back to overview

Can smart cities save our planet?

If all the people on Earth lived in a city where the buildings were as close together as you see in Paris, the smart mega-city would only cover an area the size of Germany. The rest of the planet would be untouched wilderness. Utopian perhaps – but do smart cities actually promise a resource-efficient future with a high quality of life for ALL people?

Liveable density

“Urban life must save our planet”, says Xuemei Bai, an Australian professor of sustainability research. Paris is undoubtedly a beautiful city, liveable and with plenty of flair – and with the highest population density in Europe: here, 20,371 residents share each square kilometre of this comparatively small urban area covering 105.40 square kilometres. In other words: if the whole of Germany were as densely populated as Paris, the country would offer sufficient space for the entire global population. Of course this is utopian thinking, but: what can the big cities of the future deliver if they are geared towards the needs of nature and people? Indeed, what MUST they offer if we are to overcome the major global challenges we face?

Trimming the fat

Almost 50% of people already live in big cities, while 10% feel perfectly at home in the countryside. The “rest” – so, currently a little more than 3.2 billion people – live somewhere in-between. Green belt, for sure, but as close as possible to the city. These affluent suburbs are actually a huge problem from an ecological perspective. “The suburbs are killing the climate”, says climate economist Gernot Wagner. CO2 emissions in traditional suburbs, with their large properties and detached or semi-detached houses, are two to three times as high as in the city centres or in rural areas. Plans for smart cities have a relatively simple solution to this problem: they simply incorporate these peripheral zones. “Reurbanisation” is the keyword here; what sounds “dangerous” is nothing more than a viable solution to improve quality of life and ensure green mobility and responsible use of our resources. After all: absorbing the “fat” into a larger smart city creates local supply chains, public access without the need for a personal vehicle (or several), jobs, childcare, schools and many more benefits as well. This does not have to come at the expense of grasslands or end up being synonymous with even more property development in previously untouched areas. Cities of the future need to “breathe”, and the developed areas must recede once more into the centre. The use of water and heat should be managed in a way that reflects the requirements of the environment and the inhabitants. International trends and plans for “sponge cities” show how this can be achieved. These cities are able to absorb even the biggest quantities of water very quickly, then store and release it as needed.

The “smart city” concept

If the UN’s prediction that two-thirds of the world’s population will inhabit big cities in 2050 comes true, these will have to be designed in a way that is efficient and environmentally friendly: Mobility, healthcare, safety, water and energy consumption, community (generational connection), economic development, housing, consumption, “green” aspects, children, local supply chains… The list of requirements for liveable cities of the future is long and full of major issues. A genuine smart city must be efficient and progressive, and also designed to ensure ecological and social inclusion. It will also need to promise a suitable capacity for social and economic innovation. Cities such as Copenhagen, Singapore, Amsterdam, Boston and New York are frequently cited as positive examples.

Smart, intelligent, digital

Asian cities in particular demonstrate perfectly how incredibly helpful the use of digital technologies can be: Singapore, for instance, has developed its own app to help keep government housing (almost 80 per cent of its building stock) clean by delivering real-time information on the amount of waste for disposal in each apartment block, street and neighbourhood. And positive examples soon pile up with breathable, green façades, urban gardening, apps for public transport or park use like in Boston. Indeed, there is lots going on, and not just internationally. Styria is also implementing flagship projects for smart cities: among them are the Smart City Stick & Smart City Parkside projects, which focus on the optimised use of space and resources to create a symbiosis between the environment and people. This is exactly the solution that is needed: compatible, resource-efficient and responsible coexistence for people and nature.


The Stick & Parkside project

Hong Kong’s smart city concept