In 2020, the United Nations Development Programme estimated that cities account for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and are facing natural disasters such as flooding and heat stress because of climate change. The proportion of the global population living in cities and towns is expected to rise from 54% in 2015 to 66% by 2050. To mitigate the environmental impacts of this urban migration and fight climate change, the concept of smart cities has become important.

There is still a lack of a universally agreed-upon definition of a smart city and many organisations have proposed different definitions. For example, the OECD has defined smart cities as the “initiatives or approaches that effectively leverage digitalisation to boost citizen well-being and deliver more efficient, sustainable and inclusive urban services and environments as part of a collaborative, multi-stakeholder process.” The International Telecommunication Union defined a smart city as “an innovative city that uses ICTs [information and communications technologies] 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.”

What are the elements of a smart city? The European Commission suggested a smart city should have smarter urban transport networks, upgraded water supply, environmentally friendly water disposal facilities and buildings with high energy efficiency. In Hong Kong, the Smart City Blueprint for Hong Kong (Blueprint 2.0) issued by the government in 2020 listed out more than 130 initiatives such as using remote sensing devices to monitor air pollution, implementing smart recycling systems, and installing LED lamps in public light systems.

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The importance of sustainable city development is seen in one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is working to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The SDGs were created in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and serve as the blueprint for countries to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

Many countries and cities are eager to develop smart cities to pursue sustainable development and to improve the life of citizens. For example, the South Korean government developed a smart city plan in 2019. The plan focuses on the sharing of government data and active interactions between citizens and government via e-platforms. Other developing countries are also working to build smart cities, such as Vietnam and India.

“All Vietnam’s efforts in smart city development are aimed at three fundamental goals which are sustainable urban environment, high-quality life for residents and a competitive economy,” said Tran Quoc Thai, director of the Department of Urban Development under the Ministry of Construction, according to the Hanoi Times.

In 2015, the Indian government announced a Smart Cities Mission (SCM) to build 100 smart cities in five years. According to the SCM, the main objective of the mission is to promote cities that provide core infrastructure, clean and sustainable environment and give a decent quality of life to citizens through the application of smart solutions.

The development of smart cities has been further supported via bilateral cooperation. These partnerships include the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Strategic Collaboration on Smart City Development between Singapore and China (Shenzhen). This MOU, which came into effect in 2020, listed out cooperation such as in digital connectivity, and technology collaboration. Moreover, Germany launched a project in 2018 to help three Indian cities to become sustainable smart cities. The German government aimed at using digital opportunities intelligently to create cities, which are good to live in and also allow people to achieve climate targets.

On the other hand, Amnesty International expressed concern about whether smart cities have been developed at the expense of people’s human rights including privacy and freedom of expression.  

It is believed that the development of smart cities could fight against climate change and could improve people’s quality of life with the use of advanced technologies. But at the same time, human rights must always be put at the centre of any development plans for smart cities. 

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