José Quádrio Alves

Sustainability and resilience are key concepts for future cities

When we start a discussion about what a future city should look like, two concepts often come up – sustainability and resilience. Sometimes these terms are confused; and other times they are oversimplified. So, I wanted to clarify their meaning and importance to future cities.


Sustainability frequently is simplified to mean environmental friendliness. But it is a lot more than having a few solar panel installations. As cited in W.M. Adams’ often referenced “The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century,” ideally, to be sustainable, a city should achieve a long-term balance between three dimensions: social, economic and environmental.

Three Dimensions of Sustainability

Three Dimensions of Sustainability

The Economic dimension represents the ability to ensure that future generations will have at least a similar level of welfare to the current generation. Striking the right balance between growth and debt is an important ingredient for economic sustainability.

The Social dimension involves providing an inclusive, safe environment that prevents the growth of poverty and social distress while cities grow and evolve for the future.

The Environmental dimension is about promoting healthy air, clean water and biodiversity by properly managing waste and making use of renewable resources.

But, of course, these three dimensions are interlinked. For example, a city might be economically sustainable by having a strong local economy, but if it is not environmentally sustainable, an imbalance with economic sustainability is at stake. This is because a polluted environment would present a challenge in attracting people to work in the city, or could even cause social instability. So, sustainability is about achieving equilibrium between these three dimensions.


Here’s where resilience comes into play. A number of disturbances can cause a city to lose its sustainability equilibrium. Examples include a natural disaster, economic crisis, or some kind of social unrest. Resilience is the capability of a city to respond to a disturbance by minimizing damage and recovering quickly.

So, sustainability and resilience are related but different concepts. We can imagine a city that has achieved long-term sustainability but struggles to recover from unexpected events; or a non-sustainable city that is able to recover quickly from a disturbance.

The role of technology

Technology is an important enabler in helping future cities to achieve both sustainability and resilience.

A good example is how Helsinki, Finland, is becoming a sustainable city by improving social care for elderly people and reducing fuel consumption in city buses, as depicted in this video, “Future Cities: The Journey of the City of Helsinki.

Another example is how Estonia is improving resilience in its cities and localities by building emergency management systems that can respond more quickly to save citizen lives. Read more about Estonia’s emergency response program.

This lends itself to an interesting discussion on the kind of key performance indicators that should be used in assessing a city’s sustainability and resilience levels. What do you think? Share your thoughts and I’ll provide mine in an upcoming blog entry.

Blog moderation guidelines and term of use