Smart urban planning starts with interdisciplinary thinking and action

While the concept of smart cities has been around for three decades, a growing criticism has shaken the grounds of 21st century urban planning worldwide. Experts and researchers of various fields have recognized that the future of smart city planning is multidisciplinary, and the search for common grounds between technological innovation, social justice and environmental protection, made all the more vital by the Covid-19 crisis.

The concept of smart cities has now been around for almost three decades. Although many cities have become smarter worldwide, most projects still tend to deal with only partial “smartification”. This is one deficiency that the European Triangulum project, one of 14 European Smart Cities and Communities Lighthouse projects and part Horizon 2020 framework programme is aiming to counter act. The project, which provides a total of 30 million Euros, 25 million of which is secured by the European Commission, aims to ensure that future urban planning becomes an extensively multidisciplinary effort.

Three forerunner cities, Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Stavanger in Norway and Manchester in the United Kingdom are aiming to create best practice scenarios for combining the efforts of various initiatives dealing with sustainable mobility, renewable energy, ICT and business opportunities. Three further cities, all located within the EU, Leipzig in Germany, Prague in the Czech Republic and Sabadell in Spain will replicate the efforts of the test cities. A Chinese city, Tianjin, serving as an observer of the European process, also intends to put the experience into practice.

Building best practice scenarios across Europe

In the Dutch city of Eindhoven, for instance, the city council is aiming at a bottom-up approach, collecting social issues, asking citizens to express their frustrations and worries. Owing to these initiatives, in one of the city’s busiest districts, Stratumseind, lamp-posts were fitted with Wi-Fi trackers, cameras and microphones in order to address safety issues. The city also planned to diffuse the smell of oranges into the air to provide a calming effect.

As part of an overall plan, the city addresses smart issues in various areas of urban life. They plan to focus on building smart blocks and implementing hybrid energy systems, promoting smart mobility including smart traffic management, developing shared urban spaces featuring urban gardening, rainwater management and waste management in circular systems, encouraging citizens towards healthier lifestyles and an increased participation in governance.

In Stavanger, Norway, the main driver towards the decision of establishing an overall smart city program rested on two major challenges: the need for more sustainable businesses and the demographic change in the population, according to Gunnar Edwin Crawford, Stavanger’s Smart City Manager. Besides other measures, the city of Stavanger places a special focus on the citizens’ well-being and on their education. While developing and applying technological solutions that help improve the digital skills of its inhabitants, the city also aims at reducing the local greenhouse gas emissions by making it easier for people to make climate-friendly choices and by adopting environmentally friendly alternatives for transportation.

In order for an urban area to become smart, the “smartification” of the citizens as well is of utmost importance.

Prof Pieter van Wesemael ESMH ScientistPieter van Wesemael, professor of urbanism at the Eindhoven University of Technology: “When citizens and public authorities acknowledge that the sustainable development goals are key to make their city future-proof, and by doing so they make sure that their quality of life is guaranteed also for future generations, it is always possible to develop strategies for sustainable development building on smart city technologies.” – Read Pieter van Wesemael’s full interview

Smart past, smarter present, the smartest future

The term smart city was first coined at the beginning of the 1990s to describe urban development that is more and more dependent on technology and innovation, according to a 2015 study. Since the beginning of the 1990s, however, the phrase has been used with different meanings. While some consider intelligent, information-driven and digital cities to be smart, others believe green, creative or knowledge-based cities are even smarter.

According to Polish researchers, a smart city should be safe for both the people and the environment; it must stand for an effective urban centre with advanced infrastructure such as sensors, electronic devices, networks, and it should also stimulate economic growth as well as improve the quality of life of its inhabitants. Thus, the development of a truly smart city must be truly interdisciplinary: it must simultaneously smarten up the economy, the governance, the mobility, the environment and the living conditions of its citizens. Such a city must function on the basis of resources at hand and is active and independent in its decision making, while those decisions are made by well-informed residents. In order to do so, a truly smart city uses advanced technology in order to improve the efficiency of the important elements of urban and social infrastructure.

Professor Pieter van Wesemael : “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.”

Smart AND Sustainable?

Whatever the initial motivation might have been, the concept of smart city programs have stirred numerous debates over the past years. Critics are concerned that smart city programs are reinforcing neoliberal economic growth, worried that they focus only on the wealthy and marginalise the poor. According to experts, neoliberal urbanism can be summarised as a model of urban growth based on marketization, that is, the further ‘subordination of place and territory to speculative strategies of profit-making at the expense of use values, social needs and public goods’. Some of the programs have also been accused of neglecting environmental protection, while encouraging consumerism. These concerns arise from the notion that the techno-centric vision of smart cities that aims to make future urban spaces ultra-efficient and digitally optimised is primarily entrepreneurial and digital in nature, and it demands a highly educated and well-to-do population. In return, it is expected to fuel global economic competitiveness and growth. Such industry-driven visions, however, have been criticised by urban studies scholars who fear that digitalisation in itself is unable to deliver sustainability, environmental protection and social equity.

Sustainability concerns over the uneven distribution of the benefits of digital innovation are driven by the fear that intensive consumerism is incompatible with promoting social equity. Experts at the same time argue that such a pitfall can be overcome by “exploiting the potential of digital platforms to reduce consumption by driving a shift from a culture of ownership to one of sharing access to resources”. They reach the conclusion however, that smart city initiatives in reality often fail to consider environmental protection and social equity, and reinforce economic growth and consumerist cultures instead. The sharing economy, for instance, arrived in Europe with much fanfare, but has become somewhat of a disappointment, with concerns that it exacerbates and perpetuates social inequality and precarity.

Professor Pieter van Wesemael : “Its actual impact and acceptance remained quite low after an initial period of (too) great expectations. Nevertheless out of a combination of practicalities, for instance increasing urbanisation and a lack of space for parking and ideological motives notably a need for sustainability and a growing lack of resources it may be expected that sharing economy concepts are here to stay”.

Smart use of dumb methods

While many have been working on projects and ideas designed to counteract the possible (but not inherent), disadvantages of digitalisation, others find a solution in being smart by “desmarting”. Shoshanna Saxe of the University of Toronto argued recently that, besides being prone to reinforcing consumerism, high-tech cities are also at risk of vulnerabilities of their own design, as tech products tend to age very fast, and cities might easily lack resources to upgrade the expensive gear. There are, however, long-forgotten ancient technologies that could make many aspects of urban life, including drainage, wastewater processing, flood protection, more manageable.

Dc Rini Rachmawati ESMH ScientistDr Rini Rachmawati, Urban and regional planning expert at the University of Gadjah Mada, Indonesia : While in Asia large scale urbanization is shifting towards the suburbs, creating what is commonly called sub-urbanization, big European cities may experience a threat because of the decreasing number of people who want to live there as they prefer to live in places where they feel more comfortable. Big cities may become deserted and not cared for well due to the decreasing number of their citizens”.Read Rini Rachmawati’s full interview

The new movement that builds upon the idea of the “rewilderment” of urban areas is not exclusive to European cities. A Chinese design professor, Kongijan Yu, for example, is busy planning so-called sponge cities. These urban landscapes actively absorb rain by the aid of permeable pavements, green roofs and special wetland parks. Wuhan city, which has made its way to the news headlines as the origin of the new coronavirus, could be worthy of attention as one of the few cities where several parks are designed to be flooded during the monsoon. Similar practices have been implemented in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. In an attempt to be prepared for future floods, the European capital is building parks that can turn into ponds if necessary. These parks are not only cheaper to build but they absolutely lack features that could be considered high-tech.

Building on the concept of being resilient instead of being smart, architects and experts in urban planning have also dreamt of a concept of cities floating on top of water surfaces. While floating cities might still only exist in the dreams of designers, the United Nations started backing the idea last year, stating that floating cities might offer a solution to the threats urban areas are facing due to climate change. “A thriving city has a symbiotic relationship with its waters. And as our climate and water ecosystems are changing, the way our cities relate to water needs to change, too. (…) Floating cities are a means of ensuring climate resilience, as buildings can rise along with the sea. And when entire floating communities are designed from scratch, they can be designed as climate-neutral from the onset”, the UN wrote in a 2019 press release.

Covid-19: an unexpected opportunity

The Covid-19 pandemic forced cities across Europe into lockdown, causing a historic upheaval to daily life. As the EU begins to step forward on its post-pandemic path, the crisis offers an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity to act as a stress test for smart city infrastructure and legislation.

Digital solutions are being used by some European cities in attempts to contain the spread of the virus, utilising anonymised mobile data to map the behaviour of citizens and better anticipate and monitor the disease.

The European Commission has developed with Member States a toolbox guiding the approach to contact tracing applications, which have been successfully implemented elsewhere in the world. These apps track infected or at risk individuals, allowing for the controlled containment of the virus without wholly forcing cities into lockdowns. An innovative approach to reopening societies, the toolbox also underlines the necessity of privacy safeguards for these measures and their phase-out once the crisis has passed.

Elsewhere, other European cities, like Brussels and Milan, are using the pandemic as an opportunity to transform their mobility to more sustainable systems, reallocating space for vehicles to pedestrians and cyclists.

Furthermore, the EU’s Covid-19 recovery plan underlines the importance of green and digital technologies to ensure the Union’s transition to a more sustainable and resilient future post-Covid-19.

Useful links
The regions in the digital single market – ICT and digital opportunities for European regions, Vasilis Margaras, 2018.
Cities: Front line of climate action, Vivienne Halleux, 2018.
Energy Union: the regional and local dimension, Vivienne Halleux, 2015.

Related content:
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Prof Pieter van Wesemael
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Dr Rini Rachmawati

  1. Smart should concentrate on SDG 2, 6, 7 sustainable Food, Water, Energy, Cycle economy, and ROI.


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