The Smart City Charter and the missing link to climate resilience

Prof Dr Daniela Jacob, Climate Service Centre Germany, highlights the Smart City Charter and what it means for the future of cities

Cites are confronted with many challenges in relation to urbanisation, natural hazards, climate change and their interactions. Cities are not only contributing to climate change, they will also be affected by expected climate change impacts such as urban floods after heavy rain events or heat stress. The concentration of people, assets, critical infrastructure and economic activities exacerbates the potential of natural hazards and extreme weather events. This is why cities need to adapt on time to enhance protection. The relevance of mitigation and adaptation efforts is also highlighted in the Global Risks Report 2017. Four environmental risks – extreme weather events, natural disasters, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as man-made environmental disasters – were ranked both high-risk and high-likelihood, with extreme weather events emerging as the single most prominent global risk.

The Smart City Charter

At the same time, cities and regions all over the world are increasingly trying to become smarter, because smart cities are committed to sustainable and integrated urban developments to enable long-term economic growth. Recently the Smart City Charter has been presented and published by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) aiming to outline the standard model for a smart, future-oriented city. According to that, a smart city is – among others – climate-neutral, resource-efficient, responsive and sensitive. A missing point, however, is climate-resilience. The Smart City Charter is also intended as a basis for discussions on the future of cities in the digital age and aims to extend the public scope of these discussions. We herewith like to sensitise and highlight the need to broaden the view to risk perception and resilience as a whole by paying more attention to systemic risks regarding critical infrastructure.

Due to the fact that cities’ stability and prosperity rely on vast networks of infrastructure which provide essential services, urban critical infrastructure needs to be smarter, too. This will be reached in a way that they are more intelligent and interconnected in order to integrate multiple information, as well as new information and communication technologies to manage city’s assets. However, the interactions between interconnected critical infrastructure elements work smart in normal operation and everyday use. But, what happens to smartness during longer periods of dysfunctioning that are mostly not considered? Will smart city infrastructure elements still be smart and resilient when they are exposed to external shocks like natural disasters, climate change impacts, terrorist attacks or human failure? Or will smart cities finally be even more vulnerable due to their multiple dependencies?

Critical infrastructure element

In general, critical infrastructure describes assets that are essential to maintaining vital societal functions. Therefore, failures or functional impairments can have immediate and high impacts on several sectors as well as to the whole society. Furthermore, interactions between critical infrastructure elements – in particular in different sectors such as energy supply, communication, information technology, water supply, wastewater treatment, transportation, and emergency services – have become a growing phenomenon. Individual elements can be vulnerable against one or more impacts and can have the function of an interface that connects different infrastructure networks, enabling the transfer of disorders across multiple infrastructure sectors and elements.

Critical infrastructure is exposed to various kinds of threats. There are man-made or technical (terrorism, sabotage, software failures etc.) and natural threats. The latter differ from geological (mass movements, earthquakes etc.) to hydro-meteorological hazards (climate change impacts). Whereby in particular climate change induced extreme weather events have a high potential to act as a trigger for cascading effects. The effect generates a sequence of events in human subsystems that result in physical, social and/or economic disruption. Thus, an initial impact can trigger other incidents that lead to consequences with significant magnitude.

With respect to smart cities, the ongoing interlinking of infrastructure elements is leading both to opportunities for innovation, but also complex, specific and rather novel risks. Furthermore, the economic value of physical infrastructure networks in cities increases with its scope. For instance, regarding information and communication technology, the more people a network connects, the more useful it becomes. For supply infrastructures like energy and water, the connection of more people is in theory often expected to lead to more flexibility for the operation, a higher intrinsic resilience of the network and leverage necessary economies of scale.

However, as different infrastructure networks become more interdependent, there is also a growing – and currently often still underrated – scope for systemic failures to cascade across different networks and affect society in multiple ways.

As an example the relations and interactions between the water supply and energy sector show, that a malfunction within the energy supply chain – starting from the power production over distribution and transformation stations to power lines – can affect water supply in a broad sense. Pumps, control elements, water treatment and recently digital communication do not work without electricity. Finally, this leads to a breakdown of the water works. The outage of the water supply even considered separately has a further impact on other public facilities such as health care. With respect to waste water treatment, the missing water supply starts a second cascading step, because of the malfunction of sewerage system elements, like sewerage treatment plants, has a further impact on other public facilities too.

To reduce the vulnerability to climate impact, cities need to focus on the whole system including the complex interactions of non-climatic and climatic drivers, as well as all critical infrastructure elements. Local councils are key actors when it comes to the implementation of adaptation measures. Thereby, increasing a cities resilience to climate change impacts is highly context-specific, due to its geographical location, structure, institutions, inhabitants, available information and operational capability. Therefore there is a need to understand risks and resilience jointly by paying more attention to systemic risks regarding critical infrastructure and cascading effects.

As a result of new threads for digital-based infrastructure elements, it must be guaranteed that all sub-systems remain functional in case of disruptions. Technical – most suitable analogue – redundancies must be provided for the core components of the critical infrastructure.


World Economic Forum (2017): The Global Risks Report 2017, 12th Edition. ISBN: 978-1-944835-07-1

The report and an interactive data platform are available at

Bundesinstitut für Bau-, Stadt- und Raumforschung (BBSR) im

Bundesamt für Bauwesen und Raumordnung (BBR), Bonn [Hrsg,] (2017): Smart City Charta – Smart City Charter- Making digital transformation at the local level sustainable. ISBN 978-3-87994-204-6

Prof Dr Daniela Jacob

Climate Service Centre Germany (GERICS)

Please note: this is a commercial profile


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