Leveraging frontier technologies for sustainable development

Author
Barbara Rosen Jacobson

This side event, organised by the United Nations Development Programme, the World Resources Institute, and the Permanent Mission of Singapore to the UN, discussed the potential of new technologies to increase the quality of life in cities, and to make them more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable. The session started with an opening statement by Mr Abdoulaye Mar Dieye (Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the UNDP Bureau for Policy and Programme Support). Referring to today’s accelerating growth of urbanisaton rates, coupled with current trends in digitisation, information and communication technologies (ICTs) provide opportunities to address the challenges of today’s cities. Smart cities ‘should not just be centres of efficiency, but also hubs of sustainability’ and ensure that no one is left behind. In addition, smart cities ‘do not rise by themselves’, but have to be carefully planned, designed and managed, which requires our collective wisdom, so that we can leverage the benefits – and mitigate the risks – of technology.

Next, the moderator Mr Aniruddha Dasgupta (Director of the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities), introduced the topic and the speakers, raising the question: How is technology used in cities to make them better for people and the planet? According to Mr Burhan Gafoor (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Singapore to the United Nations), sustainable urbanisation will be essential for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. Echoing the previous two speakers, he emphasised that smart cities should focus on improving people’s lives through innovation (doing things differently), integration (ensuring a coherent urban governance), and inclusion (ensuring technology benefits all residents and preventing the exacerbation of divisions). Finally, he highlighted the need to share experiences and build partnerships, including with the private sector.

Speaking about smart cities in Mexico, Ms Norma Munguia Aldaraca (Director-General for Global Affairs of the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs of Mexico), emphasised that digitisation and artificial intelligence (AI) bring both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, they provide better services to citizens and empower young people to participate in society. On the other hand, cities will need to address changes in employment that result from technological developments. This also brings up the issue of regulation being able to ‘move as quickly as technology does’. Further elaborating on the issue of jobs, Ms Martha Chen (Co-Founder of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) explained that the design of smart cities needs to ensure that the benefits also reach the ‘working poor’, and in particular, those working in the informal sector. While they constitute the majority of the workforce in many cities, they are often excluded from the public policies that underpin the creation of smart cities.

Ms Purnima Kapur (Executive Director of the New York City Department of City Planning) shared Chen’s focus on ensuring that public policies do not exacerbate inequalities within cities. In her view, technology should be harnessed to address inequities at every level, to make planning more participatory, and to hold city planners accountable. Reiterating the importance of equally dividing the benefits of technology, Ms Emily Mohohlo (Know Your City and SDI Management Committee, Slum Dwellers International) explained that the design of smart cities needs to include the perspective of those who are living in informal settlements, where many people live without electricity, clean water, sanitation, or a roof over their heads. Underscoring the need to collaborate, Mohohlo described that Slum Dwellers International collects and shares data about the conditions and priorities in these areas so that city planners are better aware of the conditions of those living in these areas.

Ms Kala Fleming (Innovation Advisor and Artificial Intelligence Team Leader at IBM Watson) agreed with the previous speakers that the use of technology, and in particular AI, in the creation of smarter cities should be underpinned by questions such as ‘who is AI for?’, ‘who benefits, and how?’, and ‘are the benefits available to everyone?’. Sharing her experience of using AI in Kenya to improve water management, Fleming explained that to leverage the potential of AI, there is a need to harness data and use it to design better services. Yet, the real potential of such technologies needs to include considerations related to requirements of the workforce, business models, and funding.

Mr Jonathan Reichental (Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the City of Palo Alto) shared a number of lessons he learned as Silicon Valley’s CIO. He highlighted the potential of four technologies:

  • Transportation: the emergence of self-driving vehicles will change the very design of cities

  • Energy: there will be a move away from carbon, most likely towards solar energy

  • Sustainability: our environment (e.g. water and air) can be measured and monitored through low-cost sensors

  • Digital transformation: citizens should be able to access easy and accessible platforms to contribute to their community

In addition to these changing technologies, there are a number of ways in which the behaviour of city planners will have to develop in order to be able to make the best use of new opportunities. Reichental highlighted the need for public-private partnerships, community engagement, democratised education, and an openness to taking risks. Reichental closed his intervention by stressing the urgency to use these technologies to be able to respond to the needs of the future.

The discussion that followed echoed the concerns over inequality, with participants asking whether smart cities are ‘a promise for everyone or for the few?’. In addition, concerns for digital rights were highlighted: ‘how are smart cities empowering individuals through data protection, transparent data governance, technical remedies, and privacy by design?’ Wrapping up the discussion, Dasgupta agreed that a lack of equality in cities will constitute ‘a major risk to achieving any of the goals’. In his closing statement, Mar Dieye urged to use technology intelligently and use regulation to capture its good essence so that it can be a force for inclusion.

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