Smart Cities – Behavior Change Towards Sustainability

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Cable car in Medellin

Smart Cities – Behavior Change Towards Sustainability

Category:Behavior Change,Environmental Psychology,Petra Hurtado,Smart Cities,Sustainable Cities Tags : 

Author: Petra Hurtado

What is a smart city? Usually when I raise this question, most people start talking about sensors, smart grids, cellphone apps, big data, and the internet of things. Obviously, Smart Cities have something to do with information and communication technologies (ICTs). The Smart Cities Council says: “A smart city uses information and communications technology to enhance its livability, workability and sustainability.”[1]

Smart Cities are the new paradigm when it comes to urban sustainability. They make sustainable urban solutions such as public transit, renewable energy systems, and resource-efficient buildings more attractive and efficient by adding ICTs. They enable us to track arrival times of trains, to regulate the temperature at home with our smart phones, and to balance supply and demand of renewable energy in smart grids.

However, Smart Cities and the use of ICTs in the field of urban planning and design have much more potential for creating even more sustainable solutions than what is currently expected. In this article, I will explain the factors that make cities sustainable and how ICTs can be used as a planning tool to make it happen.

What is a Smart City? (Chicago, IL 2015 © Petra Hurtado)

What is a Smart City? (Chicago, IL 2015 © Petra Hurtado)

For years and decades, we have been trying to reduce the environmental impact of cities by replacing existing technologies with the newest technological innovations that promised to be more sustainable.

When I traveled throughout the U.S. in 2011 in order to do research on sustainable urban planning, I was shocked when I saw the almost empty metro light rail in Phoenix that was built to spur urban development along its 20-mile corridor. A local urban planner told me due to the housing market crisis the expected urban development along the light rail corridor hadn’t happened and now the metro light rail was passing through empty neighborhoods. In addition, driving was still too attractive in Phoenix and no one saw an advantage in taking the train. Obviously, building public transit systems alone doesn’t guarantee people will use them and drive less.


Valley Metro in Phoenix

Building Public Transit Systems Doesn’t Guarantee People Will Use Them (Phoenix, AZ 2011 © Petra Hurtado)


The same applies to sustainable building design. I have been working for engineering firms nearly all of my professional life and even though many engineers come up with innovative solutions that promise to make buildings more resource-efficient, not every plan works out the way it was designed on paper. Some buildings that were calculated to achieve energy savings equivalent to a LEED Gold certification turned out to use more energy than conventional buildings. Designing an energy-efficient building doesn’t guarantee that the occupants will use less energy than in any other building.

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I realized planning a sustainable city is not just about installing new technologies and infrastructure systems. There is a gap between design and reality. Therefore, just the plain addition of ICTs to existing systems won’t make the Smart City the solution for urban sustainability.

The most important “component” of a city and the factor that can make a city more sustainable are the people who live in the city. If they don’t act according to how the planner, engineer, or architect envisioned it, the project won’t be successful.

So what is it that planners really have to do to create sustainable cities? Looking at the conventional planning approach that is based on the definition of a problem (e.g. driving from A to B and the related energy consumption) and aims at finding solutions for this particular problem (e.g. building a public transit line from A to B in order to use less energy) is not the right approach when you are dealing with people.[2]

People don’t drive cars just to drive (at least in most cases). They want to get from A to B to satisfy a specific need that can’t be satisfied in A. The need that shall be satisfied in B is the root cause of the problem. This root cause influences our decision and is not being addressed in the planning process at all.

Planning a city is designing the built environment of people who just want to live their everyday lives. Depending on how the city is designed, living our ordinary lives can be more or less sustainable.[3] “Almost everything we do requires energy of some sort. However, we would never ask for energy [per se].”[4] All that matters is the satisfaction of needs. And people will always satisfy their needs with the available options. The urban planner has to “understand those needs and satisfy them in more resource-efficient ways.”[5]

Therefore, sustainable urban planning should not focus on the problem per se, but on the root causes that created it in order to design a built environment that motivates and invites people to change their behavior towards more sustainability. The Colombian cities Bogotá and Medellin have been very successful in their fights against crime by following this approach. Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, created ”conditions for people to regulate each other’s behavior.’”[6] with his Cultura Ciudadana Program. And Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellin, focused his work on building schools and public spaces to fight inequality and violence. In both cities, the death tolls dropped tremendously. They knew the only possible way to solve their issues was to change the behavior of their citizens; not by law but by creating urban responsibility and by providing the appropriate urban design.


Cable car in Medellin

A Smart City Focuses On The Root Causes Of The Problem (Medellin, Colombia 2015 © Petra Hurtado)


The most difficult piece in this planning approach is to find out what the root causes of the problem are. Cities are a pretty anonymous crowd. I grew up in a small village in Austria where everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows what everyone is doing. The information about what people are doing and why they are doing it is out on the streets. This is not the case in big cities such as Paris, New York, or Bogotá. When I moved to Chicago, I lived in a high-rise building for three years and I never met my next-door neighbor. I had no idea who I was sharing a wall with.


Photo of Paris

Cities Are A Pretty Anonymous Crowd (Paris, France 2014 © Petra Hurtado)


Finding out the root causes of the behavior of an anonymous crowd is tough. And this problem brings me back to the topic of Smart Cities. Looking closer at the Smart Cities Council’s definition, which further says: “a smart city collects information about itself […], it communicates that data […], it […] analyzes that data to understand what’s happening now and what’s likely to happen next.”[7], it seems like Smart Cities are exactly what we need to bridge the gap between conventional urban planning and planning for behavior change.

ICTs are the tools that enable us to understand this anonymous crowd. They are the tools to detect the root cause of problems, analyze it, and figure out how to solve it. With ICTs, urban planners can analyze what is really happening in their cities, they can understand why people prefer the unsustainable means of transportation over the sustainable one or if the solution could be found somewhere else. ICTs make the community an interactive part within the planning process and allow them to actively engage in the discussion. Using ICTs as planning tools, people and their needs become the object of urban planning in a Smart City.

A Smart City shouldn’t just replace one piece of technology with another. It should analyze the root causes holistically, understand the particular needs, and give alternatives for how to satisfy them. The Smart City shouldn’t just come up with a better solution on how to solve a problem, it should solve the root cause of the problem.

The true Smart City uses ICTs as planning tools to directly communicate with and understand the needs of the people who live, work, and play in it. Therefore, I define a Smart City as a city where people automatically behave more sustainably as a result of the way the city has been planned and is being operated.


[1] Smart Cities Council: Readiness Guide

[2] Stieninger, P. (2013): Changing Human Behavior towards Energy Saving through Urban Planning. Creation of a new Planning Approach. Lessons learned from Europe and North America, LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing

[3] Stieninger, P. (2014): From Energy-Efficient Cities to Energy-Efficient People – The Five A’s Planning Approach; in: Landscape Architecture Frontiers 009, Volume 2, Issue 3, 2014.6

[4] Stieninger, P. (2016): Understanding the Occupant’s Behavior. in: Ahuja, A. et al. (2016): Integration of Nature and Technology for Smart Cities, Springer

[5] Stieninger, P. (2016): Understanding the Occupant’s Behavior. in: Ahuja, A. et al. (2016): Integration of Nature and Technology for Smart Cities, Springer.

[6] McGuirk, J. (2014): Radical Cities, Verso.

[7] Smart Cities Council: Readiness Guide