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October 29, 2021

Building climate-resilient cities through digital transformation

By Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General

According to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human influence has unequivocally contributed to changes in our climate system – which are happening at an unprecedented scale.

Most human activity is concentrated in cities, making them significant hubs for carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions.

This makes cities particularly important in global efforts to reduce emissions and curb global warming. At the same time, urban areas are especially vulnerable to the growing risks of climate change.

As countries and regions around the world look at ways to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, cities will have to become leaders.

A net-zero future means transforming industries, changing people’s consumption patterns, building climate resilience worldwide, and formulating meaningful adaptation strategies to minimize the risks.

Yet the question remains – how?

The way forward

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by the United Nations 2030 Agenda include a call to create sustainable cities and communities (SDG-11), integrating urban challenges with climate, energy, water, and other environmental and socio-economic development aims.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – as the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) – sees tech as an essential part of the solution.

Take for example “digital twins”, or virtual replicas of complex systems like a city, its population and resource base. Digital twins can enhance urban planning by simulating responses to possible climate situations, working out options before a crisis happens and thereby improve resilience and sustainability.

International standards are crucial in the adoption of such new technologies, as well as to scale up innovative solutions, enable interoperability, and reduce costs through economies of scale.

ITU has already taken the initiative to study the requirements for successful digital transformation in cities, particularly under the framework of ITU-T Study Group 20, ITU’s standardization expert group dedicated to the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities and communities.

ITU standards are developed collaboratively by ITU members from all around world and they are already helping to reconfigure digital strategies and ensure cities can meet the technical and performance expectations of digital transformation.

Collaboration is key

Of course, ITU does not develop standards in isolation.

Meaningful partnership and collaboration are the foundation for tackling global challenges, including climate change.

ITU draws strength from its diverse membership, encompassing 193 Member States and over 900 private-sector companies, universities, and international and regional organizations.

ITU is also collaborating with city stakeholders through dedicated global platforms, such as the United for Smart Sustainable Cities initiative, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum, and topical webinars and discussions year-round. All contribute to efforts to achieve key climate targets.

Adapting for the future

City leadership will have a vital role to play in cutting emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement – including the key goal to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) this century, as compared to pre-industrial levels.

As the UN Secretary-General stated recently:

“The spectre of climate change has become a deadly reality for developing and developed countries alike. Our goal of 1.5°C – and the future of humanity as we know it – are becoming even more elusive.”

Urbanization is sure to remain a major factor in global development. Despite the carbon emissions associated with urban activity, cities are also hubs of connectivity – making them crucial in leveraging digital technologies for climate action.

Cities must therefore act decisively to combine the willingness, resources, and tools to adapt to the current climate crisis.

Mayors share insights

Ever since the first World Cities Day in 2014, ITU has been happy to partner with other UN agencies, organizations, and entities to address the urban development challenge.

This year’s theme – “adapting cities for climate resilience” – could not be timelier.

This year’s WSIS Forum brought together mayors from cities around the world to share insights on the opportunities and challenges brought by digitalization.

The same initiative will be further strengthened next year with the support of our partner, Geneva Cities Hub, as we plan to engage more deeply with mayors on the topic of smart cities.

The next WSIS Forum starts on 15 March 2022. I invite you to take part in and actively contribute, just as I invite all stakeholders to contribute to relevant WSIS Action Lines.

Join us in our journey to help cities become more sustainable using digital technologies.

Based on Mr Johnson’s opening remarks at a WSIS TalkX webinar Building Climate Resilient Cities with Digital Transformation ahead of World Cities Day on 31 October.

Image credit:  Rafael Mendoza via Pexels

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ITU is the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technology. Any opinions expressed and statistics presented by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

Building climate-resilient cities through digital transformation

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