Smart sustainable cities for all: A socio-spatial approach

Oct 2017 | No Comment

This article focuses on the potential contribution of a socio-spatial approach to smart sustainable cities in order to meet the objectives of sustainable development and smart cities for all communities in different locations

Maryam Rabiee

Visiting Research Associate at the Center for Spatial Data Infrastructures and Land Administration (CSDILA), University of Melbourne, Australia

Abbas Rajabifard

Director, Centre for Spatial Data Infrastructures and Land Administration (CSDILA), Melbourne School of Engineering, The University of Melbourne, Australia Chair, United Nations Global Geospatial Information Management (UNGGIM) Academic Network

The proposal of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations in 2015 and the prominence of smart city projects in an era of accelerating urbanization play a central role in the development of strategic plans of action to address global challenges in all communities. This article focuses on the potential contribution of a sociospatial approach to smart sustainable cities in order to meet the objectives of sustainable development and smart cities for all communities in different locations.

Interconnectivity of global challenges

Rapid and uneven urbanization is exacerbating inter and intra-city disparities across the world. Cities host more than half of the world population where the majority of fastest growing cities are located in Asia and Africa [1]. There has been a steady increase in the growth of urban populations in recent decades, which will continue to propel stakeholders to accelerate the development of infrastructures and services that comply with the needs pertinent to each city. The adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set forth by the United Nations (UN) in 2015 has presented an agenda that ambitiously intends to overcome environmental, economic, and social challenges in all nations by 2030. These global goals have emerged in a hyperconnected world in which people, information, and services are linked across different locations and sectors. This global network of communities has also intertwined the complexities of challenges that arise in different societies. Thus, economic, social, and environmental problems have embedded within them global attributes that affect the local circumstances in which they emerge.

Expanding the definition of ‘global’ to include all localities and populations, however, does not instinctively enact equal representation in decision-making, inclusive access to various resources for development, or endure productive and inclusive progress for everyone, everywhere. As the world becomes increasingly more connected, the divide between different cities, and their ability to meet economic, health, education, environmental, and other socioeconomic demands, is swelling. Global policy frameworks have yet to bridge the divide between developing and developed countries. Moreover, the prominence of the smart city discourse, as a key driver of urban development, has the potential to widen present divides if not examined critically. Therefore, the integration of developing cities in the rhetoric of the emerging universal movement towards a sustainable and smart future is a difficult task ahead of global actors. The aim of this article is to draw attention to the connectivity of various global challenges and assert the significance of a sociospatial approach in the development of inclusive smart and sustainable cities, which is based on ongoing research conducted by the authors in the area of sustainable development and smart cities.

The Smart-Sustainable nexus

An estimated 54.5 percent of the population of the world lived in urban settlements in 2016, while that number is expected to increase to 60 percent by 2030 [1]. It is the deployment of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and a revolution in city data that has accelerated the transformative power of urbanization and created a network of cities and citizens on local and global levels, and has paved the way for smart cities [2] as a viable solution to urban challenges. The notion of “smart city” has gained momentum over the past two decades and does not yet encompass a shared definition or a single conceptual framework. The definition of smart city ranges from the spatial-technical viewpoint of integrating ICTs in every aspect of a city [3], to a more socio-technical perspective that considers ICTs as tools that serve the citizens and their economic, social, and environmental requirements [4]. The variety of interpretations is conducive to the multiplicity of smart city priorities and applications determined by different locales. However, in the conceptualization of smart cities, the integration of alluring technologies should not usurp the smart city discourse in theory, or assume a onesize- fits-all model that can be exported from one location to another in practice.

The 2030 Agenda is also subject to different economic, environmental, and socio-cultural circumstances. The Agenda mentions that the SDGs are universally applicable to all Member States and take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development [5], and vows to leave no one behind. The 17 SDGs, 169 targets, and 232 indicators intend to achieve economic growth, social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and according to some scholars, good governance [6] and aim to put into action inclusive strategic planning everywhere to ensure that everyone benefit from the outcomes of sustainable development. Recognizing the universality of the SDGs framework and smart cities projects, and their overlapping components, suggests that there may be potential benefits in aligning smart city planning with the SDGs implementation process to increase the effect of progress and impact.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) have merged smart and sustainable aspects of a city to define a smart sustainable city as, “an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social and environmental aspects" [7]. In line with the proposed definition, Figure 1 demonstrates the relationship between the SDGs framework and the worldwide trend towards smart cities. In attempts to put the conceptual understanding of this notion into practice, the pressing question of how to ensure a smart sustainable future that is inclusive of all cities, and above all, developing cities, is a critical problem the global community has encountered. This article, therefore, takes a socio-spatial approach to smart sustainable cities to study the connection between social elements of development and the spatial elements of urbanization.

In the smart and sustainable transition of cities, spatial location is an urban feature that determines the development and efficiencies of its functions. While Goal 11 of the SDGs calls upon nations to overcome the urban challenges of building sustainable cities and communities, the problems associated with each of the remaining 16 SDGs are associated with spatial location and thus play a significant role in urban development. The spatial interpretation of social, economic, environmental, and governance challenges in the context of “smart cities for all” call attention to some of the socio-spatial dimensions of inclusive progress, such as spatial technologies and geospatial information across all levels of society, infrastructures that utilize a correlated language of conceptualization in their technical applications, and platforms capable of registering and sharing indicators that monitor and measure smart and sustainable progress.

Socio-spatial enablers

Understanding the variety of socio-spatial dimensions involved in the development of smart and sustainable solutions is subject to mobilizing a culture of change through informed citizen engagement, evidence-based policy making, efficient infrastructures, and effective methods of progress assessment. Data ecosystems play an integral role in mobilizing change and monitoring progress [5]. Spatial data, in particular, is required for a number of the SDGs indicators [8], and essential in the urban context. Therefore, linking together spatial enablement of urban populations, ontology-based infrastructures, and indicator registration platforms will have the potential to facilitate the development of solutions for a wide range of challenges. Figure 2 illustrates the potential relationship between three socio-spatial enablers that can direct the progress of smart city and SDGs initiatives towards inclusive and productive advancements.

Spatially Enabled Society (SES)

Geographic factors have different forms of impact on the socio-economic conditions of any population [6]. The empowerment of societies and involvement of more citizens in the development of smart sustainably cities can be made possible by spatially enabling societies, which can subsequently increase the representation of citizens, nations, and regions that have not received equal opportunities in development initiatives in the past. A spatially enabled society in which “location and spatial information are regarded as common goods made available to citizens and businesses to encourage creativity and product development” [9] detects the location of its members’ needs more effectively, increases accessibility to data and services, and is more inclusive of all levels of society. Incorporating advanced ICT applications that spatially enable urban populations is one of the fundamental elements that satisfy a city’s ‘smart’ requirements [10] and fosters shared, integrated, and analyzed spatial data in order to provide the basis for value-added services that support sustainable development [11]. Consequently, applying the concept of spatially enabled societies in practice accommodates a more people-centric approach to smart sustainable cities.

Ontology-based infrastructures

The globally connected network of smart sustainable city applications necessitates ontologies. Ontologies provide a correlated understanding of a concept, its limitations, and logical relations with other conceptual entities within a specific domain that is also machine-understandable. That is to say, “an ontology is a formal, explicit specification of a shared conceptualization [12]. In addressing global challenges, a shared understanding of concepts strengthens international cooperation in mobilizing resources and developing strategies to build smart sustainable cities. Ontologies can harmonize the concepts and terminologies used in the SDGs and facilitate the integration of infrastructures that are adaptable, scalable, and capable of operating in diverse settings. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is building a Sustainable Development Goals Interface Ontology (SDGIO) to investigate and provide a clear definition of terms used in the SDGs in a coherent manner to prevent ambiguity when using data and developing policies [13]. Ontologies broaden the scope of measurement and comparability to a global level, however, the effort to elucidate the meaning of SDGs terminology should not result in overlooking the locality and cultural context of SDGs concepts.

Indicator registry platform

Countries strive to improve the circumstances of the citizens and their progress is compared by national and global measures. Indicators are the means to evaluate the scale of a city’s sustainable and smart attainment and support the development of evidencebased policymaking and concrete actions plans. Evaluating the progress of the SDGs from a local to global scale can be achieved by developing an infrastructure as an enabling platform that plugs into heterogeneous datasets within different jurisdictions to work with an ecosystem of re-usable and shared set of usergenerated tools for the measurement, storage, comparison, and effective communication of its indicators for UN Member States. Further work is required to develop an infrastructure and a onestop platform that allows different levels of government to access a set of easy-touse interfaces to connect and harmonize their data and employ them for series of urban analytics in order to measure, compare, monitor, and communicate the SDGs indicators. The inability to monitor progress at local, national, regional, and global levels will increase the possibility of leaving behind populations that are continuously lagging behind.

Smart sustainable cities for all framework

The interconnected nature of smart sustainable cities and the confluence of local and global factors affirm the urgency of developing multi-sectorial initiatives for achieving smart and sustainable cities for all. The following framework (Figure 3) highlights the immediate prerequisites for operationalizing and progressing smart and sustainable initiatives by accommodating compatibility of various national systems within global agendas. This approach can impact the framework and drive towards a smart and sustainable world, in which the continuity of societies is contingent upon not only local knowledge and culturally specific infrastructures, but also the connectivity of challenges on a global scale. In this context, the Center for Spatial Data Infrastructures and Land Administration (CSDILA) at The University of Melbourne in collaboration with five other Australian Universities (The University of Melbourne (administering organization), The University of New South Wales, The University of Queensland, The University of Western Australia, University of Wollongong, and University of Canberra.) developed the Urban Analytics Data Infrastructure (UADI) to enable the integration, harmonization, connectivity and scalability of multi-source urban datasets. This digital infrastructure, is an ecosystem of tools and multi-sourced data that are designed to work together in spite of their semantic and syntactic heterogeneity to measure and monitor urban performance indicators. The capabilities of the infrastructure are predicated on the adoption of ISO standards, development of new ontological frameworks, and an urban data dictionary to enable semantic inferencing of datasets and the development of data structures and services. The UADI can underpin a decision-supportsystem in the process of building smart, productive, sustainable, and resilient cities.

Geospatial experts expressed the need for urban data infrastructures such as the UADI in the implementation of the SDGs at the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) Academic Network (http://unggim.academicnetwork. org/) Forum titled “Secure Land Rights and Smart Cities–Making It Work for Sustainable Development”, as part of the Seventh Session of the UN-GGIM held in August 2017 at the UN Headquarters in New York. The UADI received support for its ability to produce comparative and multi-dimensional analytics of data relevant to people, spatial location, and urban infrastructures, which increases the formation of plausible and context-specific implementations necessary for smart and sustainable cities. Most importantly, the integration of such platforms will encourage the global community to standardize measuring and monitoring progresses to be inclusive of all Member States in the evaluation process.


The ambitious attempt to build sustainable, smart, inclusive, and resilient cities is a multi-dimensional mission that consists of complex and intertwined challenges. Universal frameworks do not ensure that action towards achieving global goals will reach every population equally. Local, national, and global stakeholders must take advantage of the emerging and growing local-global network and strive to meet the SDGs and smart city objectives through a contextual lens. If universal frameworks and projects aim to uphold the “leaving no one behind” promise, future infrastructures, technologies, and policies must shift away from selective efforts and aid to encompass inclusive and multi-level mobilization that address social, economic, technical, spatial, and other dimensions of different problems. Incorporating the socio-spatial approach in smart sustainable cities will lead a course of action that engages different levels of societies, and their various capabilities, in overcoming urban challenges in future cities. Consolidating the position of local knowledge in the global context, employing technologies as tools to serve the people, and enhancing the harmonization, connectivity, and scalability of data are enablers that assist cities and citizens with the means to direct future developments. Therefore, the contribution of concepts and infrastructures that emerge from spatial research and innovation are fundamental to the multi-dimensional and all-inclusive progress of SDGs and smart city goals.


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