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The popular smart city concept, for some, is viewed as a vision, manifesto or promise aiming to constitute the 21st century’s sustainable and ideal city form, while for others it is just a hype. This paper places smart city practices from the UK under the microscope to investigate their contributions in achieving sustainable urban outcomes. Panel data analysis methods were employed to investigate changes in carbon dioxide emissions level of 15 UK cities with differential level of city smartness over the period of 2005–2013. The findings reveal that the link between city smartness and carbon dioxide emissions is not linear, and the impact of city smartness on carbon dioxide emissions does not change over time. This finding calls for better aligning smart city strategies to lead to concrete sustainable outcomes. The paper concludes by highlighting the importance of prospective investigations to accurately scrutinise existing smart city projects’ outcomes, and emphasising the necessity of developing smart city agendas that deliver sustainable outcomes.
In recent years, the smart cities concept has become an important research topic and a priority policy agenda for many cities from both developed and developing country contexts (Yigitcanlar, 2017). Even smart city technologies are seen crucial for the survival of our species (Townsend, 2013). Today, many of the global cities’ administrations view smart urban technology applications and systems as potential vehicles to deal with their current and future developmental challenges whether they are economic, societal or environmental in nature. Consequently, smart cities have become a global phenomenon with over 250 smart city projects underway across 178 cities around the globe. In many instances, however, the fashionable term smart city is used for branding or marketing purposes with a lack of integrated approach covering sustainability concerns (Söderström et al., 2014; Shelton et al., 2015; Vanolo, 2015). In other words, the fashionable term ‘smart’ has started to replace ‘sustainable’ in the brand of many projects—for example, China’s Tianjin Eco-City is now also branded as Tianjin Smart City. According to Ahvenniemi et al. (2017, p.242), “the role of technologies in smart cities should be in enabling sustainable development of cities, not in the new technology as an end in itself. Ultimately, a city that is not sustainable is not really smart”. There is little empirical evidence that, despite its promise, smart cities contribute to sustainability agenda of those cities. In order to address this issue of whether smart city really leads to sustainable outcomes, the study at hand has put cities with smart city agendas from the UK under the sustainability performance assessment microscope. Based on the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study that attempted to assess a causal relationship between city smartness and sustainability—by using nine waves of panel data.