The Three Pillars of Sustainability and Your Smart City Project

By Smart Cities Team

Industry Trends


This post defines a repeatable, scalable and economically sensible path forward for cities and projects of all sizes by examining the three pillars of sustainability.

The 2005 World Summit on Social Development identified sustainable development goals, such as economic development, social development and environmental protection. This view has been expressed as an illustration using three overlapping ellipses indicating that the three pillars of sustainability are not mutually exclusive and can be mutually reinforcing. In fact, the three pillars are interdependent, and in the long run none can exist without the others. The three pillars have served as a common ground for numerous sustainability standards and certification systems in recent years.

The Venn Diagram of the Three Pillars of Sustainability

Venn diagram of sustainable development (image above)

As you can see from the image above, sustainability includes:

1. The Preservation of Environmental Resources

2. The Enhancement of Societal Goals – also known as ‘quality of life” or "safety" and,

3. Economic Viability – since none of these goals can be accomplished without a sound, robust economic plan.

Notice too that these are akin to a vision statement, without much specificity. Thus it is incumbent upon you as the project creator to document multiple, measurable parameters for each of the pillars above. Later these will be used to rank, and ultimately approve or reject any proposed requirements.

In practice, as approaches to achieving any goal is envisioned and discussed, practical processes must be implemented. This includes a comprehensive investigation of each stakeholder community. By an examination of the user needs of individual members of each stakeholder community, common well-supported user needs can and should be developed. As this process progresses, it is also critically important to remember that these needs should be solicited and documented over the entire life cycle of the proposed project – from envisioning, design, testing and implementation to post-install operations, maintenance and eventual retirement. This process is effectively managed through use of the Systems Engineering Process as described in this article from earlier this year: The Top 12 Reasons to use the Systems Engineering Process for Your Smart City Project

Thus, a truly compelling business case supports:

All three pillars of sustainability – economic, societal and environmental.

Some such compelling solutions that address sustainability do quickly come to mind, like HPS to LED street lighting conversations and development of a high speed communications backbone in order to drive economic development. Others like informational kiosk deployments are quickly gaining traction, so are financial innovations like public-private partnerships (P3s) and as-a-service subscription models. The Smart Cities Council is a great source for insight into compelling applications. The SCC website also lists a number of sustainable initiatives that can be easily undertaken.

Support all stakeholder-generated consensus-based user needs

In order to address the needs of the stakeholders, it’s implicit that you must investigate what exact problems or “needs” you are attempting to address. This typically is accomplished through outreach to stakeholders at face-to-face group meetings, one-on-one interviews or phone and email queries. Once a substantial amount of needs are collected from all stakeholder communities, then the project manager can refine the list to those which have a consensus across multiple individuals and groups.

It's important to support the full system life cycle. Needs should be sourced for all phases of the project – from project conception to project retirement. In subsequent steps, each need should be connected to a dependent measurable functional requirement. Confirming this connection or “traceability” ensures that each need has a requirement, and that no requirements have been created without an underlying user need. It also allows quick creation of a test plan in order to confirm this traceability. Many of you will recognize the Vee model in the graphic below, which is a great aid in building these compelling solutions.

The VEE Model of the Systems Engineering Process

The Systems Engineering Vee Model (image above)

So how do you get there?

You do need to take a deep dive into the stakeholder communities in order to extract and document consensus-based user needs. Outreach must be planned and implemented so that the correct questions are asked, and insight obtained from all relevant users.

Once you have documented consensus-based User Needs and you've refined the dependent Functional Requirements, you can apply a sustainability screening matrix that only selects User Needs that satisfy the sustainability parameters you've defined.

Adhering to this process greatly increased the likelihood of delivery of a financially feasible, sustainable Smart City project. 

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