A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Prof Pieter van Wesemael about smart cities

Insight of a researcher: An interview with Pieter van Wesemael on smart city planning and sustainable urban development

Prof Pieter van Wesemael ESMH ScientistPieter van Wesemael, professor of urbanism: “The process of “smartification” is inevitable unless people intend to live in a 19th century fashion. Sustainability, environmental protection and local traditions, on the other hand, must be integrated into modern processes of urbanisation.”


Since the term “smart city” was first coined in the mid-1990s, the concept of smart city planning has changed enormously. What are the reasons behind the changes?

The concept was developed from a technological perspective, the digital engineering industry and researchers creating a so-called technology push on digital infrastructure, big data and urban management tools. Currently the awareness has grown that although revolutionary and innovative, digital technologies are only instruments to improve the quality of life of future urban societies, both in terms of social inclusion, economic resilience, sustainable environment and governance driven by citizens. Thus the smart city concept has been broadened to the digital support of social, economic, environmental and governance strategies to attain the sustainable development goals of the United Nations for our 21st urban century. 

The shift is inevitable because of the urban crises on the environment, the challenges economy is facing with the former industrial labour classes often being in temporary low wages non-jobs, the inequality and exclusion being present in society and the institutional top down mechanisms of governance while there is a growing need for citizen participation and co-creation. These problems are real and very concrete and they threaten to make an end to our high quality of life in the west, even if there are some, who for opportunistic reasons tend to deny this.


Does this have to do with the fact that the structure of medieval European cities does not allow as much restructuring as it is possible in modern Asian metropolises that have been built out of nowhere in a matter of decades?

There is an ever growing awareness that smart city discourses, strategies and concepts have to be contextual by nature, in order to build on existing values and capital such as social networks, economic eco-systems, environmental ecology, local governance traditions in a sustainable way. That is also true for the quality and the identity of a place. Indeed, in that perspective a Chinese megalopolis, an African metropolis or a European global city demands different approach. On a more abstract level, however, they can learn a lot from each other in terms of more overarching discourses, strategies and concepts on smart cities.


Technological advances have been increasingly criticised as ordinary citizens demonstrate some level of resistance towards hi-tech solutions, and more and more people tend to choose slow life instead of the urban rush. Will these trends be incorporated in future smart city visions?

There are fundamental sociological issues related to the acceptance and the accessibility of smart city technologies. Besides lifestyle preferences for a slower, low tech lifestyle and the refusal to accept smart city technologies, there are also huge groups, which don’t have the competence or the resources to get access and handle smart city technologies. So, yes future smart city technologies have to pay attention to the empowerment of vulnerable groups to make sure that they can afford, understand, appreciate and master smart city technologies through training programs, subsidies etc.


Even if development continues to be more centered around the environment and the human factor, can urbanisation be sustainable at all? 

Sure it can, there are numerous examples of cities, or at least urban districts, in which experiments are going on for more sustainable treatment of water and waste, mobility, energy production and consumption. The biggest challenge for the future is to be sustainable on not one or two of these aspects but on all at the same time. 


Wouldn’t it be more sustainable if, instead of smart city programs, a more traditional way of living was promoted, with people growing their own food, using natural materials, living a modern but more nomadic life?

This is only an option if society is willing to lower its standard of life to 19th century standards. Life is hard and short if one has to live of what they can get out of nature. Probably the wisest strategy is to live more in balance with nature and more in general with what is already built up locally in terms of social capital, economic strengths and just governance, and see smart city technology but also other technologies as tools to make this more effective, more just and more sustainable.

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