Day-to-day data from geospatial imagery can support sustainability assessment tools and indicators (photo: Kris Krüg).

Cities are the engine-rooms of both global economic development and environmental degradation, and are central in our visions for sustainable futures. By 2050 more than two-thirds of humanity will live in cities, generating the majority of economic activity, innovation and cultural advancement. At the same time, cities will create environmental pollutants, consume higher amounts of energy and increase our vulnerability to natural hazards. In short, the battle for sustainable development will be fought in cities. The significant role of cities is reflected across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and specifically in SDG 11, which aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

One of the most significant dimensions of the SDG agenda is the emphasis on developing objective targets and scientifically grounded indicators to monitor progress, implement strategies, allocate resources and increase the accountability of stakeholders. The United Nations has called for a ‘data revolution’ to collect high quality and robust data to ensure the monitoring of sustainable development. Towards this end, many sustainability researchers and practitioners have placed hope in leveraging big data innovations to meet the demands of SDG indicators. Big data innovations do not simply refer to a significant growth in volume, variety, velocity, and veracity of data; instead, they refer to how data is applied, and how new innovations are facilitated and diffused throughout society. The emergence of urban big data creates a unique opportunity to develop, experiment with, and advance sustainable development in cities.

Urban big data results from the increasing availability of the day-to-day data we generate in the urban environment. These include, for example, data associated with urban sensors, such as Internet of Things (IoTs); administrative records; individual- or household-level survey data; geospatial imagery; commercial information; citizen science projects and social media. This kind of data is critical for filling the gaps in existing sustainability assessment tools and indicators.

However, while there is no doubt that increasingly large amounts of urban data are being collected, how such data can be interpreted to address many of our sustainability challenges is less clear. Little wonder, then, that some see Big Data and related Smart Cities movements as technological fads, lacking any clear direction that could practically solve our most pressing sustainability problems.

Potential areas where urban big data may enrich sustainable transformations broadly relate to the ability to measure environmental flows and to environmental accounting, especially of what we consume and produce. This includes, for example, areas where we are able to link urban waste to urban food consumption through fertilization and sustainable industrial ecological supply chains. This overlaps with the philosophy of permaculture, where social design principles aim to proactively use natural cycles and patterns. By measuring the supply, demand, and transformation of environmental flows, we can better reduce, reuse, and recycle our waste at the urban level. Furthermore, we will be better able to redirect our urban waste for the fertilization of urban gardens. This, for example, includes green roofing using urban waste, which not only tackles urban heat island effects but also has other cascading benefits such as the reduction of storm water flows, cleaner air, and increasing urban environmental education through green urban playgrounds.

Other potential areas for urban big data lie in sustainable urban mobility. Radical new urban transportation resulting from new data analytics that encourage ride-sharing, route optimization, and on-demand vehicles can significantly clean up traffic congestion and result in lowering air and noise pollution levels.

To overcome the challenges of applying big data to urban sustainability challenges, policy makers should develop central institutions which process, govern, unify, and financially support critical urban data sets at the mayoral or local level.  While it is important to strengthen our social values for privacy vis-à-vis big-data, we also need to adapt our perceptions of privacy and ethics to new technologies. The emergence of urban big data demands a long-term vision for its governance which addresses the privacy and ethical dimensions of data without stemming the momentum of its innovative applications. Such local government-level institutions are also essential in formulating strategies and practices to support open data in a way that facilitates knowledge-sharing and allows more focused development. Open data is especially fruitful for grass-roots inclusion and democratic engagement of urban citizens in decision-making relating to the application of big data for urban sustainability challenges. Open data also decreases the risk associated with accessibility and affordability of these innovations, so that vulnerable citizens are not inadvertently disadvantaged or excluded.

The design, planning and adoption of innovations arising from urban big data may all too often defy rationalistic or top-down explanation. Instead, we should approach the emergence of urban big data through what the late Claudio Ciborra termed the lens of ‘hospitality’. Through this lens, we are able to extend courtesy to the unknown, and at times alien, new technological culture – in this case to urban big data – and are able to implement its advantages and better understand its disadvantages. This hospitality is best achieved in research institutions and universities, for whom the city is both a laboratory and a classroom.

Further reading

Ciborra, C. The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 2004.

Fluckiger, Y.; Seth, N. Sustainable Development Goals: SDG indicators need crowdsourcing. Nature 2016, 531, 448.

One Comment

  1. Krzysztof Wasniewski says: May 28, 2021 • 09:09:28

    I have very much the same thoughts. My dream is to see cities in my region - Central Europe - powered by a network of small, partly off-grid watermills. You can read more on my blog:


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