Massimiliano Claps
Max Claps (Research Director, IDC Government Insights)
Marta Munoz
Marta Munoz (Research Director, Technology for Sustainability and Social Impact Practice in Europe)

Environmental sustainability goals have driven cities digital innovation since the early days of smart cities programs. However, natural and man-made disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and currently the COVID-19 pandemic, have turned the attention of city executives towards resilience.

The Pendulum Swings: From Sustainability to Resilience

Mayors, city managers, and city innovation and technology executives started smart city programs to reduce energy consumption, GHG emissions, and improve water conservation. And rightly so, given that urban areas account for 60%-80% of global energy consumption and 70% of the world‘s greenhouse gases while occupying just 3% of its land.

But more recently, disasters caused by climate change, terrorist attacks, and, most of all, the current pandemic have made resilience a strategic priority for city executives.

The two concepts are tightly linked, but different. Resilience is the ability of a city to bounce back after a shock that requires everybody’s attention. Sustainability is about embracing a trajectory that leads to positive developments in the long term.

In essence, a shock-centric view of resilience speaks of the city’s ability to react when something sudden and bad occurs, such as COVID-19. Sustainability is about investing in long-lasting changes to city plans, services, and operations to address chronic stresses, such as water scarcity or income inequality, that jeopardize quality of life and economic growth in the long-term. And by doing so, it proactively reduces the risk of shocks.

So, by investing in sustainability, cities create the conditions for improved resilience to both shocks and stresses. For example, a city at risk of flooding and shoreline erosion could build redundant drain capacity that may absorb torrential rain (around 10% of the world population live in coastal areas that are less than 10 meters above sea level). It can invest in man-made dams that may increase short-term resilience to high tides and in water management systems that use AI and IoT to trigger alerts and generate actions when water levels rise above certain points. Or it can invest in sustainability by taking care of the wetlands that surround it. And it can convert concrete surfaces into porous turf that absorbs water runoffs.

What are Those Factors?

European cities that want to proactively bring sustainability and resilience together must consider four critical success factors:

Ecosystem collaboration

Cities must work across departments and with regional and national governments. They must collaborate with their ecosystem — utilities, transportation companies, real-estate and engineering companies, financial institutions, waste management contractors, and the broader business community. Collaboration must be leveraged to test and scale new business, funding, and service delivery models.

That is because cities are systems of systems. They are characterized by complex interdependencies. As a result, investing in sustainability requires taking a multifaceted approach.

The EU Green Deal provides a useful guide of how many interdependent perspectives city mayors and managers must consider when dealing with sustainability. For instance, a city that promotes usage of micro-mobility and public transport will not only reduce GHG emissions, but also free up parking space that can be converted into parks and urban farming. Or a city that invests in well-connected affordable housing will bring together safety, inclusion, green spaces, and economic development for the community.

European Green Deal
Source: European Commission - The European Green Deal

Technology innovation

Investing in technology innovation will help city executives accelerate the path to sustainability. The West Midlands Sustainability Roadmap 2030 includes investments in technologies, such as electric vehicles and 5G, to enable low carbon living.

Recent analysis by the World Economic Forum states that “Emerging construction technologies such as 3D printing, robot bricklayers, self-driving bulldozers – and solutions related to the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) that could bring down operational and maintenance costs” make affordable housing a reality in cities. Valencia‘s early investment in digital twin and data-driven decision making for sustainable water management helped ensure water resilience during the COVID-19 emergency.

Dutch cities’ iconic bike paths are being converted to recycled plastic surfaces. These roads can reduce carbon emissions caused by concrete, enable the re-use of plastic waste, increase the durability of paths, increase storm water absorption, and reduce the cost of installation because of the light modular material.

Community engagement

Engaging the community will make business and technology innovation meaningful, inclusive, and scalable. Not all technology and business model innovations work well in all contexts. Small communities are very different from metropolitan areas. And even within the same city there are socio-economic differences by neighborhood.

Cities should apply user-centric paradigms, such as socio-technical innovation and design thinking. These empower citizens and communities to embrace innovation, rather than imposing change from the top down.

For instance, Milan started to retrofit buildings with energy saving technologies to reduce the city carbon footprint and, in the process, increased citizen participation. Community engagement will be particularly important in encouraging local consumption and production, which is fundamental to the COVID-19 crisis recovery.

Policy and regulatory reforms

Rethinking regulatory frameworks will impact how cities and commercial enterprises prioritize sustainable solutions and operations and how citizens change their behavior. Some examples of these regulations are the forthcoming EU Green Deal and the EC COVID-19 recovery financial package.

Coordination between cities, regions, and national governments will be key. Spain, for example, recently unveiled an ambitious green energy bill that aims to draw 100% of the country’s electricity from renewables by 2050.

Resilience to short-term shocks must be combined with sustainability for long-term stresses. European cities that want to seize the COVID-19 recovery phase to bring the two together must collaborate with the ecosystem, innovate, ensure a clear regulatory framework, and most important of all engage with citizens.


To learn more take a look at IDC European Technology for Sustainability and Social Impact research or contact us.