71 Smart and sustainable? Towards future conceptualisations of sustainable urban development in the digital world

Veronika Anna Neumeier, Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany

“Nothing about cities in the twenty-first century is insignificant; the stakes are always high in pinning down what cities are, in thinking about what to do with cities and in acting on/in/through the city, especially if one wants to bring to life more liberating and just futures. For this reason it is extremely difficult to find a conceptual path that cuts through the vicissitudes of the city without losing one’s way in blind alleys and dead ends.” (Pieterse 2008: 12)

The growing importance of cities and their future role for the 21th century has initiated much discourse within public and academic spheres. A great majority of published texts on this matter start by introducing the pressing issues and challenges as well as the opportunities cities might provide for us. In particular, the subjects of economic development, ecology, and social change seem to be highly dominant in discourses about cities. However, one important question stands out: what roles do cities play for us now and which ones will they take in the future?

Regarding the rapid changes of cities and urban structures, extensive research has been conducted  in the fields of both the social and natural sciences in the past few years. From a viewpoint of social geography (which I will take), it is important to examine the role of urban planning strategies and urban development concepts as the basis for a majority of planning activity in urban contexts. Such urban development concepts try to formulate common principles for a city, mostly developed by urban governers in top-down logics, in order to establish long-term goals and positive urban development over several decades. However, in times of growing digitalisation, increasing opportunities of civic participation and global change issues, is it still appropriate to establish such prescriptive urban development guidelines? On this note, this blog will specifically examine the idea of the so-called ´smart city´ in relation to aspects of sustainability, increasing digitalisation, and possible positive urban developments in the future.

Smart city: a booming approach to urban development

The idea and application of the ‘smart city’ approach has rapidly emerged since the early 2000s. With its strong focus on technological advance and ‘smart’ innovations, the concept generally aims “to make [a city] more efficient, sustainable, equitable and livable” (NRDC, in: Chourabi et.al. 2012: 2290). Thus, the ‘smart city’ approach can be applied to:

[a] specific region, achieving the informational and integrated management of cities. It can also be said to be an effective integration of smart planning ideas, smart construction modes, smart management methods, and smart development approaches. Through the digital grid management of urban geography, resources, environment, economic, social and other systems, as well as the digital and informational processing and application of urban infrastructure and basic environment, we can achieve intelligent urban management and services, thereby promote the more efficient, more convenient and harmonious operation of modern cities.” (Su et al. 2011: 1028).

The idea of creating a smarter, and ideally a more sustainable urban structure, is booming. Currently, major cities such as Vienna, Barcelona or Seoul for example, have adopted the ‘smart city’ approach within their urban development concepts.

According to Schaffers et al. (2012), three phases of application have been identifiable within the ‘smart city’ approach up to now. With the invention of the first large-scale technologies, the idea of implementing these new technologies in urban contexts developed in the early 1990s. This was followed by a period of professionalization and further inclusion of ‘Web 2.0’ adaptabilities in the subsequent decade. In the last few years, this process of digitalization and technologisation of the city has progressed to an even ‘smarter’ level. Before, the city was extended by an additional layer of technology; now, there is the idea of “creating the digital space of cities” in itself (Schaffers et al. 2012: IV) and adding new, digital spaces to the already existing, physical ones.

Understandings of sustainability

Looking at the idea of the ‘smart city’, there is clear relation to the concept of sustainability. Since 1987, with the publication of the so-called Brundtland report, there has been a general shift within society in thinking around how to interact with the world.

“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WECD, Brundtland report 1987: 16)

The concept of the three pillars of sustainability derived from this very broad understanding and distinguishes aspects of social, economic and ecological sustainability. However, this very broad and overarching viewpoint cannot easily be put into an urban context, especially in relation to mainly top-down urban development conceptualizations. If the idea of ‘smart’ is considered as ‘more sustainable’, what does this mean on the concrete level of urban development?

Study: Smart and sustainable

In my research on the adaptation and application of the ‘smart city’ approach in a major European city, five distinct aspects were identified:

  1. Considering the general notion of sustainable urban development, a clear affirmation of the three pillars of sustainability of the Brundtland report could be seen in the urban development concept; mainly with a strong linkage to technology.
  2. Placing this understanding of sustainability in relation to the specific urban context, urban governers aimed to establish a more integrative approach that connects different issues, areas and stakeholders in the city for a ‘more sustainable’ urban development. Regarding the exemplary city, there was a clear integration of social, economic and ecologic issues, with a strong emphasis on the later.
  3. For the concrete goals of urban development, a strong focus on the establishment of quantifiable goals could be identified, especially in relation to CO2 emission. In order to succeed, energy use and energy distribution was heavily linked to the implementation new technologies, such as for example “smart” user apps and “smart” power plants.
  4. On the level of strategy application, with the three pillars of sustainability as an underlying basis, especially social matters were put in the foreground. However, strong bureaucracy processes had major influence on the implication and realization of specific projects.
  5. Considering the future expectation of success within the exemplary city, the ‘smart city’ approach defined clear ecological and social aims which sought to provide a broad framework for sustainable urban development. Nonetheless, economic issues played an important role and seemed to be highly relevant for the city´s future development. By adapting to the ‘smart city’ approach, the city tried to be open to new ideas and strategies in order to tackle difficult urban issues.

Relating the general understanding of sustainability to its conceptual adaptation in urban development concepts, the ‘smart city’ approach, in general, seems to be the first to extend the common notion of sustainability by a fourth pillar of application.

In the current discourse on, as well as application of, urban development concepts, the approach of the ‘smart city’ seems to be one of the most influential in times of increasing urbanisation. The approach itself has a strong linkage to technology and highlights new opportunities for technical applications in an urban context.

Thus, technology is used, on the one hand, to improve already existing urban structures, and on the other hand, to create new urban opportunities of digitality and ultimately, to refine the well-established concept of the ‘three pillars of sustainability’. Consequently, the ‘smart city’ approach seems to be the first to merge the opportunities of technology within the existing places/spaces of a city, in order to establish sustainable urban structures. New links and networks in a city are established, which might also better reflect and relate to our lifestyles that have become more interconnected through technology.


Chourabi, H. et al. (2012). Understanding Smart Cities: An integrative Framework. In: Sprague, R. (2012). 2012 45th Hawaii International Conference on System Science: (HICSS) USA, 4 – 7 Jan. 2012. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE.

Natural Resources Defense Council. (2015). What are smarter cities?. 05.01.2015.<http://smartercities.nrdc.org/about>.

Pieterse, E. (2008). City futures confronting the crisis of urban development. London New York Capetown, South Africa: Zed Books UCT Press.

Schaffers, H., Ratti, C. & N. Komninos. (2012). “Smarter Cities“. In Journal of Theoretical and Applied Electronic Commerce Research. Special Issue on Smart Application for Smart Cities 7 (3), II – V.

Su, K., Li, J. & H. Fu (2011). Smart City and the Applications. In: International Conference on Electronics, Communications and Control (ICECC) Sept. 9-11, 2011, Ningbo, China:: proceedings. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE.

World Comission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987): Our Common Future. 18.05.2015. <http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf>

Author Biography

Veronika Neumeier is a Masters student in Social Geography at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany. Her work focuses strongly on action-centred ways to conceptualise urban spaces and places, as well as strategies for drafting urban development concepts. Veronika is especially interested in the concretisation of sustainability, the pressing issues of social cohesion in urban settings, and the implementation of social cohesion strategies within urban development.

Contact email: veronika.neumeier@gmail.com

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