Beyond the Smart City: the Sustainable city

Da – 22 gennaio 2019

While investments in the West fluctuate due to economic uncertainties, a strong urbanization trend is consolidating worldwide, and this requires a clear vision of necessary works and interventions in various sectors: transportation, both urban and extra-urban, civil and commercial; energy; connectivity and communication networks; housing and building. Thanks to technological innovation, services to citizens improve, the economy grows, environmental impact and social inequalities decrease. “Smart cities” is the mantra proposed by think tanks, universities, consulting firms, industries and, of course, by software and hardware companies. However, this concept is no longer satisfactory: recent research questions the positive evaluation of the Smart City, since this paradigm is likely to prove weak in improving individuals’ living conditions and, at the same time, it is problematic from a democratic point of view: people could gradually be divested of their sensitive data, which are then exploited by huge companies to derive a profit.

In order to “go beyond” the concept of Smart City, we asked different stakeholders to share their thoughts with us: intellectuals, representatives of International organizations, consulting firms, large industrial groups active in the field of infrastructure. We challenged them to articulate their ideas on urban development in a more pertinent, original, and helpful way. Their opinions are collected in this dossier, full of examples and data, which surprises for the wide range of adjectives applied to the city. If cities are at the forefront, as statistics have shown us for years, we must select for them characteristics that can positively shape their future: here it comes the “resilient”, “flexible”, “circular” city. Each of these terms emphasizes a distinct and fundamental aspect, never forgetting, anyway, that many of the challenges we face are connected and complementary.

Resilience gained the attention of the United Nations, which launched the “Making Cities Resilient” campaign (MCR) through the United Nation Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). The effort focuses above all on the risks that cities run because of climate change and related traumatic events. In order to reduce often devastating impacts, mitigation and adaptation strategies are adopted, and technology is used to develop prevention tools. The MCR has designed a web platform that allows local administrations to assess themselves, defining their weaknesses, organizational limits, and sectors in which the public-private partnership is crucial.

Salini Impregilo, an Italian construction company active on all continents, focuses on “flexibility” as the capacity of new infrastructure to adapt to the mutable needs of populations. Considering the city as a living organism, with what we refer to as an “urban metabolism”, different examples are shown: buildings that do not disperse water thanks to an efficient distinction between rain, drinking, and waste/recycled water; means of transportation able to forecast people’s flows; even cultural spaces whose internal structure changes based on the event they are about to host. As we can see, flexibility can be seen as an environmental protection strategy as well as a way of taking care of individual needs.

The circular economy concept is fundamental in the vision of an International organization such as the OECD, but also in the strategy of an innovative and growing multinational company like ENEL. The city becomes “circular”, a fascinating expression that refers to three distinct dimensions. First, it refers to the economic cycle per se, which aims to the progressive limitation of waste and the reuse of materials, at the same time creating new industrial and job opportunities. Secondly, it refers to the competition among global cities, which incorporate economic and technological innovations into a virtuous circle of constant race for the top spot. Finally, it refers to the holistic (circular) perspective, which highlights the interdependence between environmental, economic, and social plans, precisely within the framework of a circular economy. This vision was also at the core of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato si’”, where he coined the formula of “Social Ecology”.

Therefore, since each of these nuances brings with it a significant element of truth, we believe that the most all-encompassing solution is to speak of “sustainable cities”, also in the wake of the UN’s debate in this area. It is not only no. 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which for the first time has included cities among the key players of sustainable development, but the relationship of this with other goals, i.e., obtaining a quality education, promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all, and building resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialization and fostering innovation. 

Finally, two more questions: are these local issues or global ones – and therefore geo-political matters? Which role do people play?

Without winning the battle for an ecological (and social) transition of cities, the effort against climate change – tackled a few weeks ago in the Cop 24 conference in Katowice – risks becoming useless. After all, three quarters of planetary greenhouse gas emissions comes from urban areas. Nothing more global, then, or, as we used to say some years ago, “glocal”. And there is more: local administrations are gaining increasing political weight, thanks to their international networks and brave mayors’ activism; all this reverberates, for example, in the measures that American cities are taking against Donald Trump’s environmental policies, to the point of opposing these policies in the name of Paris’ objectives. However, there is not yet a significant redistribution of power and resources: even on the front line, cities do not have the means to control a vast territory, influence resources’ allocation, and direct policies. This is a question, therefore, that concerns global governance.

As for the second question, Pietro Garau explains in his contribution how the Smart City – or better, the “sustainable city” – can only depend on “Smart Citizens”, i.e., on the choices that each of us makes. Because of the limited power of local administrations, a top-down process cannot be imagined without a bottom-up revolution, which hinges on the awareness and participation of communities and individuals. The geopolitical influence of Citizens can be the maximum: this new “Civis” can influence global trends – unfortunately, also in a negative sense – which he/she inspires. The destiny of the planet depends on them, even beyond urban borders.

Tobia Zevi

Italian Jew, Jewish Italian. PhD in Linguistics. Adviser to the Italian FM, Association of Jewish culture Hans Jonas' Chairman - Rome.