This year’s World Habitat Day is themed ‘mind the gap: leave no one and place behind’. Digital connectivity has an essential role to play in realising that, and cities are best placed to achieve it, writes Derek Murray.
Successful cities provide opportunity and amenity from which stem jobs, entrepreneurship and economic vitality, learning, recreation and social care, artistic creativity and cultural richness.
These benefits are enabled by social and physical infrastructure systems that are intricately linked and mutually reinforcing – a joined-up system of systems focused on social, economic and environmental outcomes. Achieving ever-better outcomes requires in-depth knowledge of each system, and of the complex interactions and interdependencies between them all.
Better connectivity, involving information flow and increasingly enabled by technology, can provide this insight and understanding – so that synergies can be achieved, interventions designed, performance optimised, value created, and wellbeing advanced. The benefits of connectivity can be driven further by integrating physical and digital infrastructure to make smart infrastructure.
This is how we can create smart cities that are more efficient, resilient and capable, despite stretched financial and human resources.
Better data, better outcomes
Securing the benefits of digitalisation requires wise technology choices. But smart city projects focused predominantly on technology have failed. Success depends on socio-technical change focused on desired social, economic and environmental outcomes, and supported by people with the skills, mindset and behaviours to use technology to those ends.
With the right focus and support, collecting, sorting, structuring and analysing data will give enhanced insights into citizen aspirations and choices. This information will allow better decision-making that is responsive to people’s changing needs, leading to more sustainable solutions that deliver enhanced outcomes.
Those who develop smart city solutions should understand that a city’s remit covers social issues and safeguarding of the disadvantaged and marginalised, not just promoting economic growth and the provision of essential services. Smart cities cannot be said to be smart if they do not deliver better outcomes for people and the planet.
The following focused actions will support the digital transformation of cities and help bring about positive, inclusive change in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):
1: A place-based approach to SDGs
There is growing recognition that local government often has a stronger understanding of local problems and opportunities, which can be enhanced through citizen participation. Many European cities are championing a consultative and inclusive stakeholder-centred approach through toolkits such as the Reference framework for sustainable cities.
Smart cities can provide system-level data to improve integrated planning, enable transparent and replicable decision-making, and track progress towards outcomes such as carbon reduction.
With system-level data platforms, we can evaluate climate actions based on multiple synergetic objectives, not just carbon reduction but also local impacts on air quality, flood risk, food poverty, energy poverty, health and wellbeing. This is one of the core principles of a place-based systems approach employed by Mott MacDonald to help cities, towns and communities accelerate towards net-zero.
2: Implement smart solutions that are sustainable
Cities can suffer from ‘pilot project fatigue’ after implementing new smart city solutions that have not been designed to provide sustainable benefits and which may even exacerbate the socioeconomic divide between those with and without access. Cities also risk procuring technology services which have hidden lock-ins and costs.
Sustainability and continuity can be achieved through partnerships – between cities, academia, donors, investors and the private sector – and appropriate capacity building. Providing the necessary institutional capacity building needed for long-term focus and success has been a key feature of our work as the lead delivery partner for the Global Future Cities Programme in South East Asia, and for the Global Infrastructure Programme.
3: Seek simplicity in implementation and monitoring
City authorities have limited resources and need simplicity and proven approaches in how to implement and monitor smart and sustainable action plans. However, there is now an overwhelming range of methods, standards and tools available with yet more being developed. These are all well intended but they are not aligned, and there is duplication.
Standards bodies and donors should focus on consolidating approaches, together with a scalable reference architecture for reporting and monitoring needs. This must focus on outcomes and information – not just the tools – for cities to better connect and move forward with their action plans.
A consistent, internationally recognised framework is provided through ISO 37101, which we will be using as a basis for urban transformation to develop open, collaborative, people-centric and digitally enabled operating models for cities that put their individual vision for a sustainable future into operation.
4: Responsible scaling up of technology
Investment is needed in scalable innovation and technology but such scaling up must be socially and environmentally responsible as well as financially viable.
Let’s not let allow history to repeat itself. We are now, hopefully, nearing the end of more than a century of technology lock-in from upscaling the hydrocarbon-fuelled combustion engine with its myriad unforeseen consequences. As we scale up new technologies to address the climate emergency and pursue the benefits of digitalisation, we must not make the same mistakes.
Leave no one behind
Universal connectivity is key to all of this. I am based in Singapore where citizens benefit from full internet access and connected government services. By contrast, only about 70% of the global population is online, which means that 3bn people are still disconnected. We must close the digital divide.
Cities can play a major part in achieving this, improving social inclusion and resilience, and creating better urban futures for all.
Urban October 2022, organised by UN-Habitat, begins with World Habitat Day on 3 October and ends with World Cities Day on 31 October.