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Smart sustainable cities

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Smart Cities


Challenges and solutions

Smart sustainable cities depend on telecommunication infrastructure that is stable, secure, reliable and interoperable to support an enormous volume of ICT-based applications and services.

Recent developments in the domains of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), digital twin, robotics, and smart grids and meters are driving and supporting the development of smart sustainable cities around the world.

IoT—referring to the network of rapidly growing computing devices with built-in sensors and software to connect with each other and share data—enables billions of devices and objects equipped with smart sensors to connect with each other, collect real-time information and send this data, via wireless communication, to centralized control systems. These, in turn, manage traffic, reduce energy usage, and improve a wide range of urban operations and services.

AI allows extremely large data sets to be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, which are used to inform and enhance municipal decision-making.

Smart grids—referring to electricity supply networks that use digital communication technology to detect and react to local changes in usage—help to optimize energy use in cities. Smart meters and sensors, equipped with Internet Protocol addresses, can communicate information about the end-users´ energy use to the energy supplier, giving end-users more control over their consumption.

Digital twin – leverage virtual and augmented reality to facilitate smart city planning, predictive maintenance of urban services, real-time monitoring, decision-making and optimization of emerging technologies such as AI, IoT and others, across different sectors.

Robotics – involves the use of robots and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in cities to help support the delivery of services in areas such as transportation, healthcare, surveillance, manufacturing, construction, etc.

While 3G and 4G networks used by mobile phones today pose a number of problems in supporting the range of services required for smart sustainable cities, the roll out of 5G (fifth-generation mobile technologies) in many countries has the potential to connect many more devices to the Internet, transport data much more quickly and process a high volume of data with minimal delays.

ITU’s contribution to smart sustainable cities

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) supports technical studies and continual engagement between governments, industry, and other stakeholders to improve the reliability, security, and interoperability of urban ICT infrastructure. At the same time, ITU promotes the use of ICTs to reduce the energy consumption, enhance services, and improve quality of life for city dwellers.

Setting standards

ITU and its members within ITU-T Study Group 20, which is dedicated to IoT, smart cities and communities, have been developing international standards that establish technical criteria, processes, and practices to enable the coordinated development of IoT technologies for smart sustainable cities. Most recently, the study group has been working on topics including AI, blockchain, machine-to-machine communication and Big Data aspects of IoT.

ITU-T Study Group 20 is developing standards on digital inclusion in smart cities, next generation urban assessments, maturity model for digital supply chains, digital transformation in smart cities, crowdsourcing for urban infrastructure monitoring, smart fire protection, smart buildings, data middle-platform in IoT, among others.

From 2017-2019, the ITU Focus Group on Data Processing and Management to support IoT and Smart Cities & Communities developed technical specifications and reports to allow the IoT ecosystem to be fully inclusive, interoperable and capable of making full use of the data generated by the devices feeding into the system. This work aimed to mitigate the risk of data ´silos´ emerging in different industry sectors.

In October 2021, ITU-T Study Group 20 established the Focus Group on “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) for Digital Agriculture" (FG-AI4A),which will examine the potential of AI, IoT and other emerging technologies for supporting data collation, improving agriculture systems modelling, and fostering effective communication for the optimization of agricultural production processes. These activities of FG-AI4A will be conducted in close collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to underscore the existing gaps in current standardization terrain on digital agriculture.

ITU has also recently developed standards ensuring the security of networks in urban areas. ITU standards for 5G systems is also helping make smart sustainable cities a reality. ITU standards outline how smart grids can help build more controllable and efficient energy systems. 

Global collaboration and advocacy

The ITU, together with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and UN-HABITAT coordinate the global platform "United for Smart Sustainable Cities " (U4SSC) to advocate for public policy and to encourage the use of ICTs to facilitate and ease the transition to smart sustainable cities. The platform is supported by 14 other United Nations bodies. The U4SSC has developed a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) for smart sustainable cities, allowing cities to set goals, collect data and measure progress in five major areas: the use of ICTs; physical infrastructure; social inclusion and equity of access to services; quality of life; and environmental sustainability. More than 50 cities worldwide, including Bizerte, Dubai, Daegu, Kairouan, Maldonado, Manizales, Montevideo, Moscow, Pully, Rimini, Singapore, Valencia and Wuxi, are already implementing these KPIs.

The integration of emerging technologies to support smart city transformations is vital. U4SSC has been exploring the adoption of various advanced technologies including blockchain, machine-learning, digital twin, AI and have launched a series of reports ​on these themes.

Through its Thematic Groups, the U4SSC has also been developing reports and guidelines on a variety of other topics including solutions for integrated smart city platforms, innovative solutions for smart cities, principles for AI implementation in cities along with procurement guidelines for the establishment of smart cities. Realizing the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on smart city transitions, U4SSC is also examining use-cases relating to driving economic recovery to boost urban resilience.

Since 2021, ITU has been organizing a series of webinars on "Digital transformation for cities and communities" which will continue in 2022. ​

Making Rural Communities Smarter and more Sustainable

The Smart Villages and Islands approach promoted by ITU-D involves a new design and implementation framework that is demand-driven, user-centric, flexible, and is focused on sustainability, scalability, and multi-sector collaboration. In particular, it emphasizes reusability of the same solutions for simultaneous contribution to different user needs through the establishment of a single integrated platform that can provide a range of services in different sectors leveraging a few interoperable infrastructure elements, thereby significantly reducing the cost.

The transformation of remote rural villages and islands into smart villages and islands will improve quality of life by providing connectivity and new ICT-enabled services to the local communities while also promoting interoperability, cooperation, and new services.

Initially piloted in Niger, similar solutions are not developed in a range of other countries, including in the Pacific region. By implementing and promoting Smart Villages and Smart Island projects, ITU seeks to deliver connectivity and an integrated suite of scalable and sustainable services to disadvantaged island communities that leverages interoperability and​ multi-functionality of ICT infrastructure. 

Below are just a few examples showing how ICTs are helping to build smart sustainable cities:

Last update: December 2021