New article in ‘Science’ on smart, sustainable, and healthy cities

An article entitled ‘Meta-principles for developing smart, sustainable, and healthy cities’ (Ramaswami, Russell, Culligan, Sharma, & Kumar, 2016) appeared in the recent ‘Urban Planet’ special issue of Science. Since articles published in Science tend to both reflect and shape influential and cutting-edge trends in science, we thought we’d briefly summarize the article here, and invite comment from you. The article describes ‘five key dimensions of cities’: economic opportunity, urban form, social-infrastructural disparities and human well-being, transboundary infrastructure-environment dynamics, and cross-scale multi-sector governance. Based on these dimensions, the authors present ‘eight principles to focus attention on the systems-level decisions that society faces to transition toward a smart, sustainable, and healthy urban future’:

  1. Focus on providing and innovating basic infrastructure for all.
  2. Pursue dynamic multisector and multiscalar urban health improvements, with attention to inequities.
  3. Focus on urban form and multisector synergies for resource efficiency.
  4. Recognize diverse strategies for resource efficiency in different city types.
  5. Integrate high- and vernacular technologies. Cities should seek local knowledge and systems-level understanding of different solution configurations.
  6. Apply transboundary systems analysis to inform decisions about localized versus larger-scale infrastructure.
  7. Recognize coevolution of infrastructures and institutions. Matching the scale of engineered infrastructures with that of the institutions with which they must operate is key.
  8. Create capacity and transparent infrastructure governance across sectors and scales.

These principles are explained and justified using examples from the United States, China, and India. As usual in Science, the article is both well-written and highly compressed, conveying a lot of information in a short space. We invite you to read the article yourself (reference below; send us an email if you have trouble getting a copy), and share your thoughts. Some questions we thought worth pursuing are as follows:

  • The authors point out that ‘Many smart-city discussions focus on high technology, overlooking more basic, yet innovative, equitable solutions that are emerging, such as fit-for-purpose point-of-use household water treatment in Chinese cities, water “ATMs” in Indian cities, and prioritization to support non-motorized transportation in compact mixed-use urban neighborhoods.’ Do you feel that improving urban health requires ‘innovation’ or high-tech solutions, implementation of basic technologies such as water treatment and sanitation that have been known for decades or centuries, or some combination of innovation and tried-and-true solutions?


  • If existing interventions such as adequate water and sanitation or non-motorized transit are known to be effective, why aren’t they already being implemented everywhere they’re needed? More generally, what interests might prevent some or all of the eight principles from being implemented in different cities? That is, who benefits from the status quo?


  • The authors assert that ‘With the smart-city agenda requiring high-technology expertise, greater involvement of the private sector in infrastructure delivery is inevitable.’ Are public-private partnerships to promote ‘the smart-city agenda’ really inevitable? Are they desirable?


  • The authors emphasize that is important to ‘ask where all the information that enables a smart, sustainable, and healthy city will reside. Transparent and adaptive governance arrangements that are open to public input and scientific study will empower cities, and the world, to learn by doing.’ The question of who ‘owns’ and can be ’empowered’ by data about cities is an important one. Who has historically been able to use data about urban form, urban economies and urban health? What has it been used for? Has anyone been ‘disempowered’ by such data? What will relationships between urban data, power and equity look like in the era of ‘big data’ and collection of data on novel phenomena such as climate change?

Okay, we’re anxious to hear what you think about these questions, or any others the article raises for you!

Reference: Ramaswami, A., Russell, A. G., Culligan, P. J., Sharma, K. R., & Kumar, E. (2016). Meta-principles for developing smart, sustainable, and healthy cities. Science, 352(6288), 940–943.

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