The digital solution to sustainability challenges

We are undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. At the turn of the 20th century, just 15 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. Now it’s over 50 per cent – and by 2050, it’s expected that 68 per cent of the world’s 9 billion people will be city-dwellers.

This ongoing rapid urbanization presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for towns and cities, and their inhabitants. With more than 80 per cent of global GDP generated in cities, increasing urban populations provide the potential for significant economic growth, innovation and development.

However, these benefits are not guaranteed. To harness the positive effects of a city’s growing population, there are many challenges, including resource depletion, rising pollution and overpopulation, that must be addressed. Here, authorities should look to standards to help cities meet their future potential.

The rapid flow of populations into urban areas puts pressure on local infrastructure, with governments being unable to provide services for everyone. Demand for housing increases, leading to overcrowding which puts a strain on already-stretched resources, such as energy and water.

Sanitation issues, including a lack of proper waste disposal methods, create multiple health hazards for citizens – as does air pollution caused by traffic congestion. The risk of environmental hazards, like flash flooding, also increases due to exposure to climate change, to which cities are inextricably linked: cities consume close to two- thirds of the world’s energy and emit more than 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

If urban planning is not implemented strategically, this threatens the progressive and sustainable growth that is vital to a city’s prosperity. Managing the distribution of limited natural resources, as well as managing healthcare, education, city infrastructure and urban mobility, is a major challenge that must be acknowledged and understood by cities.

This requires a clear vision and long-term planning, which is why the concept of the smart city is of increasing importance to city leaders and town planners. The smart city provides an effective solution to the challenges of current and future urban contexts, using digital technology and data to optimize city functions, drive economic growth, improve sustainability and enhance quality of life for citizens. Standards that help authorities to implement smart city concepts, such as PD 8100 and PAS 182, allow governing bodies and organizations to address issues at different levels and better serve the needs of their citizens.

In a smart city, individual city systems are highly integrated, not just within themselves but also with each other. This means they can seamlessly deliver the best for the local area, fully responsive to the needs of their citizens and businesses. What’s more, the smart city agenda isn’t only for major cities; it’s just as important for smaller cities and towns.

In Barcelona, the city’s parks use technology to remotely sense and control park irrigation and the water in public fountains. This program alone increased the city’s water conservation by 25 per cent, saving around €472,000 a year. Meanwhile, Copenhagen plans to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025, using smart city initiatives such as smart district heating and cooling grids.

Building cities that are smart and sustainable requires effective planning and strategic delivery. Different cities will have different visions, reflecting the needs and circumstances of their different populations. A standards-based approach helps citizens and leaders to adapt and innovate successfully.

Smart city standards provide city leadership with the tools needed to develop and deliver their own smart city strategies. For example, BSI’s ISO 37106 gives guidance on establishing a city’s unique strategy, putting the citizen at the centre and helping the city manage its digital assets in order to create effective services and deliver change. Meanwhile, ISO 37101 allows for the creation of specific sustainability strategies, through the provision of a management system that helps cities to prioritize their goals and actions.

As a result, standards can help eliminate risks, cut costs and make it easier for leaders to grow and manage towns and cities effectively, whilst also preparing for the challenges that lie ahead. Urbanization should be viewed as an opportunity to be taken advantage of, improving the lives of residents and helping urban centres to meet sustainable development goals. Utilizing standards will allow individuals and groups to lead the way, as their smart towns and cities become the benchmark of the future.