By Marine Faber from the Buildings Performance Institute Europe – BPIE

By 2050, more than 6 billion people will live in cities. The urban population now outnumbers the rural one for the first time in human history.

As it appears, cities are facing the same broad range of issues and challenges. High dependency on fossil fuels, high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, pollutants from cars, buildings and industry creating smog, all require urgent action. Some questions arise continuously: what to do with the urban sprawl? How to accommodate and feed people in cities? How to maintain a balance with nature? Cities see opportunities to meet these challenges, becoming even more productive and efficient, becoming “smart”. Acting at the city level appearing easier, mayors are seen as key players in the process.


Developed as a marketing concept by IBM in 2004, the “smart city” is now more than ever a challenge to meet. What exactly are “smart” cities? Are they sustainable? Digital? Well, they are both and more. Using efficiently their resources thanks to innovative approaches, they have a holistic vision combining smart governance and people with smart mobility, environment, economy and living (Boyd Cohen model1). It seems these cities have got it all: they attract more funding, businesses, residents and tourists.

A smart city thinks and acts collectively, is coherent (liveable, workable and sustainable), sober (in terms of energy consumption and GHG emissions), digitally connected and puts the focus on humans. But technology is not just what makes a city “smart”. There is more.

Smart cities are able to understand their citizens and communicate with them. Citizens become consumers and producers of everyday information (through apps and social networks). Being part of the planning dialogue, they can for instance support mapping, spot and report potholes or broken street lights (with innovative apps such as FixMyStreet or Tripzoom for informed travel decisions). This data can then be brought to the policy discussions. Besides, if citizens are not involved, they will do so themselves. There are many examples developed at the community level: websites to report problems, cycle lines being painted on the pavement, people gathering in the Let’s do it2 movement to clean their streets… Social media and crowdsourcing are paving the way to public engagement and therefore to change.

Initiatives are being replicated to change the thinking that cities should be designed around cars. Resources are made more accessible: vertical farming / urban gardening, multimodal (shared) transport and digital participation are some examples. More than half of GHG emissions in cities come from buildings, making them a key area to work on to deliver an immediate and impactful change. Reconverting and refurbishing old or abandoned buildings, as well as the construction of positive or net zero energy buildings are the cornerstone of a sustainable city. There is a need to improve the way buildings are designed and monitored, as well as a need to enable active participation in their management through smart metering for instance.

In Europe, most cities are already built and have to find solutions to maintain their development whilst minimising impacts. European mayors exchange knowledge and gather public and private players in a coordinated effort. Exemplary cities (or communities) are developing roadmaps setting out possible actions that respond to the challenges that cities of the future face: job security, health, GHG decrease and mobility. The same cities are usually highlighted: Vienna, London, Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen (the European Green Capital 2014, it aspires to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025). But other cities are doing great and have demonstrated high innovation capacities.

The Spanish cities Valladolid and Palencia have developed an interurban brand, Smart City VyP3, to market their ambition and projects. The objectives are: an increased cooperation and international visibility, improved service quality and citizens satisfaction, innovation and secured sustainability. Working groups were created (Energy and Environment, Mobility, Citizens and eAdministration) leading to the emergence of specific projects. The Mercado del Val rehabilitation aims at showcasing existing technologies available to make commercial spaces less energy demanding and GHG emitting. This renovation is part of CommONEnergy4, a European project investigating the integration of innovative technologies into three shopping centres in Spain, Norway and Italy.

“The collaboration among both municipalities with CARTIF as technical secretary has allowed the development of other innovative proposals to renovate residential urban spaces and buildings, testing project pilots “video-to-video” for the provision of services to citizens and the use of ICT to optimise the energy usage of public spaces.5”, say Ana
Quijano from CARTIF and Teresa Redondo from the Valladolid’s City Hall.


Cities are uniting to be stronger. More than 40 European cities have signed the Green Digital Charter committing them to work with other cities on ICT and energy efficiency. This initiative launched in 2009 allows them to learn from one another and share information. Another alliance representing more than a thousand cities, Energy Cities, recently asked the EU Council President for binding 2030 targets for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

“The Energy Cities network strongly believes in a multi-level and multi-stakeholder approach to manage the necessary energy transition. To this regards, the Covenant of Mayors’ governance model6 has proven successful. Smart cities are not only using their local resources, be they human, financial or technological, in a clever way. They also need to be smartly supported”, says Claire Roumet, Deputy Executive Director of Energy Cities.

In the US, cities are no exception to this collaborative approach. A recent project developed by the Institute for Market Transformation (BPIE’s US partner) and the Natural Resources Defence Council will engage cities in a multi-year effort to promote efficient building operations and transparency about their energy consumption, as well as encourage private investment and city leadership. The City Energy Project7 has selected cities with diverse characteristics and sizes willing to act fast to demonstrate that any city can be bold. Energy efficiency will be expanded in large existing structures with results such as lowered energy bills, local jobs support and environmental impacts reduction. One full-time advisor per city will help create plans specific to each city’s needs.

“The City Energy Project will ramp up energy efficiency initiatives in 10 cities around the US,” said Cliff Majersik, executive director of IMT. “Each city will work hand in hand with its local business community to find approaches that are not just bold, but also pragmatic, and tailored to the local market. Having more information on the energy performance of their building stock will make these cities smarter—so they are able to target their resources and work in a more strategic way”.

Cities have tools to reinvent themselves. They can group themselves (such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group or the Covenant of Mayors, networks of cities taking actions to reduce their GHG emissions), they can count on industries consortia and initiatives (Vivapolis,, Veolia) and on media to provide them with information on products, solutions and best practices (, the Sustainable City Network, The
Big City, The Sustainable Cities Collective).

But for all these to work, one must highlight the importance of the reaction and adaptation speed. The technologies are available. They need to be applied, multiplied and, above all, training and support must be developed. You may give a thousand tools to citizens, but if they don’t know how to make use of them efficiently the action is doomed.

There are several aspects to focus on in the coming years. Cities are growing as more space to work and live is needed. City planners must build a sustainable and resilient metropolis and put citizens at the core of the process. But maybe the smart part must come from policies. Leadership challenges are indeed seen as a key barrier to smart cities, together with financing. “Smart” cities need “smart” politicians acting differently and courageously to make change happen.