SDGs, Digital Tools and Smart Cities

Mar 2019 | No Comment

The article addresses the insight of relations of SDGs, digital tools and smart cities, particularly, the imperative instruments of implementing SDGs in smart cities beyond digital tools

Dr Zhixuan (Jenny) Yanga

School of Investment and Construction Management, Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, China

Prof Abbas Rajabifard

Department of Infrastructure Engineering, The University of Melbourne, Australia

SDGs in data revolution

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the global strategy with the focuses of 17 global issues, covering the hunger and poverty, life and prosperity, work and living conditions, social justice and partnership, environment and industry in the face of uncertainties regarding economic, social, environmental and political challenges by 2030 [26,27]. Apart from Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), SDGs specially highlight the adoption of data instrument and digital tools in the implementation framework, thus SDGs are as called the global strategy of “data revolution” towards sustainability [12]. In addition, the SDGs point out actions at city levels directly in G8, G9, G11 and G12 and etc., fulfilling the sustainable challenges in cities, which is the other ‘revolution’ at city levels. Therefore, the two ‘revolutions’ open the action agenda of smart enablement of cities towards SDGs, particularly, with emphasis of the digital facilitation. In another word, the ICTs as well as the digital tool become the strategic instrumental enablers towards SDGs in smart cities’ development.

Among the 17 SDGs, G1-no poverty, G2- zero hunger, G3-good health and wellbeing, G4-quality education, G5-gender equality, G6-clean water and sanitation, G7-affordable and clean energy, G8- decent work and economic growth, G9- industry, innovation and infrastructure, G10-reduced inequalities, G11-sustainable cities and communities, G12-responsible consumption and production, G13- climate action, G14-life below water, G15-life on land, G16-peace, justice and strong institutions, and G17-partnerships for the goals, G8, G9, G11 and G12 are specifically important in cities, which forms a layer in the middle to support the fundamental layer and higher targets. Therefore, implementing SDGs in cities are crucial regarding the realization of SDGs.

As for the momentum of “data revolution”, the overarching SDGs’ implementation framework is highlighted in G16 and G17, those are, G16 “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” and G17 “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development” [27]. The ICTs and digital tools are particularly crucial in the terms of SDGs’ implementation. As suggested by Risse, “SDGs have a strong focus on the means of implementation, including the targets of finance, capacity building, trade, policy, institutional coherence, multi-stakeholder partnerships, data, monitoring and accountability, as well as public governance and technology” [21].

Digital tools shaping cities

The SDGs emphasize the importance of technological support and digital infrastructure particularly to developing countries. For example, G9 highlights the facilitation of sustainable and resilient infrastructure in the support of domestic technology development to increase the access to information and communication technology by 2020 in the sub-targets 9.a, 9.b and 9.c. Digital tools are regarded as an innovative instrument to boost the knowledge and innovation economy, which is crucial to deliver the smart city discourse [2].

The advancement of technologies has a strong effect on the sustainable development of smart cities. The endowment of big data and digital tools meet with the challenges that smart cities face regarding socio-economic development as well as the quality of life [23]. The common understanding of the use of digital tools is to transmit information among stakeholders to form the core of the public-private-peoplepartnership ecosystem and agglomerate the advanced competitiveness of citizens and business to create addedvalue of current circumstances.

In addition, the digital tools provide the opportunities of sharing-economy. On the basis of knowledge of communities, data and tools provide the resources for citizens to ‘shape urban change’ in smart cities [11, 22]. The communication of information connects the social network, particularly, with the aid of Internet of Things (IoT), the data-based commodity and service in the smart cities provide social mobility, which minimizes the social cost but maximizes the economic benefit.

The concept of digital-driven life is tested in the living labs for the experiment and validation of future smart cities. The living labs assume the labs as digital platforms collaborating the participants and stakeholders who are also regarded as the major bodies involved in the business ecosystem. Normally, the stakeholders include citizens, organizations and local governments in the cities. The benefit of labs is the open access to the public information, data mobility, high-level of interactions, reshaping and operating the innovative social ecosystem [22]. The labs provide the information platform with the facilitation of digital tools, which self-involved and updates by the users. Therefore, the living labs are the user-driven information ecosystem. Users’ demand reshapes the cities enabled by digital tools, which is the popular concept in smart cities.

Smart cities, sustainable?

As the discussion of smart cities gets heated, the argument of the difference between smart city and sustainability is raised by practitioners as well as researchers. The common misunderstanding is that smart cities are sustainable. However, the smart cities can only be sustainable on conditions of holistic and integrated framework towards the goals of sustainability.

Currently, the overarching approaches of smart cities are focused on the technologydriven method (TDM) and human-driven method (HDM). The former regards that smart cities are networked places where deploying ICTs into each activity in the city would improve standards of living. It is further emphasized that the use of ICTs by communities will enable them to participate more fully in so-called knowledge societies [6]. However, ICTs alone would not contribute to achieving the desired improvements in living standards, and there exists a need for enhancing human capital and other forms of skill development among the citizenry [20]. The argument is that these dichotomies generate a critical knowledge gap because they suggest divergent hypotheses on what principles need to be considered when implementing strategies for enabling smart city development [19].

Margarita Angelidou also suggests that the smart and sustainable city landscape is extremely fragmented both on the policy and the technical levels. There is a host of unexplored opportunities toward smart sustainable development, many of which are still unknown [3]. Other proponents of smart cities emphasize the potential for promoting economic prosperity, ecological integrity and social equity which would advance the larger goal of urban sustainability [8].

To re-adjust the sustainable path of smart cities, researches during the period of 2017 and 2018 transit from the surface talk of the definition to the deeper insights of the truth of smart cities. For example, the paper was written by Maria Kaika strongly rejected the hypothesis of smart cities being sustainable and resilient [14]. “This relatively simplistic imaginary of the smart city has been roundly critiqued on a number of fronts, especially around the entangling of neoliberal ideologies with technocratic governance and the dystopian potential for mass surveillance” [9,10, 13, 15, 24, 25, 28].

In regard of making smart cities sustainable, the city development strategy should integrate ICTs and data infrastructure with the sustainability goals, generating the economic, social and environmental influences on long-lasting development without the consumption of resources of the next generations. There are several imperative instruments of smart cities beyond digital tools need to be addressed. Because cities are expected being “smart when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory governance” [4] .

Imperative instruments of smart cities towards SDGs

The inner goal of smart cities is to improve the living quality of people with the facilitation of digital solutions, such as ICT, big data, Internet of Things (IoT). The initiatives of smart cities are mostly encouraged by local governments in regard to ICT infrastructure development. Under such conditions, the fast effect of enhancement of digital living manners, such as mobile phone communication, broadband construction, online trade and service and etc. is duplicated preliminarily globally. However, the consideration of the accomplishment of smart cities is not directly linked to sustainability. There exists a vast gap in the ideology of both terminologies. Particularly, the experience of the implementation shows the smart city strategy cannot lead to sustainability if the emphasis only based on digital development. Thus, the recent researches show the doubts of simply linking the smart cities with sustainable cities. In the face of such a dilemma, a few types of research start to dig into the institutional instruments of smart cities beyond digital tools. Therefore, the updated understanding is that smart cities can achieve the SDGs on conditions of understanding the imperative instruments of smart cities beyond digital tools towards SDGs, for example, networked infrastructure, knowledgeable community and intelligent governance.

Networked infrastructure

The data infrastructure enabled by digital tools is the foundation of an integrated platform supporting users’ communication. The ICTs and IoTs are the special focus regarding the infrastructure. However, the separate data infrastructure is not well established regarding forming effective communications among stakeholders unless the well-connected infrastructure is set up. The networked infrastructure forms the foundation of informative society, which “improves economic and political efficiency and enables socio, cultural and urban development” [13].

The mobility of big data is vital regarding the establishment of networked infrastructure, which is enhanced by ICTs. With the advantage of data mobility, the provision of services and commodities become smart and convenient. Moreover, the interconnected infrastructure provides a sufficient channel to collaborate, stakeholders, particularly, the end users on the smart platform to communicate thoroughly of the needs and requirements.

The feedback can also be timely reflected the counterparts in the communication, so that the prompt response and adjustment are well functioned during the process, which enhances the resilient capacity of the networked group of people. Therefore, the networked infrastructure offers the network instrument, and wellfunctioning infrastructure to provide the opportunities for reshaping the communication process, enabling the communities’ inclusiveness and stimulating the resilience of infrastructure [7].

Knowledgeable community

Improving communities living is the core of making cities smart and sustainable, particularly, in the process of smart city development. As discussed by Hollands, “a smart city is a city that aims at connecting the physical, IT, social and business infrastructures in order to leverage the intelligence of the city’s community” [13].

The smart community is the end user and major benefit receiver, who is most likely to take the position of advocating smart cities. Without the support of a knowledgeable community, the smart city is merely a shell of technology and infrastructure. In that sense, the knowledgeable community is crucial in regard to implementing SDGs in smart cities.

However, recent practice in smart cities is not fully understood by local communities. There are several reasons in that regard. First, advanced digital tools are not close to communities’ lives excepts for smartphones. The data infrastructure is mostly developed for the working environment of business and government but not close to people’s daily lives. Second, the communities are not clear about the benefits that they can get through the tools and infrastructure. Therefore, the training and education processes through various channels are vital regarding delivering the information and technology to communities to make them knowledgeable. On the basis of networked infrastructure, the knowledgeable communities can form the communication capacity at their choices to function the social system towards a more sustainable way.

Intelligent governance

The data-driven revolution transforms the citizens’ living style as well as governance structure in a great manner through various aspects. First, the data-driven manner transforms the city growth to knowledgesharing and sharing-economy, involving communities into the decision process, which drives the decision smarter and closer to the end-needs. Second, the integration of disaggregated data improves the governments’ decision-making process [18], which enables governance structure towards a more intelligent gesture. Third, the open data provided by the public sectors creates the transparency of information, and ensure the accountability of counterparts in the connections, monitoring the right role of decision-makers and actors in the well-informed partnership. Governance needs to be intelligent to perceive the right timing for the proper decision, connecting both “top-down” and “bottom-up” communication process and integrating eight factors of good governance with the digital facilitation [30].

The governance structure is more important than ever before regarding shaping the growth path of smart cities. The ICTs change the traditional governmental process to the network governance interconnecting the dependent actors due to social relations on one governance platform [16, 29]. The intelligent governance structure adjusts itself to a flat manner forming the service ecosystem in cities, which is beneficial in regard of fast response and resilient governance [5].


On the discussion of relations of SDGs, digital tools and smart cities, the research sets the backgrounds of SDGs in data revolution and digital tools shaping cities, proposes the question about smart cities’ sustainability, and suggests the imperative instruments of smart cities towards SDGs. The general thought is that digital tools are crucial either for SDGs’ implementation or for smart cities’ development. However, the instruments beyond digital tools, such as, networked infrastructure, knowledgeable community and intelligent governance, are vital for the practical solutions at the smart city level, which is also important for the implementation of SDGs.


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