More than 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, it will be nearly 70%. This raises huge challenges for municipalities and city planners. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) offer the solution to many of these challenges. At the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ specialized agency for ICTs, we are working to develop the tremendous potential ICTs have to help build smarter, more sustainable cities.
Indeed, many cities across the world are already utilizing Big Data analytics gathered from smart sensors and connected devices to manage traffic, reduce energy usage – and improve a wide range of urban operations and services.
If we want to reach the targets set out by the UN Sustainable Development Goal No. 11 (SDG 11), we need to work together to develop the tools that will help cities become truly smart and sustainable.
To succeed, international organizations, national governments, municipalities and local partners from civil society, academia and the private sector need to join forces.
Thankfully, there are encouraging signs of such collaboration.
ITU and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) launched “United for Smart Sustainable Cities” (U4SSC) in 2016. U4SSC is now supported by 16 United Nations bodies, and over 50 cities have now joined ITU’s pilot project.
U4SSC has facilitated the development of internationally recognized key performance indicators (KPIs) which allow cities to set goals and measure progress on becoming smarter and more sustainable. The indicators, developed by international experts in ITU and UN bodies, fall under five overarching categories: the use of ICTs; physical infrastructure; equity and social inclusion; quality of life; and environmental sustainability.
Recently, many cities including Dubai, Singapore, Montevideo, Maldonado, Moscow, Valencia, Pully and Rimini have asked ITU for assistance in the implementation of the U4SSC KPIs. In the past few months ITU has published case studies on the efforts of Dubai and Singapore to apply smart city innovations, providing a valuable reference point to other cities pursuing greater efficiency and sustainability.
The creation of smart cities require a trusted infrastructure capable of supporting an enormous volume of ICT-based applications and services, which in turn requires coordinated adherence to common standards that ensure openness and interoperability. ITU develops international standards to enable the coordinated development of Internet of Things technologies and their application in smart cities. They also outlined how smart grids can help to build more controllable and efficient energy systems. Work on standards for smart 5G systems, which will help improve the feasibility of smart processes in large urban areas, is underway.
More efficient cities, by and for people
Standards can be powerful agents of change. Their application allows cities to reduce energy costs and emissions through more efficient buildings, electricity grids, street lights, transportation systems, and energy and water networks at a time when cities already account for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.
But smart, sustainable cities are about more than just reduced energy costs and emissions—they also aim for the realization of a better quality of urban life for all. New intelligent solutions, underpinned by smart sensors, can improve the safety and well-being of inhabitants.
Here are just a few examples: In Singapore, sensors and cameras build on an existing digital system to enable the government to send signals to drivers to improve traffic flow. In Kolkata, a social enterprise is using geographic information systems to map unplanned settlements, providing addresses and vital services for the inhabitants. In Quito, a mobile platform for women to report sexual harassment on the municipal public transport system is improving the way the city is policed. Digital technologies are also used to enhance citizen engagement and participation.
A radical shift for resilient and sustainable societies
The transformation towards resilient and sustainable societies requires the redesign of our cities as well as a radical shift in our patterns of production, consumption, and waste.
Digital technologies give us an opportunity to develop more intelligent and inclusive urban systems where waste, costs, and ecological impacts are minimized, and where urban operations and processes, increasingly cognizant of the multiple stakeholders involved, can enhance quality of life for all. These technologies give us an opportunity to drive success not just on SDG 11, but on several other SDGs, demonstrating the significant impact that ICTs can have on the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
But the transition towards smart, sustainable cities requires collective intention and increased collaboration between citizens, businesses, and governments. Together, we can design more efficient, ecological and people-centered cities, which drive, rather than hinder, individual well-being and sustainable development.