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Making Smart Cities Work for the Next 2.5 Billion


Fri, 02/14/2020 - 12:00


Calum Handforth – Thematic Lead for Digitalisation and Smart Cities, at the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development – discusses some key aspects of smart cities for international development.

Urbanisation and the increasing role of innovation are two trends likely to continue well into the 21st century. With two out of every three people (or 2.5 billion more people) likely to be living in cities or other urban centres by 2050, innovation can help make these settings enjoyable, productive, and sustainable.

These are important considerations in any city and are fundamental to ‘smart cities’. These aspects are also particularly relevant for cities in developing countries where the pace and extent of urbanisation will be the highest. Building on Singapore's Smart Nation effort, the Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development – a joint initiative by the Government of Singapore and UNDP – is focusing on the area of Digitalisation and Cities. This also includes a recognition that smart cities shouldn’t only focus on technology. In fact, some smart city initiatives do not even use technology at all.

For us, smart cities are about using innovation – whether technology, different ways of working, or even nature-based solutions – to improve the lives of citizens. Smart cities are about improving and positively changing how people live and work in, and enjoy the urban environment. Technology has the potential to improve many of these aspects, but improvements can also come from good city management, skilled public workers and well-planned public realms, as well as citizen engagement and inclusion. Smart cities are not just about technology.

Drawing on our experience in this area, and the work of our country offices and other partners, we have identified four shared considerations that are relevant across the low- and high-income countries where we will be building and offering smart city support and expertise. Each of these has particular relevance for our work but are also important elements in ensuring that smart cities work for the next 2.5 billion urban citizens.

Smart Cities Are Crucial for Individuals, Businesses and Countries

Smart city projects, programmes and initiatives have significant wide-ranging and positive effects. They have the potential to create new jobs and industries, reduce environmental impact, deliver more effective public services, and improve the overall citizen experience.

Each benefit has strong multipliers for individuals, societies, economies, and countries. For example, the coastal city of Da Nang in Vietnam is leveraging data to ensure efficient water usage. Other lower-lying cities in Southeast Asia are also exploring the potential of smart city approaches to mitigate the effects of climate change. More widely, the African Union’s Agenda 2063 has particular relevance for smart city propositions.

Smart Cities Must Be Founded on ‘User’ Needs

Policymakers and solution providers must focus on understanding and aligning with the needs and realities of 'users' – whether citizens, visitors, businesses, or other organisations – when looking to apply innovation. Approaches such as 'human-centred design' have particular relevance here.

This notion recognises that innovation is not a panacea and may not always be the most appropriate solution – or add significant value. Cities across Latin America are alert to this risk and have recognised the role that innovation can play in meaningfully addressing priority urban issues – including reducing congestion, improving air quality, and improving the overall quality of life. The Colombian city of Medellin, in particular, has made strong progress here.

Smart City Efforts Must Not Leave Anyone Behind

The full benefits of smart cities can only be realised if they are truly inclusive. This includes meeting the needs of marginalised populations, particularly those who have been missed or excluded from existing urbanisation efforts. Shaping inclusive smart city standards is also crucial – a topic explored during the first Digital African Week in 2019.

Technology itself can create a 'digital divide'. Smart city efforts, which are founded on leveraging innovation, must avoid creating, entrenching, or exacerbating inequality – whether digital or otherwise. This includes using innovation to solve key foundational aspects of inequality, such as providing postal or similar addresses to the unaddressed, enabling access to financial services, tackling gender inequality, and more.

We Need to Understand What Does, and Does Not, Work

Although widely discussed, the implementation of smart city solutions is only just beginning. This is not just the case in cities across Sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia, but also in higher-income settings. However, delivering such initiatives requires a strong understanding of the benefits, challenges, and impact (both positive and negative) of smart cities.

With this in mind, collating and sharing best practice is essential in ensuring that smart cities can deliver their full potential. With a global mandate, the UNDP Global Centre will be convening key actors in this space, identifying and sharing what has worked well, and exploring opportunities to pilot initiatives in collaboration with governments and other experts. Events such as the SDGInnovate series will play a critical role in discussing these challenges and successes.

Looking Forward

Innovation will play an increasingly important role in achieving all of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 11 (to make cities and settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), where smart cities have real potential to improve lives and livelihoods. Innovation – technology or otherwise – will also be essential in delivering sustainable urbanisation efforts.

UNDP and SGInnovate are in a partnership to create a Tech for Sustainability community of leaders, startups and talent committed to creating a better and more sustainable world. 

This year, UNDP continues to focus on smart cities, exploring how to deliver smart city pilots across Africa and Asia. They are building a network of partners and collaborators in this area to identify opportunities where smart cities can make a meaningful impact around the world. Get in touch if you would like to learn more.


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