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Sustainable development of smart cities: a systematic review of the literature


This paper aims to analyse scientific studies focusing on both environmental sustainability and smart city concepts to understand the relationship between these two. In order to do so the study identifies information about researchers, models, frameworks and tools focused on the chosen themes. This research uses a qualitative methodology, through a systematic review of the literature, which examines the terms, ‘smart city’ and ‘sustainability’, aimed at sustainable development of smart cities. For this, three databases were used: Scopus, Science Direct, and Emerald Insight. This paper provides detailed information on the most recent scientific articles focusing on smart cities and sustainability issues. The paper can serve as a basis for researchers seeking background information for further investigations. The findings provide invaluable insights for scholars researching on the subject, and public managers considering applying those into practice in their cities.


Since the mid-twentieth century, numerous environmental, social and economic crises on a global scale have significantly affected our societies (Yigitcanlar and Lee 2014). Especially during the last two decades, metropolitan areas around the world have been engaged in initiatives to improve urban infrastructure and services, aiming at a better environment, social and economic conditions, improving the attractiveness and competitiveness of cities (Lee et al. 2008; Jong et al. 2015). These efforts brought up the concept of intelligent cities (Komninos 2002) that is the predecessor of smart cities (Yigitcanlar 2015). According to Deakin and Al Waer (2012) and Townsend (2013), smart cities arise due to the intelligent use of digital information, for example in the areas such as human health, mobility, energy use, education, knowledge transfer and urban governance.

Sustainability and sustainable urban development concepts generates awareness of the production and use of resources required for residential, industrial, transportation, commercial or recreational processes (Yigitcanlar et al. 2007; Pietrosemoli and Monroy 2013; Goonetilleke et al. 2014; Yigitcanlar and Kamruzzaman 2014, 2015). Sustainable urban development corroborates, aiming at environmental awareness in the use of natural resources in smart cities (Dizdaroglu and Yigitcanlar 2014; Yigitcanlar and Teriman 2015; Komninos 2016). Yigitcanlar and Dizdaroglu (2015) focus on the concept of ecological cities in their research. This concept has been developed and promoted since 1970 as part of the sustainable development agenda.

This paper provides a systematic review of the literature selected from three databases: Emerald Insight, Science Direct, and Scopus. The keywords used for the selection include: ‘smart city’ and ‘sustainability’ terms. The paper seeks to address the following overall research questions: What is the relationship between the concepts of sustainable urban development and smart cities? In order to explore this issue we also looked into the following secondary research questions: (a) Which articles do involve both the terms smart city and environmental sustainability? (b) What information are provided in these articles? (c) What kind of models, frameworks or tools do these articles present?

Sustainable urban development and smart city

The concept of smart city is relatively new and can be seen as a successor of information city, digital city and sustainable city (Yigitcanlar 2006). However it has been used frequently, especially after 2013, when it exceeded a frequency of citations of other terms including sustainable city (Yigitcanlar 2006). However it has been used frequently, especially after 2013, when it exceeded a frequency of citations of other terms including sustainable city (Jong et al. 2015; Yigitcanlar 2016). Despite the discussion about its concept in recent years, there is a lack of consensus on what a smart city is (Angelidou 2015; Hortz 2016). Although a number of authors have the difficulty of conceptualisation, these definitions are not contradictory but partially overlapping (Scheel and Rivera 2013; Cocchia 2014). In general, however, it is understood that smart cities make use of information and communication technology (ICT) extensively to help cities to build their competitive advantages (Yigitcanlar and Baum 2008; Caragliu et al. 2011), or that it is a conceptual model where urban development is achieved through the use of human, collective and technological capital (Angelidou 2014). The term smart city is, therefore, an umbrella concept that contains a number of sub-themes such as smart urbanism, smart economy, sustainable and smart environment, smart technology, smart energy, smart mobility, smart health, and so on (Gudes et al. 2010; Cocchia 2014; Lara et al. 2016).

In their literature review, Caragliu et al. (2011) conceptualise smart city with the following main characteristics: (a) An enhanced administrative and economic efficiency that enables the development of culture and society by utilising networked infrastructures; (b) An underlying emphasis on business oriented urban development; (c) A strong focus on the goal of realising the social inclusion of different kinds of urban residents in public services; (d) An emphasis on the significant role of high-tech and creative industries in long-term growth; (e) A perspective to pay close attention to the function of social and relational capital in city development, and; (f) A vision to take social and environmental sustainability as an important aspect of smart city development. Some authors also point to the necessary ingredients for the composition of a smart city, such as: smart economy, smart mobility, smart environment, smart people, smart living and smart governance (Lazaroiu and Roscia 2012; Lee et al. 2014; Jong et al. 2015). Additionally, the concept of smart city goes beyond the definitions of information cities, digital cities, and intelligent cities, because it contextualises technology to be used in favour of systems and services for people (Jong et al. 2015).

The evaluation of a smart city, as discussed by Marsal-Llacuna et al. (2015) should consider past experiences of environmentally friendly and liveable cities, encompassing sustainability and quality of life, in addition, of course, the composition of technological factors. Lazaroiu and Roscia (2012) state that it should represent a technological community, interconnected, sustainable, comfortable, attractive, and secure. In order to understand how it works in practice, smart cities make use of city data for traffic management, energy consumption statistics, security, and optimising the operation of municipal services (Harrison et al. 2010). This new reality is encouraging the increase of new suppliers to the smart city market niche, using technological resources for the management of urban services (Carvalho and Campos 2013; Angelidou 2015).

Schaffers et al. (2011), later on emphasised by Kramers et al. (2014), point out that to have a smart city is necessary: (a) Create a rich environment of broadband networks that support digital applications, and; (b) Initiate large-scale participatory innovation processes for the creation of applications. Some cities that have appropriated the concept of smart cities have applied themselves to enjoy their benefits so that the needs of the city are met. Barcelona defines smart city as a high-tech intensive and advanced city that connects people, information and city elements using new technologies in order to create sustainable greener city, competitive and innovative commerce and an increased life quality, while the city of Amsterdam addresses the issue as an innovative technology and is willing to change people’s energy-related behaviour to tackle climate challenges (Lee et al. 2014). In the case of Doha, smart city practice is more of an interaction of urban technologies and knowledge economy activities (Conventz et al. 2015); whereas in the case of Brisbane, the practice is to integrate smart technologies into good urban and space design practices (Pancholi et al. 2015).

Nam and Pardo (2011) divide smart city into three dimensions: (a) Technology (hardware and software infrastructures); (b) Population (creativity, diversity and education) and; (c) Institutions (governance and policy). In view of this, investments in technology, population and institutions aiming at the concept of smart city generate sustainable development and quality of life, promoting responsible management of natural resources and allowing institutions to contribute with innovation and better services for citizens, strengthening the debates and political participation (Caragliu et al. 2011).

When studying cities, to better understand the term sustainability, one must take into account the meaning of sustainable urban development (Dizdaroglu and Yigitcanlar 2016). This, in turn, can be seen as a process of change in which resource exploitation, investment direction, technological development and institutional change are consistent with present and future needs (WCED 1987). The term sustainable city as a concept became popular in the 1990s (Roy 2009) denoting the relationship between economic, social and environmental sustainability aspects from a combination of indicators of each of these components (Ahvenniemi et al. 2017). Although the current vision is to address these three issues to talk about sustainable cities, certain authors focus on one of only three. This is the case of Meadows (1999), who propose the inclusion of indicators such as pollution, waste generation and consumption of water and energy, unlike Rode and Burdett (2011), who direct efforts towards an interpretation More socioeconomic, such as social equity and a greener environment (Jong et al. 2015).

Considering all these aspects, Hiremath et al. (2013) define sustainable urban development as achieving a balance between the development of the urban areas and protection of the environment with an eye to equity in income, employment, shelter, basic services, social infrastructure and transportation in the urban areas. The spread of interest in smart cities and adjacent concepts is linked to a number of factors, including: most of the world’s population living in cities, climate change, scarcity of natural resources, globalisation, and increased competition. With this, cities need to offer improved and customisable services for people (Angelidou 2015). According to Dhingra and Chattopadhyay (2016), a smart and sustainable city has goals to be achieved in an adaptable, reliable, scalable, accessible and resilient way, such as:

■ Improve quality of life of its citizens;

■ Ensure economic growth with better employment opportunities;

■ Improve well-being of its citizens by ensuring access to social and community services;

■ Establish an environmentally responsible and sustainable approach to development;

■ Ensure efficient service delivery of basic services and infrastructure such as public transportation, water supply and drainage, telecommunication and other utilities;

■ Ability to address climate change and environmental issues, and;

■ Provide an effective regulatory and local governance mechanism ensuring equitable policies.

It is observed that, when it comes to the environmental issues of smart cities, the discussion is more political in nature, considering international resolutions and innovative solutions to combat complex urban challenges. According to the same author, there are four attributes of the smart and sustainable cities: (a) Sustainability; (b) Quality of life; (c) Urban aspects, and; (d) Intelligence. These are analysed under four main themes: (a) Society; (b) Economy; (c) Environment, and; (d) Governance (Carrillo et al. 2014; Kondepudi 2014). These themes are also presented by Yigitcanlar and Velibeyoglu (2008) and Yigitcanlar and Lönnqvist (2013) on their works on knowledge-based urban development, which is another concept that relates to the development of smart cities. A similar concept, smart-eco city, proposes that the city should be ecologically healthy, using advanced technologies and having economically productive and environmentally efficient industries, have a responsible and harmonious systematic culture, a physically aesthetic and functionally living landscape (Yigitcanlar and Lee 2014).


The literature review is the basis for scientific writing. It is in the review that the researcher becomes familiar with the texts, identifies the eminent authors who have been writing on the topic (Ferenhof and Fernandes 2016). We have adopted a systematic analysis approach (Jesson et al. 2011) for the literature review. The systematic review searched for articles in three major databases: Emerald Insight, Science Direct, and Scopus. The search terms used were ‘smart city’ and ‘sustainability’. EndNote software was used to assist in data compilation. As a result of the search, we obtain:

■ 19 documents from the Scopus database;

■ 49 documents from the Emerald database, and;

■ 629 documents from the Science Direct database.

After verifying documents in duplicate, we got 630 articles. Of these, 353 were fully available on electronic format. Next, we evaluated the titles and key words to choose which documents dealt with the two terms ‘smart city’ and ‘sustainability’, and we selected 97 documents to be read. After reading the abstracts, we have 47 documents to read in full. After the reading these articles, considering which of them provided information about frameworks, models or tools adopted in smart cities in line with green sustainability, 25 documents were selected for the final analysis.


This section discusses the results of selected 25 journal articles. The discussion includes similarities in the research, differences and bibliometric information of the research, such as main authors, keywords, journals in which the researches are published in, time scale, models, frameworks or tools. Table 1 lists the reviewed articles selected and their aims.

Table 1 Reviewed literature

Similarities and differences between reviewed literature

Out of 25 articles reviewed, 11 of them contained information about models, frameworks and tools. Articles 7, 8, 17, 18 and 20 (see Table 1) provide information and discussions on concepts such as eco-city, sustainable urbanism, eco-towns, and smart city/smart cities. Another five of them, those with the numbers of 11, 12, 16, 19 and 21 present results of bibliometric analysis and/or systematic review. Three of them, articles 3, 15 and 18, present analyses of solutions in green economy and smart cities, article number 6 uses mathematical models to build statistics to monitor smart cities, and article 23 provide detailed guidelines for cities.

Models, frameworks and tools

A total of 11 articles presented research on models, frameworks or tools developed with smart cities and green sustainability in mind. None of the articles presented the same model, framework or tool. Table 2 briefly presents occurrences and a summary of each article.

Table 2 Models, frameworks and tools

It is important to point out that five of the models, frameworks and tools of 11 in total use ICT. These are:

■ Korea city model, u-eco-city:

Analytical framework;

Model for computing smart city indices;

Intelligenter method, and;

Holistic system dynamics methodological framework.

Six of them come up with hints of indicators or categories that can be used in smart cities.

■ Model for computing smart city indices:

Conceptual framework;

Eco-city model;

Elite cities tool;

Framework for the evaluation of low-carbon city, and;

3Es framework (efficiency, economy, and effectiveness).

The model for computing smart city indices is the only one that uses both ICT and the indexes for smart cities.

Authors and research locality

Reviewed papers involved a total of 70 authors, with only three of them appearing in at least two papers. These two authors are: Mei-Chih Hu (China), Maria-Lluïsa Marsal-Llacuna (Spain), and Tan Yigitcanlar (Australia). The total number of country of origin of the authors was 18 countries. Table 3 lists the names of countries that were repeated more than once.

Table 3 List of country of origin of authors


Figure 1 below shows a cloud of tags with the keywords quoted in the selected articles.

Fig. 1

Cloud of Tags


Reviewed 25 articles were published in 15 journals. Table 4 displays the journals that had more than two articles published.

Table 4 Journals with high quantity of articles

Year of publication

We analysed the information of the reviewed articles and verified that the publication year of the articles. The articles were published between 2012 and 2017 (the analysis conducted in February 2017), and in the year 2015 there were the largest number of publications on the subject, a total of 10 articles. Looking at the publication years of the documents, we have identified that the ‘smart city and sustainability’ topic has become popular only during the last 5 years. Figure 2 shows the timeline of the publications.

Fig. 2

Timeline of publications

Discussion and conclusion

Environmental externalities mainly generated from population increase, rapid urbanization, high private motor vehicle dependency, deregulated industrialization, and mass livestock production have placed serious concerns for the future of our wellbeing, and even our existence in the long run. Realization of the fact that urgent measures must be taken to combat environmental externalities responsibly, effectively, and efficiently have resulted in the rediscovery of the need for more eco-friendly practices. Subsequently, during the last few decades, sustainability and sustainable development have become popular topics not only for scholars, particularly in the fields of environmental economics, technology and science, urban planning, development, and management, but also for urban policy makers and professional practitioners (Yigitcanlar et al. 2015). The emergence of these new concepts starting from early 1970s is an outcome of the response to the growing concerns about the impacts of development practices on the state of the environment (Yigitcanlar and Kamruzzaman 2015).

Over the past decade smart urban technologies, as part of the smart and sustainable city agenda, have begun to blanket our cities with an aim of forming the backbone of a large and intelligent infrastructure. Along with this development, dissemination of the sustainability ideology has had a significant imprint on the planning and development of our cities. Today, the smart city concept is viewed as a vision, manifesto or promise aiming to constitute the twenty-first century’s sustainable and ideal city form. In other words, smart city is an efficient, technologically advanced, green and socially inclusive city (Vanolo 2014). This is to say, smart city applications place a particular technology focus at the forefront of generating solutions for ecological, societal, economic, and management challenges (Yigitcanlar 2016).

This paper presented a theoretical basis on the concepts of smart city and sustainability through a thorough review of the literature. It generated some insight for to understand the relationship between the concepts of sustainable urban development and smart cities. The challenge of making cities more attractive to people brings the need for clarity in terms and concepts, unfortunately it is not the case with smart cities—although it is seen as a city that uses technology to generate environmental gains and sustainable outcomes (Baum et al. 2004). On the other hand, different than smart cities sustainable cities refer to the commitment to sustainable urban development. Moreover, despite their promise to deliver sustainable outcomes with the aid of advanced technology, smart cities are heavily criticised as being just a buzz phrase that has outlived their usefulness (Kunzmann 2014; Shelton et al. 2014; Yigitcanlar 2016). The provocation of this paper is, therefore, whether smart cities concept and practice can bring sustainability to our cities. The paper points out the need for prospective studies in answering this critical issue, where the review provided here could be a stepping stone for future studies.


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The authors thank the Editor-in-Chief of the journal for the invitation. The constructive comments of anonymous referees are also greatly appreciated.

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This paper represents a result of collegial teamwork. The authors designed the research jointly. The first two authors conducted the literature review and prepared the first draft of the manuscript. The last author finalised the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Tan Yigitcanlar.

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The authors wish to acknowledge financial and/or in-kind contributions of the Federal University of Santa Catarina, and DGIST R&D Program of the Ministry of Science, ICT & Future Planning of Korea (14-IT) in supporting the research reported in this paper.

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Trindade, E.P., Hinnig, M.P.F., da Costa, E.M. et al. Sustainable development of smart cities: a systematic review of the literature. J. open innov. 3, 11 (2017).

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  • Smart city
  • Smart community
  • Sustainable city
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Sustainable urban development