Setting the tone of this year’s World Urban Forum (WUF10) in Abu Dhabi were the words of Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat: “Digital technologies have the potential to serve people [and] improve public services and working conditions. But persistent digital divides remain, and the digital revolution must be directed and governed in a democratic and inclusive way.”
The world’s preeminent forum for policymakers, NGOs and businesses to discuss the challenges facing our cities, WUF10 chose a theme focused on “connecting culture and innovation”. Among the halls of Abu Dhabi’s National Exhibition Centre, it was widely recognised that while there have been significant advances in technology, some are yet to deliver a higher quality of life for everyone in society. As Sharif pointed out, 50% of the world’s population is connected to the internet, but only 15% have access to affordable broadband.
Speaking at the launch of UN-Habitat’s new flagship programme – “People Focused Smart Cities” – Sharif emphasised that “digital technologies, depending on their use, can be a force that widens social gaps or reduces them”. She warned that the smart cities field is “often too focused on top down shiny new technology and not sufficiently grounded in the real needs of the cities and the people who live in them”. With that said, Sharif also set out a positive vision; one in which the latest innovations are deployed by developers and investors who listen to and meet the needs of local people.
With 1.6 billion people worldwide living in inadequate homes, the question of how the smart city model can benefit those on lower incomes by fusing with programmes such as affordable housing is now a growing priority for both developers and governments. At Planet Smart City’s event – “How affordable neighbourhoods can be smart and innovative” – representatives from both the Asian and African development banks embraced the possibility of using digital platforms to engage city residents, connect them with affordable and efficient services, and give them a stronger voice in the development of their communities. Similarly, officials from Nigeria, Angola, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan all expressed an interest in pursuing a smarter approach to affordable housing and community building in their countries. I have personally engaged with them and our concept has proved to be valuable for the authorities in these countries.
What is clear from all of these calls to action is that our cities will be the centre of a fundamental shift over the coming decade. The ever-growing Internet of Things (IoT), enabled by greater connectivity and, soon, 5G, will allow urban planners not only to build public spaces like halls, parks and shops, but to create digital linkages, connect individuals to their wider community and transform their ability to interact with the local environment.
Private businesses have an important role to play in realising this vision. For too long, the real estate sector’s slow uptake of new technology and approaches to neighbourhood design have hampered its ability to build affordable housing, delivered with quality services. Embracing innovations in planning, construction and IoT can chart a new path. Innovations in planning, digital modelling and construction present an opportunity to deliver homes at a lower cost, erasing the barrier of price versus quality for those on low incomes.
At the same time, developments in smart energy and water management provide a path for developers to lower the long-term cost of living for residents, while also reducing their impact on the planet. Ultimately, the digital realm opens new opportunities for developers and community managers to deliver cost efficient services and engage residents in the evolution of their neighbourhoods.
UN-Habitat’s vision challenges policymakers and businesses. We need to stop seeing technology as exclusive to those with high incomes and recognise it as a key enabler of equality, sustainability and community life. Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050 and urban areas are central to global development. Our ability to deliver people-focused smart cities will determine whether we live as individuals in the cities of the future, divided by our access to wealth, services and technology, or if we enjoy all the benefits of a strong community enabled by new means of communication and collaboration.
Image: Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, at the World Urban Forum 10
Global CEO, Planet Smart City