Hit by pollution, overcrowding and resource shortages, the future of cities looks challenging. The solution could be converting hectic urban centres into sophisticated smart cities, which are sustainable and on a human scale - is this a mere dream or a genuine possibility?
The concept of smart city is gaining growing prominence in public consciousness. Many projects and trials - some bolder than others - are attempting to reshape the urban experience by introducing hi-tech solutions and tools to help combat the issues that cities are facing and build a better quality of life for inhabitants. In this article, we try to explore the current (and rather complex) state of affairs.
What do we mean by the term ‘smart cities’? What features do they have in common and, above all, how do they benefit inhabitants? Below are some examples of smart cities in Italy and throughout the world - models that serve as inspiration for reimagining our cities through the lens of economic, environmental and social sustainability.
Much more than just digital cities
The term ‘smart city’ was coined in the 1990s and has been used for many years as a synonym for digital city: essentially, an urban area using digital technology to allow citizens to participate in civic networking and access information and services from local authorities. Over the past decade however, people have loaded the adjective ‘smart’ with a host of different meanings, all with one thing in common - humans are seen as both the driver and the beneficiaries of the process of innovation. And that process is capable of delivering huge gains in sustainability, integration and quality of life.
According to a definition from Italy’s National Smart City Observatory, the modern smart city is an integrated urban system capable of adapting to users’ requirements, which makes use of ICT solutions to support the management and delivery of public services and employs real-time data from a range of sources for greater efficiency.
Features, solutions and application tools
In the view of the European Commission, one of the essential features of a ‘smart’ city is the use of new technologies to manage resources and reduce emissions as efficiently as possible. However, that’s not its only characteristic. It should also develop sustainable urban transport networks, effective water supply and waste disposal systems, and more efficient lighting and heating solutions. In addition, the city’s administration should be interactive, with safer public spaces that are capable of meeting the needs of an ageing population (estimates suggest that by 2050 over 22% of the world’s population will be over 60).
Smart cities must also create a self-sufficient circular economy to ensure sustainable development. In other words, “a model of production and consumption that involves sharing, loaning, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible.”
In 2019, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development developed a model for the city of the future based on “energy and water saving, safety, people’s health and comfortable living standards, the circular economy and environmental monitoring” as well as “co-governance and involvement in the community.” Their solutions include:
- smart home: non-invasive sensors that manage energy consumption, report break-ins and monitor people’s health and comfort;
- smart building: buildings equipped with a photovoltaic system and cutting-edge solutions for managing energy flows;
- smart street: devices for monitoring traffic flow, parking availability, noise pollution and air quality levels;
- platforms for assessing energy consumption levels in public buildings;
- a social urban network aimed at developing a smart community promoting active citizen participation and responsible and sustainable behaviour.
Smart city examples throughout the world
In the second edition of its Smart City Strategy Index, strategic consultancy Roland Berger identifies Vienna as the world’s leading smart city. The Austrian capital takes top spot thanks to an integrated strategy that employs innovative solutions in transport, the environment, education, healthcare and local government. Not far behind in the ranking come London and the Canadian city of St. Albert.
With 10 state universities, 5 polytechnics and 5 private universities, Vienna can rightly claim to be a true knowledge centre. The new university campus of the faculty of economics, for example, has been designed in accordance with bio-architectural principles and features 55,000 m² of undeveloped land that anyone can access. The city’s public transport network is also one of the most efficient in the world and boasts five subway lines, 29 tram lines, 127 bus routes, more than 1,379 km of cycle paths and an efficient car sharing system.
Another progressive example is London, which in 2018 launched its “Smarter London Together” plan. The programme of innovation, research and development, based on promoting the digital economy, aims to boost professionals’ expertise and citizens’ digital skills. Using 5G, the project seeks to integrate sensor networks for air quality, and build new public Wi-Fi access points and electric vehicle charging stations.
The Smart Cities - Understanding the Challenges report cites Barcelona as one of the world’s smartest cities. The Spanish metropolis has adopted innovative solutions for energy savings, connectivity and urban mobility. Technological innovation has led to the creation of new jobs, significant savings in water management and the implementation of a new, more efficient way of operating car parks. It’s no coincidence that Barcelona is one of the European cities that Volkswagen Group has been working with to shape a genuinely sustainable form of urban transport.
Milan: Italy’s leading smart city
ICity Rank, the annual ranking compiled by FORUM PA, crowns Milan the leading smart city in Italy, with Florence and Bologna in second and third place. The report measures the progress of Italian cities on innovation, sustainability and quality of life and bases its analysis on six criteria:
- economic strength: the ability of cities to recognise and manage changes in the economy, creating new opportunities for employment and innovation;
- sustainable mobility: the ability to reshape urban mobility using new forms of eco-friendly transport;
- environmental conservation: a city’s use of solutions to protect the earth and its air quality; the protection and expansion of its green areas, energy savings, and appropriate management of water supplies and waste;
- quality of social life: the ability to improve living standards through public services, cultural activities and the management of tourist numbers;
- governance: a measure that looks at how involved citizens are, digital innovation in local government, and safety and law standards;
- digital transformation: the ability to employ new technologies and take advantage of innovative solutions.
Milan comes out on top for its economic strength, sustainable mobility, quality of social life and digital transformation. One fifth of the Italian innovative start-ups are located in the city, which also boasts the largest concentration of entrepreneurial and economic activities. Milan can also claim to have the best local transport system and the most widespread use of car sharing (24.3 vehicles per 10,000 inhabitants).
Bologna takes top spot for its governance, is second for digital transformation and economic strength, and third for its conservation of the environment. It is sixth when it comes to sustainable mobility. It excels however in infrastructure maintenance: the city dealt with 2,700 reported issues and carried out 1,900 repairs between 2014 and 2019.
Italy’s future prospects
In December 2019 Italy’s National Research Council (CNR) and the National UrbanPlanning Institute signed a framework agreement aimed at boosting the collaboration between the two organizations by creating opportunities for discussion, development and greater exploration of research into the development and spread of new city information technologies, design and urban planning.
The agreement is one of the outcomes of the CNR’s Urban Intelligence strategic project, included in the 2018-2020 Three-Year Plan. This lays out the “expansion of the Smart City concept with the creation of ‘digital twins’,” - in other words, virtual replicas of cities capable of predicting their evolution and testing the effectiveness of innovative solutions.
In terms of mobility, Italy is open to implementing global trends and taking inspiration from how other countries operate. Zero emission vehicles will replace those running on fossil fuels, self-driving cars will transform how people get around in their spare time, and the sophisticated use of data will change how mobility services are conceived, designed and made available to customers.