Smart Cities as a social-ecological Challenge

Helga Fassbinder

Contribution to the global roundtable : Smart cities are coming. Can they be as much about nature, health, and wellbeing as traffic flows, crime detection, and evermore efficient provision of utilities?


The term “smart city” is used by actors of the cities—political decision-makers, planners, administrations, companies, housing associations, etc.—in the mood for very different programs and objectives. One gets the impression that “smart” is a label which is often used only to “sell” any upcoming investment/measure, as it calls up the image of technological innovation and progress even if, in reality, the technological innovation is only marginal or its effects are questionable.

First of all, it’s about giving the concept of the smart city a definition.

We may agree that we live in times of global ecological crises, going further: in times of socio- ecological crises. By this I mean that we live in times of a multi-faceted crisis, which in many countries cause or at least intensify a social crisis by reaching or even exceeding the limits of ecological resilience.Thus, one can speak of a global social-ecological crisis. Migration flows and wars give expression to this.

That means as a consequence: if the renewal and transformation of our cities into smart cities is to have a forward-looking positive impact, then they must contribute to solving or at least mitigating these multiple socio-ecological crises rather than to exacerbate global negative ecological and social effects.

To further clarify the definition of “smart city” let’s add the following attributes: sustainable,

resource efficient, ecological, nature friendly, and socially acceptable.
But what do these attributes imply in the concrete? This raises the question: How far are we going with sustainability and resource-saving, etc.?

I propose to add, as a sort of “filter” for “smart city” measures in the above sense, by asking the following questions:

• Do these measures contribute to a more socially fair good life, without externalising associated costs, spatially and socially?

• Are the smart city measures contributing to a global social-ecological transformation?

Our current Western-style life is largely based on the spatial and social externalisation of the costs of its production: costs of production in so-called low-wage countries, exploitation of natural resources in such countries, export of our waste to such countries etc.This means that our good life is based on the misery of humans and the extermination of nature (mineral resources, biodiversity, water, nature’s ability to regenerate in general, etc.) in these countries.

For this fact the German political scientists Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen have coined the term “imperial mood of living”. A few months ago, they published a book on this subject, subtitled “The Exploitation of Man and Nature in Global Capitalism” (1) The publication has received great attention and recognition and has come on the bestseller list of the magazine “Der Spiegel”.

This great response is pleasing because it shows that many people are aware that their lifestyle is leading to overexploitation of nature and people in a global dimension. Reflecting this, they may also be aware that this “imperial mood of living” in the long run will destroy the very basis

of their own well-being: it accelerates climate change worldwide, it is destroying the basis of life of more and more people in these countries and depletes natural resources (e.g., rare earths) at a speed that makes their replacement by technological innovations very questionable.

What does that mean for the concept of the smart city? What does that mean for us, who are involved as experts in the planning and implementation of so-called “smart” measures?

First of all, any measure planned under the “smart city” label should be reviewed not only for its impact on climate and nature at the regional and national level, but it should also be checked as rigorously as possible with regard to the possible global externalisation of effects and costs.

Just a few examples:
This criteria brings into question many small measures currently being touted as “smart”. For instance when small human activities, easily carried out by hand, (e.g., to switch on a light) are unnecessarily are replaced by electronic triggers, and thus now require the consumption of, among other things, rare earths.

Even the conversion of individual vehicles to electric cars, a change now propagated in many countries, and touted as sustainable, comes into question.The decision to convert to electric cars results not only the premature replacement of fossil fuel-powered cars (and thus a destruction of value), justified with gains in energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions, but it also neglects to account for the resource consumption and carbon emissions made by the production of these new electric cars. It also does not take into account the consumption of raw materials for electric batteries, materials which perhaps do not even exist in sufficient quantities for the scale needed.What is the balance sheet?

In addition, the switch to electric vehicles also requires a new, large-scale infrastructure of charging stations, also associated with an increased consumption of resources, and rare earths.

I do not argue against electric cars in general. But for improving the flow of individual traffic, the more sustainable alternative, instead of subsidising each new electric car, is certainly to give priority to the development of the public transport network, and, for urban traffic and transport, to promote and support the use of human-powered forms of transport, such as bicycles, with safe bicycle lanes and safe parking.

On the opposite side, there are other “smart” measures which certainly do not or hardly have any negative externalised effects.This includes, for example, the comprehensive greening of buildings, urban farming, and urban gardening.These measures contribute to the strengthening of native biodiversity, they reduce summer temperatures, delay the outflow of water during prolonged heavy rain, and can support small-scale corporate structures in gardening and agriculture, with no or minimal externalisation of effects and costs.


The critical review of any as “smart” planned measure concerning their global spatial and social impacts, could lead, in the end, to a checklist of the social and ecological gains and deficits of “smart measures”. Such a checklist could help planners, critical public, and decision-makers to decide whether or not to carry out what one has in mind and, with regard to minimizing the effects of externalisation of costs, could help us look for better or best alternatives.

Such a checklist would contribute to an efficient social-ecological transformation that could modify and reduce the “imperial mood of life” by transforming our cities.

Viewing progress in times of smart cities

The discussion about smart cities raises an interesting question, namely the viewing ‘smart’ as progress.Throughout history progress had to struggle with limitations – in the first place with religious limitations, later with ethical problems. But now the ‘smart’ progress has to confront another kind of limitation: the physical limitations of nature and the resources of the earth.That means this kind of limitation gets a political dimension. It raises the question of responsibility for nature on a global scale, as an essential for us as humanity, and the responsibility for acceptable life conditions for all people on earth.

Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli have pointed out the selective reach of the smart new world.The upscale strata of the urban population benefits from this, their lives become ‘smoother’. Social inequality is thereby increased.Therefore one can doubt the significance of ‘smart’ as progress from a social and ethical point of view. On the other hand one could reply: technological progress always has been something for only the upper classes in the first place. They were the first to be connected to water pipes, the first to get central heating, and also on the urban scale they were the first who could afford the tram and the railway, later the car and then air travel. However, time after time these technological achievements have become more and more general, and as a result of the growing wealth of the nations an increasingly broader strata could use them.

But now there comes the new dimension of the limits of progress, certainly for a ‘smart’ progress with its need of rare earth resources : the increasing scarcity of those resources and the destruction of nature’s self-regeneration power.These problems no longer allow the prospect of ever-widening new smart achievements.They are already reaching the limits of what is feasible, and certainly will do so in their necessary quantity when extended to the use for all people on earth.

‘Smart’ as a progress model is therefore a different kettle of fish. It is no longer generally applicable or available. Its limitation is not ethical, it is physical.This raises a political question: it is about the distribution of globally limited resources. Unlike political issues of progress in the past, which were those of the distribution of national wealth, this time the problem of progress has attained a global and essential character.The question of applying smart technologies at the local level requires a global political sense of responsibility.


Brand, Ulrich/Wissen, Markus (2017):The Imperial Mode of Living. In: Spash, Clive (ed.): Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics: Nature and Society. London: Routledge, 152-161.

Brand, Ulrich/Wissen, Markus (2017): Social-Ecological Transformation. In: Noel Castree, Michael Goodchild,Weidong Liu,Audrey Kobayashi, Richard Marston, Douglas Richardson

Görg, Christoph/Brand, Ulrich (lead authors)/Haberl, Helmut/Hummel, Diana/Jahn,Thomas/Liehr, Stefan (2017): Challenges for Social-Ecological Transformations: Contributions from Social and Political Ecology. In: Sustainability 9(7), 1045; doi:10.3390/su9071045