New and Emerging Technologies for Smarter and Sustainable Cities

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By Sarbuland Khan

Secretary General Guterres was so right in expressing his frank “disappointment” with the failure of world leaders to reach an agreement on how to move forward in meeting the challenge of the “climate crisis” at the 25th Annual Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change, held recently in Madrid.

This setback is all-the-more striking in the face of the continuing rise in CO2 emissions and use of fossil fuels worldwide, including in 2019. The evidence gathered over the last decade has shown record high temperatures, rapidly melting glaciers and polar ice, a steady rise in sea levels, and increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events and forest fires. These early manifestations of global warming tend to bear out the validity of the scenarios forecast by scientists about the grave consequences of rising  temperatures for the sustainability of life on earth.

Given the virtual abdication of responsibility by national leaders, especially of the major countries who account for the largest emissions of CO2,  the burden of responsibility to act has shifted, more than ever before, onto city and regional authorities. Fortunately, city leaders around the world, who see the impacts of climate change on their cities more directly and  feel growing public pressure to do something about it, have shown far greater readiness to act on their own to fight climate change and build sustainable cities. Cities and urban conglomerations are thus emerging as the principal locus for climate action, social inclusion and sustainable development.

There are several compelling reasons for cities to take the lead in the search for global  sustainability. First, we are living in an increasingly urban world. A majority of the world’s people live in urban areas today. By 1950, the proportion of urban population is forecast to increase to 70 percent of total world population. Moreover, cities and urban centers already account for 75 percent of CO2 emissions and face the brunt of the negative impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Cities use resources and energy  more intensively. Thus, cities are where the challenges of climate change and sustainability are the greatest. Much of global climate action and the search for sustainable solutions will thus have to be concentrated in cities and urban centers, now and in the foreseeable future.

If cities are where the challenges of climate change and sustainability are most acute,  many of them also hold the key to addressing those challenges most effectively at the ground level. Major cities are often great centers of learning and commerce with a closely knit, well-educated and collaborative populace. They  provide the most favorable ecology for creativity and innovation and for new and sustainable technologies to emerge opening up new paths to improve energy efficiency, reduce resource use and environmental degradation and increase transparency and accountability in service delivery.

If we look back, throughout human history, cities have served as the incubators of new technologies that propelled economic growth which in turn gave rise to great cities.

Technology and urbanization have thus been two intertwined forces that have been  among the most powerful drivers of human progress. Indeed, the story of civilization has been a story of technological progress taking place mostly in urban settings.

The invention of agriculture and new farming techniques gave rise to the ancient Middle Eastern cities of Babel and Nineveh along the Euphrates. In turn, these cities became centers of technological progress leading to specialization and trade, thus, connecting people and products and generating wealth and prosperity across the region. As new technologies spread through trade and travel, similar advances took hold in many other regions.

New and emerging technologies have also driven major shifts in how cities are planned and function.

The industrial revolution transformed major European cities from medieval fortresses to modern, dense, but open habitats with no walls, built around industry, infrastructure and densely populated urban centers.

The advent of electricity and the automobile called for new forms of urban design, systems and structures: from urban centers to high-rises, from ring-roads to sprawling suburbs and auto-routes that pose such complex challenges to the urban planners of today.

And now we face a new urban transition, driven by the rise of the internet and the  digital revolution. As the pace of technological change has accelerated, so has the transformation of cities which have become complex, networked and continuously changing ecosystems aiming to be ‘smart’ by using digitally collected real-time information, seem-less communications, interactive collaboration, better comprehension of the workings and dynamics of the city, and of citizens’ concerns and behavior and thus aiming toward informed, intelligent and wise decision-making and fostering urban planning and design for building smarter and more sustainable cities.

Starting in the mid-nineties, most cities developed digital city profiles on static web-pages mainly for dissemination of information and some early applications for e-service delivery.

With the rise of Web 2.0 and broadband in the 2000s, cities moved rapidly to large e-governance applications and to the use of the web as a sharing medium for creating a more integrated digital space for interaction with citizens and organizations, creating wireless networks and using such innovations as sensor generated real-time data, wikis, the new social networking websites and user-generated content, outsourcing and crowd sourcing for better access to suppliers, and real time understanding of  citizens and companies’ needs and concerns for smart decision-making and planning.

We are now at the start of another phase of the digital revolution brought on by new and emerging technologies, such as  the generation and use of big data, artificial intelligence, internet of things, block-chain , 3-D printing and manufacturing ,  quantum computing and 5G. Each of these technologies is revolutionary in its potential impact. Working together, their effects on the society and the economy are likely to be multiplied manifold. If put to proper and effective use, these technologies can help devise sustainable solutions to traditional problems, enabling cities to move toward zero carbon, sustainable economies, while ensuring more efficient production  processes and greater social equity.

Cities can become smarter in a broader and more fundamental sense by making every element of the urban environment smarter and interconnected  for efficiency gains and for freeing each one of them of carbon emissions, waste and pollution. Thus, vehicles, roads, buildings, energy, water, information and communication systems, industrial production and educational  health and social services would function as part of a well-integrated digitally enabled, sustainable ecosystem.   

But, in order to harness this fourth digital revolution,  cities will need to meet the considerable challenge of adapting to and mastering these technologies. This is easier said than done. City leaders need to overcome immense and complex challenges of financial and human constraints, replace entrenched legacy systems, overcome political and economic vested interests and resolve the ethical, moral and social dilemmas that many of these technologies present. These challenges are not insurmountable if there is true leadership and genuine collaboration among stakeholders and pioneers of technology. This calls for open and thorough dialogue among all who have a stake in a sustainable future for humanity, as they join hands to build  a new technologically enabled urban planet. This implies a bottom up and participatory approach rather than a top down urban design and planning.

Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda adopted at Habitat III in Quito are the universally agreed guideposts on this journey and the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU Global) provides a global platform for open dialogue and serves as a natural vehicle for promoting sustainable urbanization.

CSU Global could help to energize action by catalyzing the creation of a Worldwide Urban Movement for Sustainability, led by cities in every country and joined by technology pioneers, activists, academia, business and civil society organizations, just as ongoing movements of young people and women are helping to change the world for the better in their own ways.About the author: Sarbuland Khan is the former Executive Coordinator of the UN Global Alliance for ICT and Development, a prolific author in economics and an Advisory Board Member of CSU. He dedicated his career at the United Nations to development and technology issues, establishing the UN ICT Task Force and was a diplomat for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan.