BSRS Module 2: A relational approach to sustainable cities (Håvard Haarstad)

Introduction video:

Main objective

In this lecture we will discuss how and why cities are adopting sustainable policies. Many researchers are attributing part of this trend to learning between cities and to networks that cities are part of. In networks like Covenant of Mayors, C40, smart city networks, and other networks, planners and decision-makers are drawing inspiration from one another, mobilizing resources, and competing. There are also informal networks, where city planners visit “front-runner” cities, make study-tours, and learn from examples circulating in social media. This is what scholars often refer to as “policy mobility” (see Wood, 2014, for example). In these processes, some cities and their solutions often become idealized, and even reach the status of “models” to be copied, while other important innovations may be overlooked.

To emphasize this networked learning and competition between cities is central to what we may call “the relational approach” to sustainable cities. As a geographer, I am interested in how cities (or rather, the actors within them) are interconnected with one another, and what relationships they have with other scales and institutions (read more about this in Haarstad, 2016). Cities are not dealing with sustainability challenges in a vacuum – these relationships to other places are important for urban actors to access resources, gain legitimacy and draw inspiration.

At the same time, there are critical questions to be asked. When certain sustainability policies become “models” for others to copy, or when some “best practices” become unquestioned norms, we need to exercise caution. As Bulkeley (2006) puts it, best practice can become a political rationality through which sustainability is framed and governed. She and others are arguing that we to pay more attention to local contexts and the particular needs that cities and local actors may have. Robinson (2015), for example, holds that we should pay more attention to local politics within the cities, and the struggles for various sustainability pathways going on there. In today’s session, we will look at some examples of city networks and discuss this issue of local contexts.

Course readings

Haarstad, H. (2016). Where are urban energy transitions governed? Conceptualizing the complex governance arrangements for low-carbon mobility in Europe. Cities, 54, 4-10. (Links to an external site.)

Wood, A. (2014). Learning through policy tourism: Circulating bus rapid transit from South America to South Africa. Environment and Planning A, 46(11), 2654-2669. (Links to an external site.)

Bulkeley, H. (2006). Urban sustainability: Learning from best practice? Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 38(6), 1029-1044. (Links to an external site.)

Robinson, J. (2015). ‘Arriving At’ Urban Policies: The Topological Spaces of Urban Policy Mobility. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39(4), 831-834. (Links to an external site.)




Examine the websites of the city networks and look at the objectives of the network, what cities are members, how the network is governed.  How effective do you think this network is in stimulating sustainable urban transformation? Who drives this network, is it the city, an external funder, national governments, or others? How well do you think this network accounts for local contexts in its policy processes?

WG1: C40 Cities (Links to an external site.)

WG2: ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, (Links to an external site.)

WG3: Covenant of Mayors, (Links to an external site.)

WG4: Energy Cities, (Links to an external site.)


Video for discussion:

and the associated Geothink website

Discussion prompts

  • How would you define a smart city, and why?
  • What similarities and differences do you discern between ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’ cities?
  • “Smart cities may be over-hyped, but hype matters” – discuss whether and how hype matters.
  • In what ways can the smart city serve as an entry point to sustainable urban transformation?

Response from WG2 (Frans Libertson, Ruth Onkangi, Laurie Kerr, Eva Nedorostova):

There appears to be a lack of consensus about what the concept of smart city means and what a commitment to becoming a smart city implies. However, smart cities have become a concept for framing urban sustainability. Consequently, aspects that are used for describing smart cities commonly refer to improving the quality of life, both for people and for the urban system as a whole. Other aspects also concern governance and democracy, such as inclusion, openness, citizen engagement and the sharing of knowledge. However, the primary drivers of smart cities appear to be economic development and technological innovation. Smart cities are often associated with the collection and use of data for improving efficiency of the urban engineering. Herein also lies an intrinsic conflict of smart cities: how should the sharing of data be conducted whilst also maintaining the integrity and personal privacy of individuals?

Moreover, smart cities as a concept is (currently) problematic in that it lacks a clear definition. Smart city is a buzzword, which to some extent renders it a blank canvas on which anyone can project anything – all under the guise of “smart”. Appealing to notions of smart makes the concept difficult to oppose or criticize, as everyone is in favor of being smart. Ultimately, this puts the concept at risk of becoming hijacked by personal interests. Political interests can push for their agendas under the name of being smart. The lack of structured definition implies that different cities can mould smart cities to fit their interests. The ambiguity that follows from smart cities not being a specific and measurable concept, allows for a city to implement strategies under this banner in a contextually – appropriate way. It also opens up for corporate interests, who’s primary focus is profit and not the common goods, to market their technologies as smart to governments.

Smart cities share several similarities with urban sustainable development. The two concepts are to some extent overlapping and mutually reinforcing. A smart city facilitates sustainable development and vice versa. In several instances, technology is the solution to environmental and social issues, not to mention its contribution to economic development. The concept of smart cities provides a structure for sustainable urban development, and renders the goals more tangible. However, there are also several differences between the two. Smart cities are to a larger extent technocentric, and favors innovation over equity and justice. Smart cities also promote efficiency above all, whereas sustainable development to some extent regards the endeavor for efficiency as the root cause of climate change. However, there are also examples of smart city approaches that promote “soft” values rather than technological development. One such example is Vienna.

Despite its shortcomings, the concept of smart cities also holds great potential and should not be ruled out completely. Smart cities are one path out of many to achieve the goals of sustainable urban development. The concept has the potential to constitute a catalyzer, as it signals that things can be done differently and more efficient. It also provides momentum as the smart city concept to some extent are more tangible than sustainable development, and thus also simpler to realize.


Håvard Haarstad is a professor in human geography at the University of Bergen, and has broad interests in sustainability, climate change and energy, particularly in relation to cities. He is Director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation. His key interests follow two strands. First, he examines how mobile ideas and policies are shaping the way cities are becoming sustainable. Second, he is interested in developing social theory on climate and energy transformation – the conditions that shape society’s shift to more sustainable forms of energy