Smart Cities: A Systems Approach to a Sustainable Future


Lauren Riga

As the world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history, increasing from approximately 3.4 billion in 2009 to 6.4 billion in 2050, there is a growing movement to turn cities into meccas for sustainable living.  

A paradigm shift is taking place as society moves away from single focused processes toward a systems-thinking approach; re-thinking the way cities are designed and built to make them ‘smart’ in preparation for the projected population increases. 

The 7th annual Meeting of the Minds summit, organized by the Urban Age Institute, convened thought leaders, corporate executives and decision-makers this past September.  Meeting of the Minds is a global leadership summit focused on helping cities become smarter, more connected and sustainable through the exchange of cutting edge information about next generation infrastructure, urban development solutions and technological advancements. 

Meeting of the Minds goes beyond the annual summit to advance smart city innovations. Gordon Feller, Director of Cisco Consulting Services and a board member of the Urban Age Institute states, “It is a set of activities held throughout the year designed to stimulate conversations and “connect the dots.” Feller adds, “This type of conversation allows Meeting of the Minds to help identify scalable, replicable and transferrable deployments that can then be taken and duplicated in other cities.”

Meeting of the Minds will host a re-engineering city infrastructure workshop in Detroit next February. 

Smart Cities

Cities represented two-thirds of global energy consumption in 2006 and that number is expected to rise to almost three-quarters by the year 2030.  ‘Smart’ solutions require cross-sector collaboration and decision-makers to look at cities as a whole.

Densities of urban areas provide opportunities to increase efficiencies and reduce demands on resources with a focus on smart planning of the urban environment. According to the Guide to Greening Cities, people who live in dense urban environments produce fewer emissions than those living in suburbs. In New York and San Francisco, the average family emits more than two tons less carbon annually. 

The term ‘Smart City’ has emerged for a growing audience across a broad range of disciplines as the concept expands to address multiple challenges and opportunities in sustainable development. 

Green practices allow city leaders and partners to reduce health, environmental and financial risks and promote sustainable economic development; including local green businesses and jobs. Components of ‘smart’ practices can include (but not limited to) building retrofits, green infrastructure or low impact development (LID), clean fleets, waste reduction and material reuse.
Many cities have discovered the business case for sustainable practices and are taking steps now to incorporate smart practices. With the help of federal programs, utility companies, foundations, businesses; cities have a multitude of financing options available to minimize financial barriers to implementing ‘smart’ practices. 

For instance, Los Angeles creatively leveraged EECBG funds to reduce energy consumption in public buildings, multi-family affordable housing and commercial buildings. As of July, 2012 Los Angeles is also saving more than $ 3.8 million a year and reduced their energy use by 61% by converting 92,000 streetlights into LED lights -- the equivalent to 25,000+ tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. 

Cities will require transformations in applications and governmental frameworks, incorporating all of the components into the big picture to fully become ‘smart.’  Gordon Feller states, “There is a search for the “thread” that connects innovations that have the potential to be transformational in different sectors, from energy and water to buildings and transportation.” 

Government & Technology: Transforming City Infrastructure

As urban populations continue to rise, cities will face unprecedented infrastructure demands, and improved public private coordination is needed for better management of energy, water, transport, buildings and other urban infrastructures. 

A variety of tools are available for strategic investments, smart policies and breakthrough technological innovations — to enable cities to better respond to increasingly complex urban planning, design, technology and development challenges.

Emerging information and communication technologies (ICT) integrated and enabled through the development of smart electricity grids can help reduce demand for electricity, manage loads and help make cities more efficient. Feller states, “The information and communications technology revolution…is making the connections not just possible, but real.”

Effectively utilizing science and technology requires more than just expanding technical knowledge and tools. Supportive and coordinated governmental frameworks are needed to provide accompanying social, economic and policy innovations. Successful public private partnerships are taking place and can lead to transformational change; however, additional models, pilot projects and data are needed to scale up new frameworks for smart cities.  

Smart cities are sustainable, resilient and efficient. Sustainability is about interweaving economic, social and environmental elements to develop holistic and adaptive policy processes; thus creating more resilient communities. Sustainability is about long-term prosperity, and resiliency is about the ability to adapt to change – they go hand-in-hand. 

Lauren Riga is a globally recognized expert on urban sustainability based in Greater Chicago. The views expressed here are her own. Energy Central welcomes all positions and all civil dialogue.