SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities: The future is inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

By Patricia Lee


Cities have long played an essential role in shaping the world. As centres of creativity, innovation and productivity, cities are strategic hubs where information and ideas are shared; the place where some of the most memorable humankind’s cultural, economic, political and social accomplishments have occurred.

Historically, these populous places have provided societies with centrality, diverse labour markets, networks and development. Economically, they are the financial centres shaping international markets and socially, they remain the heart of cultural diversity and innovation, where a mix of people with different backgrounds converge.

Inherently, cities have undergone fundamental changes and faced numerous challenges throughout time; increasing population, growing migration, accelerating urbanisation, limited resources and the threat of natural and human-made disasters being the most prevalent challenges. Moreover, the increasing impacts of climate change and social conflict are unleashing additional pressure on urban systems and the environment. Current urbanisation models are proving to be unsustainable due to the many adverse environmental and geophysical outcomes of urban overgrowth.

In the 21st Century, cities are recognising the need to focus on adopting more sustainable urban processes and functions while working towards building environmental, economic and social resilience. Air and water pollution, loss of natural habitats, the strain on water resources, higher demand for energy and rising greenhouse emissions are forcing cities to identify the most sustainable ways to achieve their social, economic and political goals. Thus, developing integrated urban policy plans and improving smart city governance across urban systems, institutions and actors has become a priority. Further, achieving smart environmental management and innovative urban governance with integrated solutions through an integrative framework that balances the patterns of human life and the built natural environment is crucial.

The purpose of this article is to highlight and discuss United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities”, which aims for smart urban planning and governance to foster the promotion of sustainable development. Firstly, the nature of cities and their place and future in an ever-changing world will be discussed. Secondly, the concept of smart cities and their new technology will be briefly analysed. Finally, the conclusion will address the need for an integrated framework and the construction of improved indicators and policies that effectively capture equitable universal sustainable development.

The cities of yesterday, today and tomorrow

It was more than 4,000 years ago in the early Bronze age when the urban revolution started. Back then, the first urban centres were located on trade routes, had diversified economies and societies and together formed a network based on culture, trade, growing infrastructure and economic stability.

History shows that our species have embraced and flourished city-living. Cities generate wealth and improve living standards bringing together people and jobs, accelerating economic growth. Two centuries ago, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. This has changed radically in the 21st Century with 55 percent of humanity living in urban areas, although this figure is expected to change (OWD, 2019). It is predicted that 68 per cent of the population will live in urban areas by 2050 (UN 2018).

Figure 1. “World population growth, 1700 – 2100”. Our World Data, 2019

Today, most of the world’s fastest-growing cities are located in Asia and Africa. In 28 countries or areas, more than 40 per cent of the urban population is concentrated in a single city of more than one million inhabitants (UN 2016). Hong Kong, Singapore and Al Kuwayt being the cities with the most concentration of urban population in modern times.

Cities are growing bigger, becoming metropolitan areas shaped and defined by big mega-regions known as megacities. The European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS), in their Global Trends to 2030 (2019), define Megacities as:

[…] a metropolitan area with a total population in excess of 10 million. It can be a single metropolitan area or two more metropolitan areas that converge. It is not very easy to define the outer limits and accurately estimate the population of megacities.

According to ESPAS (2019), the urban phenomenon of megacities was an innovation from the Western world that later inspired the growth of the East. In 1950 cities such as New York and Tokyo had populations of over 10 million; since, the human population has been growing at a startling rate and increasingly concentrating in urban areas. It is predicted that by 2030, 710 cities will have between 500,000 and 1 million inhabitants (UN, 2018).

However, the United Nations has released predictions showing that the world population has slowed, having a growth of over 1% per year (OWD, 2019). High mortality rates had controlled population growth in the past, and presently, low fertility rates are behind the slow-growing population. Considering the trend, in the future, the dynamics of population growth will depend on fertility rates rising or falling and the world’s own economic and social developments.

Cities create business opportunities, social transformation and are the engine of the global economy generating about 80% of the global GDP (UNDP, 2019). Thus, the consequences of unprecedented uncontrolled acceleration in population growth and increasing migration must not be underestimated.

With today’s population growth rate, urbanisation could add 2.5 billion people to the urban population by 2050 (UN, 2014). A larger population presents more significant challenges in the management and availability of essential public services such as transportation, fresh water supply, waste management, public health services and the mobility and integration of people. Moreover, the speed of urbanisation is resulting in unemployment and services insufficiency.

This new urban reality will have to be the subject to more strategic planning in order to face the challenges in terms of sustainable urban development. The potential of sustainable urban development, changing the future of emerging economies is boundless. Successful management of urban growth is important for developed countries; however, it is crucial for low-income countries facing challenges in housing, transportation, energy systems, infrastructure, unemployment and the lack of basic services for a growing population.

Sustainable development and more integrated policies could improve urban and rural areas, providing equality in the use of infrastructure and social services (UN, 2017; Larsson & Hanberger, 2015), Mensah & Casedevall, 2019). Envisioning sustainable cities is key to a more sustainable and inclusive future. Identifying the main development challenges becomes essential for cities who need to plan against future risks, becoming resilient and adapting to the demands of the future. The need to develop and enable greater technology, sustainable industrialisation, cleaner energy and waste management solutions is greater than ever.

Sustainable cities are smart cities

The world has become increasingly interconnected and technology-dependent. Achieving sustainability is becoming a reality with the support of modern information and communication technologies: the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

This technology efficiency is now being considered as an opportunity for cities to approach everyday activities more sustainably. The cities of the future will be very different from today not only in their demographic composition but, in their technological innovation and ecological configuration.

So, what exactly is a sustainable city?

The UN (2019) defines it as ‘a vision for the future, to provide a better quality of life and expanding the possibilities of well-being and prosperity for future generations.

Mori and Yamashita (2015) believe that a sustainable city can generate the maximum socio-economic benefits for its population while considering and respecting the environmental and equity limitations. In a sustainable city, the smart technology of materials, structures, systems and technologies is being used to improve transport, building, civil infrastructure, biomedicine, sport and leisure, power generation, oil, gas and petrochemicals as well as delivering an opportunity to connect the vast availability of data to physical and logical applications in all formats (Goddard et al. 1998).

Smart technology goes beyond offering more interaction and interconnectivity between consumer and smart devices – such as phones and appliances through network connectivity (Fernandez et al., 2018). It can speed up innovation, minimise environmental risks and increase the positive environmental impact of urbanisation requiring new kinds of cooperation and support from government and multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships.

For a ‘smart city’, the use of smart grids, data-driven public safety, intelligent transportation and traffic management are just the beginning of a future that looks to integrate and align sustainability and quality of life targets with technological investment and appropriate government capacities. Now more than ever, cities are investing in new technologies. In 2020, smart city spending initiatives total nearly $124 billion, with at least 80 cities investing over 100 million per year (Wray, 2020). Singapore and Tokyo remain top investors in smart technologies being the first and second-largest spenders in 2020 (HNS, 2020).

Smart cities are harnessing information, communication technology and data – which is the concept of the internet of things (IoT), allowing people to live in efficient, sustainable and safe communities built through smart planning focused in the efficiency and sustainability of structures (Ellsmoor, 2019). For example, introducing sustainability initiatives such as more community gardens, vertical greenery, green roofs or rainwater harvesting systems is increasing the functionality of cities and building numerous opportunities for business and society.

Figure 2. “Smart World” Infographic. Libelium, (2019).

There are multiple examples of how IoT can enable environmental sustainability. E-waste, for example. Managing the disposal of the millions of electronic devices discarded every year without proper disposal has been a complicated task for small and major cities. Yet, more and more companies are using AI and IoT whilst following the circular economy[1]principles to monitor hardware, refurbish and reuse discarded devices, adopting more sustainable practices.

Similarly, for agricultural sustainability practices, IoT and AI have allowed to monitor the crops and soil to maximise crop production. With a low impact on the environment, using smart devices and sensors to determine the growth, irrigation patterns, nutritional content and proper watering cycles of crops could potentially transform traditional agricultural practices (Joshi, 2019). Other examples using IoT and AI for sustainability include the monitoring of species protection and cleaner air and the maximisation of renewable energy technologies and water preservation.

However, over-relying on technology also has potential limitations and risks as cities become cyber-vulnerable. Effective regulations for the use of technology are still needed to ensure the safety of the digital and physical urban development, planning and infrastructure (UN Habitat, 2016).

Figure 3. “Smart solutions for smart cities”. Visual Capitalist, 2019.

Figure 4. “Game changers”. World Economic Forum, (2017).

Urban governance for greener cities

Urban governments face a new reality, the need for more decentralized and better allocation of services in an increasingly urban, populated and integrated world. The World Economic Forum (2017) has recommended governments to develop collaborative solutions with the private sector to invest and engage with new technologies to improve the management of basic services and economical activities while stressing that city-region strategies and "[…] transparent, adaptable and enforceable policies, regulations and standards” are of vital importance for the success of the sustainable cities of the future".

Figure 5. “Smart cities Infographic”. D. Bates, LLC 2016.

Similarly, the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2016) considers that better and stronger leadership is needed in order to develop a healthy cities approach and advocates for a more effective coordination of municipal governments in mapping epidemics, measure and estimate health impacts, monitor and evaluate impacts on health and the equality and development of improved health systems.

Cities have come a long way. They have survived numerous challenges, adapting to change throughout time. Nevertheless, new challenges ahead underline the urgency for the same society to develop and adopt measures aimed at addressing the environmental impacts of urbanisation. Balancing the complex interaction between the social and material processes resulting from urban density and environmental change will be the new challenging reality for the cities of tomorrow.


Preparing cities for the acceleration of urbanization is challenging. Cities are the hotspots for energy consumption and therefore, the transition to sustainable energy is a priority. Statistics show that securing the sustainability of our planet will depend greatly on developing smart and strategic solutions to the urban density challenge.

Working together, national and local governments can enable the legal frameworks and adequate resources in preparation for new sustainable technology innovations, design, planning and policy development. Supported by organizations, the private sector and civil society need to come together and invest, participate, collaborate and innovate for a sustainable future. Positive urban change is possible by developing mitigation and adaptation strategies through appropriate urban, territorial planning and design.

Building more resilient urban systems that can respond to natural hazards and human catastrophes, developing adaptive cities with optimized space and urban energy; enhancing systems to connect people and places.

Achieving inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities is certainly a balancing act that requires governments around the world to implement more integrated programs and solutions.

List of figures

Figure 1. “World population growth, 1700 – 2100”. Our World Data, 2019.

Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth

Figure 2. “Smart World” Infographic. Libelium, (2019).

Available from: http://www.libelium.com/libelium-smart-world-infographic-smart-cities-internet-of-things/

Figure 3. “Smart solutions for smart cities”. Visual Capitalist, 2019.

Available from: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/smartest-cities/

Figure 4. “Game changers”. World Economic Forum, (2017).

Available from: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/anatomy-smart-city/

Figure 5. “Smart cities Infographic”. D. Bates, LLC 2016.

Available from: https://austinstartups.com/the-secret-sauce-of-a-successful-smart-city-2b4967f70f71

[1]According to the United Nations International Development Organization (UNIDO), a circular economy “is a new way of creating value and ultimate prosperity.” The circular economy “works by extending product lifespan through improved design and servicing, and relocating waste from the end of the supply chain to the beginning – in effect, using resources more efficiently by using them over and over.”


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