for a clean energy future, solar panels in fact create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. E-scooters, driverless and electric vehicles, even data centres have been reported to have dubious environmental benefits due to unaccounted-for downsides.

On the user level, behavioural biases in extravagant lifestyles or technology misuse can paradoxically cancel gains achieved from installing high-tech efficiency solutions., causing for instance green-rated buildings to consume more energy than standard ones in the UK.

Sustainable is environment, smart is economy

Although both target the pillars of economy, social equity, and environment, according to a recent comparative study, sustainable and smart city rating systems assign different weightings to the three bottom lines.

Smart city frameworks such as the European Smart Cities Ranking stress highly on strategies achieving social and economic goals to create more competitive, innovative, and robust cities.

Leading sustainable city frameworks, such as BREEAM Communities, focus more squarely on the natural and built aspects of development, aiming to produce low-impact urban environments conducive to health and wellbeing. ICT sector indicators feature poorly, proving that sustainability can in fact be low-tech.

A comparative study between the smart cities wheel and the LEED Neighbourhood Development (LEED ND) certification demonstrates the difference.

The first consists of six equally weighted categories (people, government, economy, environment, mobility and living) with environment and economy comprising 20 per cent and 45 per cent respectively of total indicators.

The latter, however, consists of three categories (smart location and linkage, neighbourhood pattern and design, and green buildings and infrastructure), with environment-related indicators dominating all others (by more than 50 per cent).

Why the difference matters

In conclusion, although the differentiation between smart and sustainable is neither clear-cut nor conclusive, it can be generally deduced that while ‘smart city’ is mostly a growth-seeking, technology-focused, and business-oriented concept, ‘sustainable city’ takes a more conservative, design-oriented, and predominately environment-based approach.

Nonetheless, given the complex nature of urban development, both concepts can be valid frameworks to guide sustainability transformation processes. The decision of which to adopt ultimately depends on current conditions and future aspirations of policymakers and planners.

By finding synergies between smart’s systems-focused approach and sustainability’s inclination for temperance, practitioners can always strive to make the best of both worlds.

About the author

Rony Hobeika is a senior urban planner at Atkins

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