Less talk, more action. Although the year 2050 seems far away, governments, businesses, and individuals are striving to reach ambitious net-zero emissions targets.
As natural resources become increasingly limited, cities have been forced to improve and minimize resource consumption, as well as lessen their influence on the environment. This is where smart cities come in: places where technology helps people by bridging the gap between sustainability targets and urban development strategies.
While most of the world has a lot of catching up to do, some cities are already on their way to meeting the needs of the present and future with the help of Internet of Things (IoT) technology. We set out to investigate which cities are using innovative technologies to both stay connected and be more sustainable. Our research reveals Copenhagen as the most sustainable smart city, followed by Oslo and Zurich.
The top 20 sustainable smart cities were determined based on each city’s ranking in:
You can learn more about the ranking criteria and get answers to some frequently asked questions about smart cities at the end of this article.
Catalonia is a pioneer in the use of smart city management solutions, providing investment opportunities for businesses that contribute to city intelligence and sustainability. Barcelona’s local government thus scores highly in its effort towards driving smart city development. The Local Council is embracing new technologies to tackle climate change, energy efficiency, and improve mobility infrastructure.
For example, the city currently has 20,000+ active sensors that capture temperature, air quality, and mobility data. Capturing the state of Barcelona in real-time, sensor data is analyzed and visualized in Sentilo (Spanish for “sensor”), the city’s open-source software platform.
Brisbane is one of Australia’s most sustainable cities. The vision of the city is a “smart, connected Brisbane”. The goal is to collaborate with citizens, businesses, and researchers to find new ways of living sustainably through the innovative use of data.
Through the Brisbane Smart Poles project, the city installed a variety of location-specific sensors and equipment. The sensors collect data on lighting, air quality, noise, and climate, which uncover how people use key areas in Brisbane. The city’s goals for 2030 are clean air, biodiversity, low carbon, green transportation, and waste reduction.
D.C. is committed to finding answers to the city's environmental sustainability and climate change issues, which has been the main driver of the city’s smart innovation projects. And these projects have made a real change. Since 2006, the District has reduced its citywide carbon footprint by 31%.
Washington D.C. innovation projects feature the D.C. Smart City Initiative, a joint project involving municipal departments, the federal government, universities, BIDs, the tech sector, and anyone interested in using IoT technology to make D.C. smarter. Other initiatives include Resilient D.C., Vision Zero, Sustainable D.C., and The Lab @ DC.
Taipei City’s ambitions are to become one of the world’s smartest cities. Initiatives include greener buildings, better transportation, cleaner energy, effective resource allocation, and more sustainable living. The city has gradually incorporated big data analysis, service integration, and real-time sensors into its operations, bridging the gap between urban and rural areas.
Thanks to their use of technology, Taipei has so far managed to reduce its carbon emissions by 25,000 tons, which has not only led to a more sustainable city, but has saved the local government NT$ 265 million (USD 9.5 million).
Hong Kong’s goal is to embrace innovation and technology in order to build a world-renowned smart city with a thriving economy and high living standards. They measure temperature, humidity, and air quality throughout the city and make the data available in publicly-accessible Smart Environment dashboards.
Hong Kong’s main initiatives started in 2015, when buildings accounted for 90% of the city’s electricity consumption. With the help of smart building technologies, waste management, pollution-monitoring sensors, and educational campaigns, Hong Kong has so far managed to:
Recognized as the 2011’s European Green Capital, Hamburg has an ambitious green agenda. The city’s strategy includes both greenifying old infrastructure and green urban planning of new buildings and neighbourhoods. Hamburg has so far committed €10 billion in green building construction (as a comparison benchmark, the public sector expenditures are €3 billion).
All new buildings in Hamburg are built with smart controls and low-energy heating, and old buildings and districts are being retrofitted with smart technology. Special attention is also paid to using technology to digitize mobility, health, and education.
Paris has always been ahead of the technological game with its sewer system, Haussmannian architecture, power infrastructure, subway, and public spaces. More recently, smart city projects like Vélib' bike sharing and Reinventing Paris have received international recognition and acclaim.
Paris uses connected devices and sensor technology (temperature, motion, cameras) to benchmark energy performance, detect infrastructure malfunctions, motivating citizens to decrease waste, resulting in significant energy savings at a city scale. The future of Paris is that of the "sharing city”, combining urban intelligence with a thriving metropolis, inclusivity, and technological innovation.
Named the Greenest City in the U.S. in 2011, San Francisco continues to lead the way in sustainability and innovation. The city integrates its ambitious sustainability goals with its cleantech, transportation, energy, waste, and built environment.
The strategic vision is to make San Francisco the IoT Capital of the World. They use sensors throughout the city to keep their people connected and inform them of the environment’s conditions so they can react accordingly. Based on the convenience of real-time information, San Francisco is changing the way it moves and houses its citizens.
Tying with San Francisco for the 12th place, Vancouver runs on over 90% sustainable energy and emits the fewest greenhouse gases per capita of any major North American city. Vancouver has been able to achieve results thanks to their use of real-time data and technology, which has increased connectivity, sustainability and convenience.
Smart city initiatives include accessible WiFi in 755 public spaces, wired bike sharing, electrical vehicle plug-in spots, and video feeds in busy intersections to smooth traffic. Vancouver’s green plan has been further developed due to mandates for green buildings, renewable energy, and sustainable mass transit.
Berlin aims to enhance the region's worldwide competitiveness as a smart city by increasing resource efficiency and carbon neutrality by 2050, and developing a demand for innovative applications.
The city supports local efforts, green start-ups, zero-waste dining, and packaging-free supermarkets, and has made a commitment to Zero Waste. Looking at the future, Berlin sees artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT), and Quantum Computing as the technologies with the highest potential in helping them in their intelligence journey.
The City of Munich is implementing cutting-edge smart city solutions in the Neuaubing-Westkreuz/Freiham district. The goal is to minimize fossil fuel by using innovative data-based technologies. The city plans to invest about 20 million euros on the district until the end of 2021, with 6.85 million euros coming from the European Union.
Earlier this year, Munich doubled down on its initiatives and launched a smart city innovation lab. Creatives, techies, and the local government will work together to come up with smart and sustainable solutions for a smarter Munich.
New York is a city to look up to when it comes to real sustainability initiatives. Regulations like the 2019 NYC Buildings Emissions Law, i.e. the Climate Mobilization Act, for example, which places carbon emission caps on buildings, materialize the city’s commitment to sustainability.
The city is prepared to lead the smart cities revolution, with 9,000 companies, $70 billion in total startup valuations each year, investments in climate technology, and 100+ accelerators, incubators, and co-working spaces.
Sydney has created a smart city strategy framework to capitalize on the possibilities created by digital disruption and prepare for the future. The framework forms the baseline for an ambitious project, Sustainable Sydney 2030, which sees the city as a flourishing, inclusive, and resilient place.
Sydney leverages technology and data and allows collaborative innovation across the local government, businesses, and its citizens. From July 2020, the City of Sydney began using 100% renewable power to satisfy its demands. This will reduce the city’s emissions by about 18,000 tonnes per year, comparable to the electricity use of 4,000 residents.
Amsterdam’s sustainability initiatives began in 2009 with the launch of the Amsterdam Smart City program. The program uses innovations in technology to achieve sustainable city goals. By 2025, the city plans to cut CO2 emissions by 40%.
Amsterdam is reducing its carbon footprint by focusing technological efforts on:
Singapore is set to become Asia's leader in smart and sustainable building solutions. Through the S$50 million (USD 37 million) Green Building Masterplan, it aims to make 80 percent of its buildings eco-friendly by 2030, making it the most ambitious objective of its type in the world. By the end of 2020, 43% of Singapore's buildings were “greened”.=
The Green Building Masterplan is part of the 80-80-80 initiative, which will also see Singapore:
Stockholm earned the World Smart City Award in 2019 after being placed second in the Sustainable City Index. The city is constantly innovating and testing smart sustainable solutions in both existing and new-built locations in collaboration with academia and private enterprises.
Stockholm’s goal is to become climate positive by 2040. To this end, they use smart technologies to measure and optimize for air and biogas, energy efficiency, heating & cooling, smart grids, water, and waste management.
London is a worldwide hub for CleanTech, GovTech, Digital Health, EdTech, and mobility-related technologies. It is one of the most interconnected cities in the world with one of the most technologically-advanced public transport systems, and the goal of the local government is to make it the world’s smartest city.
London is also Europe’s center of artificial intelligence and boasts the world’s biggest network of air quality sensors, with over 750 companies innovating with the city’s data – more than Paris and Berlin combined. In 2018, it also ranked 11th in the world for environmental sustainability, having over 3,000 parks and green areas.
In 2018, the city of Zurich put forth “Smart City Zurich” to fulfill future needs, stimulate innovation, and establish Zurich as a Smart City. Focus areas include integrated public transport, modernization of the city’s digital infrastructure, and “smart participation”, an initiative that encourages the involvement of businesses and citizens in creating Smart City Zurich.
The Swiss city has a smart building management system (heating, electricity, and cooling are all integrated and optimized) as well as a world-class public transportation system. The city is known for its fast-paced traffic and well-developed digital infrastructure.
In the Norwegian capital, more than 70% of cars purchased in 2020 were electric, with plans to abolish access to non-electric vehicles altogether by 2025. Oslo is expediting the transition to "zero emissions" cars by allowing them to use bus lanes and providing free parking and reduced tolls.
The city of Oslo (also home of Disruptive Technologies) says that any services that can be digitized will be digitized. Sustainable Smart City initiatives include:
Copenhagen tops this list as the smart city with the best strategy for utilizing technology to make the city greener and improve overall quality of life. The city makes clever use of wireless data from mobile devices, GPS in buses, and sensors in sewers and garbage cans to assess the state of the city in real time and make improvements to decrease traffic, air pollution, and CO2 emissions.
Copenhagen aspires to be the world's first carbon-neutral city by 2025, and Denmark is committed to becoming fossil-fuel-free by 2050. Over a third of all transportation fossil-fuel consumption has been removed through sustainable transportation alone, resulting in a reduction of 90,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
The ranking of the sustainable smart cities came as a result of equally weighing each city’s ranking across different global indexes, listed in the table below.
technological provisions of the city across five key areas: health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities and governance
Environmental, social, economic sustainability
Human capital, social cohesion, the economy, governance, the environment, mobility and transportation, urban planning, international projection, and technology
Energy transition towards renewables
Quality of living, political and social environment, economic environment, socio-cultural environment, medical and health considerations, schools & education, public services and transport, recreation, consumer goods, housing, natural environment
Kg of waste per population
Human Infrastructure: Soft and hard infrastructure to implement innovation (transport, universities, business, venture capital, office space, government, technology, etc.)
Networked Markets: Basic conditions and connections for innovation (location, tech, military, economies of related entities etc) - communication of innovation
Country ESG focus: government, social, environmental
Smart City Ecosystem
See this Google Sheet for a deep dive of the ranking criteria, a breakdown of how each country scored in each index, sources, and data.
A sustainable smart city is an innovative city that uses Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and other technological means to improve the quality of life, the efficiency of urban operations and services, and competitiveness, while also meeting the economic, social, environmental, and cultural needs of current and future generations.
The definition was established by UNECE and ITU via a multi-stakeholder approach including over 300 international experts.
A smart city is one that strives to become "smarter," meaning more sustainable, efficient, inclusive, and pleasant. A smart city's major objective is to improve its people’s quality of life. Because quality of life is closely linked to sustainability, most smart cities place sustainability as a secondary aim, alongside resource efficiency, and governance.
Smart cities have emerged as a potential solution to the environmental issues that have arisen as a result of increasing urbanization. They are deemed necessary for a long-term sustainable future. Smart Cities use smart systems and solutions to help with socioeconomic growth and also increase the overall quality of life. Cities, in general, offer tremendous opportunities for:
Smart cities gather and analyze data using Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as sensors, cameras, lights, and meters. These data are then used to enhance infrastructure, public utilities, and services. Along with other digital technologies, like Cloud Computing or Open Data, IoT helps connect different city stakeholders, improves citizen involvement, and offers new and enhanced services by providing real-time information on city operations.
Beyond obvious disparities in economic and digital capabilities, in some countries, a lack of research capability might obstruct the contextualization necessary for Smart City projects. Because developing nations lack their own policy institutions, they are forced to adopt policy frameworks established and tested in more developed countries, which is not always optimal to adopt under their own circumstances.
The real value of smart technologies lies in how they are used to improve people’s lives rather than how much of them are available. Smart cities use technological advancements and data analysis to their advantage, optimizing city functions, contributing to sustainability, and boosting economic growth, all while increasing people's quality of life.
People living in the world’s smartest cities are ranked among the happiest people on the planet, and it's easy to understand why. They infuse heart and soul into everyday living while committing to a sustainable life. The sustainable smart cities on this list are a by-product of the people’s love for technology and the planet.
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