Shaping smarter and more sustainable cities: Striving for Sustainable Development Goals

Author
Barbara Rosen Jacobson

This side event discussed the potential of information and communications technologies (ICTs) for smart, resilient, and sustainable cities. Ms Maria Theofili (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Greece to the United Nations) opened the session by emphasising the importance of digital transformation for sustainable growth, highlighting the role of broadband as a key enabler. The deployment of broadband does not only contribute to smart cities, it can also be used to boost rural connectivity and prevent ‘digital isolation’, which is a major challenge in a country marked by mountains and islands, such as Greece.

In his opening statement, Mr Chaesub Lee (Director of the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB)) explained that the ITU supports countries in developing their ICT infrastructure, which drives innovation in all industries. For cities, the powerful combination of connectivity, data, and citizen knowledge provides opportunities for public services to be better adapted to the needs of populations. The ITU facilitates the development of smart cities by creating common standards that assist in deploying technologies, integrating systems, and capitalising on data.

Next, the moderator, Mr Guilherme Canela (Counsellor of Information and Communication for MERCOSUR, UNESCO), reminded the participants of Socrates, who is believed to have said that ‘By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities’. Fast-forward to today, there is a need to understand the impact of frontier technologies on cities to make them smarter and more sustainable.

Next, Lee shared the approach to smart cities taken by the ITU and United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC). Rather than creating homogeneous, identical cities, the initiative promotes the development of smart cities that maintain their distinguishing cultural and historical features, adapting solutions to each city’s specific priorities. Breaking down the concept of ‘smart’, Lee explained that it consists of five elements: collaborative knowledge, compatibility, integrity, interoperability, and interconnectivity, which ultimately strengthen the resilience and sustainability of cities.

Ms Sophia Papathanasopoulou (Head of the National Broadband Planning Department, Greece) focused on the role of broadband as an enabler for smart, sustainable cities, presenting a number of initiatives taken by the Greek government at the European and national level to promote the creation of smart cities, such as measures to support cross-border interoperability and the creation of a national broadband plan. In addition, she highlighted the importance of initiatives taken by the private sector and academia, such as exploring the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain for cities. Concluding her presentation, she emphasised the need to involve stakeholders and citizens from the first step.

Mr Kari Eik (Secretary-General of the Organization for International Economic Relations) called for a holistic approach to smart cities, as taken by the U4SSC initiative, consisting of:

  • Standards, which help cities gather data and measure progress along standardised key performance indicators

  • Smart city profiles and action plans that maximise impact

  • Capacity building, especially in project planning and financing

  • Technology planning and integration

  • Better finance mechanisms and municipal financing

  • Citizen engagement

According to Eik, now that the frameworks and standards are in place, it is time to ‘step it up and get it done’, while highlighting the need of getting the private sector involved in the implementation of initiatives.

Mr Alexandre Barbosa (Head of the Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society, Brazil) called for the measurement of the impacts of new technologies on people’s lives in cities, as ‘despite the data revolution, we miss real, effective data for policy-making purposes’. According to Barbosa, developing smart solutions does not immediately result in smarter cities and policy-makers, and as a result, we need to have data on how citizens are making effective use of applications. Filling this data gap requires a multistakeholder approach, involving not only governments and industry, but also civil society and academia.

According to Mr Bruno Peters (Director of Smart Cities and Deputy Regional Director of IBI Group), cities – whether located in developed or developing countries – often face a common challenge: the lack of coordination among departments. While there is usually no shortage of technology companies that offer solutions, they are typically implemented in siloed areas, such as waste management, transportation, and water management. Many cities miss the opportunity of sharing data and information across agencies, which can save costs, create cross-cutting benefits, and offer citizens with a one-stop shop to provide input and access information. Therefore, institutional barriers, including funding mechanisms and procurement policies, need to be broken down to encourage innovation and participation in a common framework.

Ms Neera Alshaikh (Project Manager, Smart Dubai) reminded the participants that cities ‘are all about people’, their happiness, and their quality of life. Providing examples from Dubai, she explained that the city aims to embrace new technologies, such as AI and blockchain, to make everyday experiences more seamless. Dubai’s smart city plan consists of six dimensions: economy, living, mobility, governance, environment, and people. Furthermore, Alshaikh explained that Dubai is co-operating with the ITU to help develop guidelines and standards, and she stressed the importance of identifying gaps and creating road-maps.

Closing the session, Ms Olga Algayerova (Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)) noted the fast pace of urbanisation around the world, generating social and environmental risks that require stronger governance, which could be assisted by ICTs. She explained how UNECE is helping European cities in their transition to become smarter and more sustainable, and she highlighted the utility of the U4SSC initiative, which helps cities to identify and address urban challenges and overcome them. She concluded the session by stressing that ‘when people feel that neighbourhoods and cities are their own, they are more likely to get involved, and when they get engaged, they make cities a better place’, which necessitates working together to make cities smarter.

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