Nº 4 2014 > Smart sustainable cities

Smart sustainable cities — a road map

Smart sustainable cities — a road map

This article is based on a technical report currently being prepared by Silvia Guzmán Araña, as a contribution to the ITU–T Focus Group on Smart Sustainable Cities. The report will be available in October 2014.

World population is growing, and cities are becoming more crowded and congested. Projections suggest that the number of people living in cities will account for 70 per cent of the global population by 2050. In 2007, for the first time in history, the number of people living in cities was larger than the number living in rural areas. Pressure is intensifying on natural resources and on city services such as sanitation and health care, while cities alone consume three-quarters of energy produced.

In order to meet the needs associated with an increasing urban population, cities require innovative approaches to improve the efficiency of all aspects of their operation (for example, public services, buildings and transport), while ensuring a higher quality of life for their inhabitants.

This calls for a new, more efficient city model — the smart sustainable city. To help planners and policy-makers realize this vision, the ITU–T Focus Group on Smart Sustainable Cities has produced a road map of five steps.

Step one: Setting the basis for a smart sustainable city

Smart sustainable cities will evolve in different ways according to location and city priorities, and the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) will be a critical lever in each case. But there will be little progress unless cities that decide to become smart and sustainable have analysed all the implications of this transformation.

The first part of this process is to understand what exactly constitutes a smart sustainable city. This step also entails determining the city’s motivation and priorities, identifying the stakeholders that need to be involved, understanding the implications of this transformation for the city’s governance, as well as creating the mechanisms needed to ensure continuous citizen participation and feedback throughout the process.

There are currently many different definitions as well as a variety of points of view around the world regarding what a smart sustainable city is, or should be. The ITU–T Focus Group on Smart Sustainable Cities has studied close to 100 different definitions. In June 2014, the group agreed on the following definition: “A smart sustainable city uses information and communication technologies to provide enhanced quality of life to its citizens, improved efficiency of services and sustainable development. Such a city meets the needs of today without sacrificing the needs of future generations with respect to economic, social and environmental aspects.”

Equally important in terms of smart sustainable cities is to identify the set of stakeholders and their roles and responsibilities, as well as to define a governance model and leadership strategies for transforming the city. Stakeholders are likely to come from a wide range of fields. For example, municipal or town councillors and local authorities have the role of outlining a long-term holistic vision of the city. National and regional governments define legal frameworks. Utilities and providers of city services procure and use the technology. Information and communication technology companies supply technological solutions needed to integrate city services. Non-governmental organizations raise awareness of people’s concerns, and help to engage different groups as part of consultation processes.

Multilateral organizations promote smart sustainable city initiatives, providing funds and expertise. Information and communication technology industry associations promote the development of smart sustainable cities. Academia educates professionals and studies new initiatives and trends. City inhabitants and visitors pay for smart sustainable city services. Specialist consulting firms benchmark progress. Standardization institutes develop a common language for all stakeholders and define key performance indicators.

In terms of governance, decision-makers should consider forming a supportive cross-sectoral body that can provide continuous support to city councils in the design and implementation of smart and sustainable cities.

Setting the basis for a smart sustainable city also involves identifying and implementing effective mechanisms for citizen engagement. Citizens are the ultimate beneficiaries of smart sustainable city functionalities, which aim at increasing access to and efficiency of city services in order to improve the well-being of urban residents. It is crucial to ensure transparency and accountability in regard both to investment in service provision, and to the impact of services on the quality of life of citizens. This calls for the use of ICT-enabled mechanisms for citizen engagement and participation (such as social media tools and crowd sourcing).

“It is crucial to provide city inhabitants the chance to be actively involved. People can act as ‘citizen sensors’, providing valuable data and a continuous cycle of feedback, and coming up with exciting new ideas”, suggests Silvia Guzmán Araña. As part of citizen engagement and inclusion, city councils need to provide training and good public access to information and communication technologies, acknowledging that there are persistent gaps in terms of skills and access to these technologies.

Step two: Defining and funding smart infrastructure

Smart sustainable cities need investment in information and communication technology infrastructure. It makes sense to use pre-existing networks to minimize costs. Whether new or already installed, the infrastructure can be categorized as comprising four layers (Figure 1). First, the sensing layer is composed of radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices, sensors, sensor networks, and other detection and monitoring technology. Second, the communication layer consists of large-capacity, high bandwidth and highly reliable optical and wireless broadband networks. Third, the data layer is made up of local authority, business and other data centres engaged in data processing, data mining and related activities. Finally, the application layer contains a set of applications using data collected and processed by other layers, accessed by a variety of terminals.


The infrastructure of a smart sustainable city is a labyrinth of technologies and equipment. These range from data centres and cloud computing platforms to sensors, terminals and gateways. Stakeholders involved in strategic planning for infrastructure range from providers of information and communication technologies to telecommunication operators, and from financial institutions to regulators. Compliance with relevant laws and regulations is essential. Funding can come from a range of sources such as general taxation, utility allowances, advertising, subsidies and corporate donations.

Step three: Creating smart sustainable services

Information and communication technologies can improve smart city services, making them more efficient and interactive. Strategic planners need to decide which existing services to upgrade in this way. For instance, smart water management systems use information and communication technologies to generate economic savings, as well as to improve service and wastewater management, and flood and storm water control. Smart pipes, geographic information systems, smart meters and cloud computing are among the tools and technologies used in this way.

Smart transport means moving people and goods more efficiently and sustainably. This may require machine-to-machine communications, Wi-Fi and RFID technologies, and global positioning systems (GPS), for example, for real-time traffic flow information. Capabilities include vehicle monitoring and road infrastructure surveillance, making it possible to cut travel times and reduce the number of traffic accidents.

Smart waste management systems may track waste to monitor its movement, optimize collection routes, and collect and share data throughout the waste cycle. Smart healthcare management may carry out remote diagnoses and treatment, and provide online medical services and remote patient monitoring systems. Machine-to-machine communications are critical for these to work.

Smart education may mean creating a personalized learning environment for adults and children or providing teachers with new ways to design learning activities. Smart security may provide predictive analysis and criminal pattern identification to improve the safety of citizens. Smart buildings may use data to improve building energy efficiency, reduce wastage and optimize water usage.

Smart sustainable services may also play a major role in improving city adaptation to climate change and disaster readiness. They will depend — for a holistic city view — on command and control systems shared across multiple city departments, such as energy, waste, transport and security.

Step four: Monitoring progress

Key performance indicators must be used by city authorities and stakeholders to assess how city services are progressing. They also help in evaluating how modifications affect a city, as well as allowing for comparisons between different cities. “Planners have a range of options to choose from. They must use key performance indicators to monitor performance and efficiency gained”, says Ms Guzmán Araña.

Evaluation principles include integration, comparability, independence (indicators in the same category must be independent) and simplicity (simple, intuitive concepts and calculations).

Step five: Ensuring security

Information and communication technologies provide security and help manage risk, but they also need to be protected. Risks to these technologies include cyberattacks and information theft for instance. Smart sustainable city development means optimizing data security and electromagnetic field management.

Vulnerabilities to the information and communication technology architecture need to be studied. Security analysts need to consider a wide range of threats to information and communication technology systems.

Equipment security, anti-virus technology, firewall and database backup technologies are all ways to better protect the infrastructure.

Smart city security infrastructure must include a centre for monitoring emergencies and disaster tolerance, managing and evaluating security, and ensuring identity management. 

Smart sustainable city guiding Framework

The five steps outlined above are closely interrelated and complementary, and information and communication technologies act as the glue that integrates all the other elements into a foundational platform, as illustrated in the smart sustainable city guiding framework in Figure 2. 


According to this framework, the design and implementation of a smart sustainable city is a dynamic process that involves two main clusters of activities: a series of key components (shown at the centre of the figure); as well as complementary/inter-related stages (depicted as five boxes, forming a circle around the key components). “The framework highlights the different attributes that make a city smart and sustainable. It is action-oriented, seeking to address the need for practical recommendations that can help guide and inform the development of smart sustainable city strategies”, explains Angelica Ospina, Research Fellow at the University of Manchester.


Smart sustainable city strategists face a series of obstacles, including the fact that cities are commonly managed with a silo approach. A more holistic vision and strategy is needed in order to close gaps and ensure coordination between city departments.

In developing countries, the existing infrastructure is scarce and the connectivity rates low. That means there may not yet be the foundations for a smart sustainable city. These foundations include broadband networks or communication networks for sensors.

Not enough is known about the technologies used, both because of the novelty of the field and because of corporate protective policies. This calls for more knowledge-sharing. More experts are required in this emerging sector, as few have experience of smart sustainable cities. Sustainability is another challenge that demands a long-term, better-integrated and non-linear approach to management.

An additional challenge to smart sustainable city strategies is related to funding. “Since the financial crisis a few years ago, cities and other organizations have had difficulty finding investors. This is partly attributable to the lack of business models that provide a return on investment”, points out Daniela Torres of Telefónica. Smart sustainable city planning must clearly integrate strategies for job creation in order to attract new businesses. The whole range of advantages associated with building a smart sustainable city needs to be clearly identified and effectively promoted in order to motivate active engagement and support by its inhabitants.


“Very few smart sustainable cities have been constructed so far. Further experiences and novel approaches are needed, building on the transformative potential of information and communication technology tools”, explains Cristina Bueti, ITU.

It is important to set a clear baseline definition at the start of a smart sustainable city project. Key performance indicators must be used throughout the project for it to be successful. The full engagement of stakeholders and council authorities is essential as priorities are defined and long-term strategies developed. An inclusive concept such as that of the smart sustainable city requires expertise from a multi-sectoral and varied range of stakeholders, including active citizen engagement.

The effectiveness of smart sustainable city strategies requires a holistic, articulated approach that is not solely based on technological and infrastructural aspects, but primarily on improving the citizen’s well-being. As Ms Guzmán Araña explains, “Installing smart technologies alone will not improve city services. This is about strategy. New technology needs to be complemented by intelligent management. Strategists will need to define how technologies and the information collected will be used. One core characteristic of the smart sustainable city is the breakdown of silo-based city service management, and the integration of services to improve the quality of life of citizens”.


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By Silvia Guzmán, Chairman, ITU Focus Group for Smart Sustainable Cities