Smart City, Intelligent Networks and Sustainable Cities: Possibility or Illusion?

Clémentine Faron

Urban growth is a major phenomenon of the Urbanocene1 era, which is taking place globally on an unprecedented scale, and whose effects on society and the environment are evident. While cities occupy only 2% of the planet, they contribute up to 70% of the world’s carbon emissions and 60-80% of its energy consumption. Moreover, the United Nations predicts that the world’s urban population will increase by 75% by 2050.  

This massive migration to cities will increase the number of densely populated areas, further complicating urban mobility and putting further strain on public services. In addition, rapid urbanisation has created additional challenges, such as URBAN SPREADING, SOIL IMPERMEABILITY, FLOODING and WATER CONTAMINATION, and their associated health problems.   

Consequently, failure to adapt to the new urban reality could be disastrous for cities facing these demographic, economic, social and environmental pressures. Over the past 10 years, smart urban technologies have begun to conquer our cities to form the backbone of a broad and intelligent infrastructure, the so-called smart city. Alongside this development, the spread of the sustainability concept has had a significant impact on the planning and development of our cities.  

Despite strong criticism for this type of urban design and development practice, there is a general feeling among researchers that it is good to rethink the paradigms and processes for planning and developing our cities.  

What is a smart city?

An intelligent city, commonly referred to as a smart city, is a framework primarily composed of information and communication technologies (ICTs) with the aim of providing useful information to effectively manage resources and assets and thus meet the challenges of urbanisation.  

A large part of this ICT framework is essentially an intelligent network of connected objects and machines that transmit data using wireless and cloud-based technologies. Cloud-based applications receive, analyse and manage data in real time to help municipalities, businesses and citizens make better decisions that improve quality of life.  

The improvement argument is that the smart city, which interacts with its citizens, is better prepared to respond to contemporary challenges than a city that only has a transactional relationship.  

In order to improve the urban environment, the smart city must therefore respond to several challenges:  

  • Better management of infrastructure, resources and mobility through increased use of ICT that are more communicative, adaptable, sustainable, efficient and optimised. 
  • Preserving the environment by reducing its impact  
  • Include citizens at the heart of planning and decision-making: the Smart City concept is not only about new technologies available for managing urban space. Above all, it must create a link between people and the city. For example, in transport and intelligent mobility, the city offers city dwellers solutions that meet all possible needs, in order to provide the most appropriate response in real time.

Smart cities are therefore emerging as a suitable concept to respond to major technological, economic and environmental changes, including global warming, economic restructuring, online retail and entertainment, ageing populations, urban population growth and pressures on public finances.  


Context of emergence  

In the late 2000s, the smart city was seen as a promising market by IT companies Cisco and IBM. Through marketing campaigns, they imposed the idea that a new paradigm should renew the way cities are managed in order to transform them into “smart cities” and meet the challenges of urbanisation. In order to face these problems, these companies position themselves as “gateways”4 and propose technological solutions that allow urban systems to be interconnected through data.  

However, their model is based on a holistic and systemic vision of cities. These manufacturers, notably IBM, are proposing a decompartmentalised management of urban infrastructures thanks to data from different technical systems5. In fact, the Inception of the smart city was a dazzling failure, due to a reductionist approach to the city which promised a simple, rational and efficient solution to a whole range of complex urban issues. This technicist vision, however, masks the great diversity, local specificities and complexity of the cities with which IT firms have been confronted.  

Thus, a technopole city will not necessarily be considered a smart city. The role of technology in smart cities should be to enable the sustainable development of cities, and not to consider new technology as an end in itself. Ultimately, a city that is not sustainable is not truly smart. It is precisely the inclusion of sustainability that will be able to give full meaning to the potential of the smart city. 

Smart city: a road to the sustainable city?  

The smart city, in this sense, promotes the objectives of sustainable development because it allows :  

  • A reduction in emissions, which is the main driver for the development of smart and sustainable cities. Among the greatest benefits are improved energy efficiency and storage, waste management, and traffic conditions.   
  • Improved transport, as smart technologies can ease traffic congestion as well as provide users with real-time information.  
  • Better management of resources.  

It is on this last point that the smart city framework is the most promising, particularly through smart grids. A smart grid is an electricity distribution network that promotes the circulation of information between suppliers and consumers in order to adjust the flow of electricity in real time and to enable more efficient management. As electricity cannot be stored easily, quickly and economically in large quantities, smart grid technologies seek to adjust the production and distribution (supply and demand) of electricity in real time by prioritising consumption needs6. As a result, smart meters will correct demand by taking into account the volumes used by the user. The smart grid improves the energy efficiency of the whole system by minimising line losses and optimising the efficiency of the production means used in relation to the instantaneous consumption.  

As an example, THE CITY OF SINGAPORE has recognised the potential role of smart grid technology in improving the efficiency of electricity consumption by homes and businesses. Reducing consumers’ electricity consumption during peak periods is expected to have a double benefit. Not only do consumers save money on their electricity bills, but the reduced demand will save money in terms of energy infrastructure costs for Singapore, which, like many cities, is concerned about rising energy consumption and the issue of energy security7.  

According to the US Department of Energy, if smart grid technologies made the US power grid 5% more efficient, this would be equivalent to the greenhouse gas emission savings of 53 million cars, and the grid improvement from these technologies is expected to save $46 to $117 billion by 2023. In Taiwan, the Taiwan Power Group, the island’s leading energy company, believes that smart grids are the only way to “bypass human laziness”, estimating that it can save 10% just by automatically managing standby equipment, and a further 10-20% by doing the same with air conditioning8.  

In this complex world that is taking shape before us, the externalities that arise from these projects are tangible in terms of new mobility, eco-citizenship, the circular economy and resilience. Although the digital divide is still prominent, the need to accelerate the implementation of operational and efficient solutions is present in an era of increased urgency. 



1-Gilbert Emont : ‘Le Centre-Ville Restera Par Sa Densité Des Services et Son Accessibilité Le Lieu Idéal Pour Le Bureau’ – Paris Workplace” 2020

2-Organisation des Nations Unies. 2019. “En 2050, Deux Personnes Sur Trois Vivront Dans Des Villes Déjà Consommatrices de plus de Deux Tiers de L’énergie et Responsables de 70% Des Émissions de CO2, Prévient M. Guterres | Couverture Des Réunions & Communiqués de Presse.” October 29, 2019.

3-Hollands, Robert G. 2015. « Critical interventions into the corporate smart city », Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, vol. 8, n° 1, p. 61?77

4-Ola Söderström, Till Paasche, et Francisco Klauser. 2014. « Smart cities as corporate storytelling », City, vol. 18, n° 3, p. 307?320

5-Alizadeh, Tooran. 2017. « An investigation of IBM’s Smarter Cites Challenge: What do participating cities want? », Cities, n° 63, p. 70?80

6-Bifulco, Francesco, Marco Tregua, Cristina Caterina Amitrano, and Anna D’Auria. 2016. “ICT and Sustainability in Smart Cities Management.” International Journal of Public Sector Management 29 (2): 132–47.

7-Haque, M.M., H.C. Chin, and A.K. Debnath. 2013. “Sustainable, Safe, Smart—Three Key Elements of Singapore’s Evolving Transport Policies.” Transport Policy 27 (May): 20–31.

8-Enerpress no 9931, 20 oct 2009 ; Brève intitulée « Taïwan veut sa propre technologie de smart grid »

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