Tech holds great potential for sustainable urbanization

Technology should focus more on inclusiveness and sustainability to ensure that no population, whether rich or poor, is excluded from enjoying the benefits of development.

Renu MehtaRenu Mehta | Devdiscourse | Updated: 08-03-2020 00:29 IST | Created: 08-03-2020 00:28 IST
Tech holds great potential for sustainable urbanization
From real-time traffic management and connected healthcare to smart energy solutions, technology holds great promise for smart urban development. Image Credit: Flickr

With more than half of the world's population currently residing in cities, the urban population is projected to increase by 1.5 times to 6 billion by 2045, adding 2 billion more urban residents. At this pace of urbanization, countries will face numerous challenges in delivering essential public services such as transport, environmental protection, healthcare, and education.

People move to cities, simply because they need better services and a better quality of life. Urbanization in developing countries is of more concern as it is not inclusive and unplanned. People here lack basic services like transport, water supply, education, and health.

Therefore, when we talk about the potential of technology to promote urbanization, it should be centered around the needs of citizens rather than just deploying cutting edge and disruptive tools and solutions. Technology should focus more on inclusiveness and sustainability to ensure that no population, whether rich or poor, is excluded from enjoying the benefits of development.

From real-time traffic management and connected healthcare to smart energy solutions, technology holds great promise for smart urban development. Here is how technology is transforming the way services are delivered in cities around the world.

Resource management

Everything starts with planning. Urban planners and policymakers can use geospatial technology to analyze geographical features (land cover/land use patterns) and expedite the decision-making process. Quality, reliable disaggregated geospatial data from maps, satellite imagery, and aerial photography empowers decision-makers to more accurately direct resources and reduce inequalities in access to and use of limited resources. Data from sensors can also be used to manage and reduce the wastage of resources like water and energy.

To recognize and maximize the value of geospatial information, the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) has been working with a wide range of experts, the UN Member States and the World Bank to improve access to quality geospatial information.


According to the UN data, regions like sub-Saharan Africa have very low access to public transport, just 18 percent in 2018. The SDG11 also recognizes the need to provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all.

Mobility coupled with technological innovation offers immense opportunities to alter the face of urban mobility. Information and communications technologies could be used to access travel information, real-time traffic management, reduce congestion, thereby making transport more convenient and responsive for everyone, everywhere.

For example, the OpenTraffic platform utilizes big data to address congestion and road safety challenges in Manila, Philippines. Developed by the Open Transport Partnership, the platform allows users to query real-time and historical traffic conditions and monitor roadway conditions.

The rapid urbanization and increasing demand for ICT services have also given birth to autonomous vehicles. Self-driving vehicles offer numerous benefits including reduced infrastructure costs, safer streets, and more efficient usage of urban land.

New mobility modes also include flying taxis and Hyperloops that are set to become a reality. Last year, the German start-up Volocopter successfully pilot-tested its manned flight over Singapore's Marina Bay, covering a distance of approximately 1.5 kilometers at an average cruising height of 40 meters.

The transportation sector is a major consumer of fossil-fuel, including natural gas, coal, and oil. Electric mobility presents a viable alternative to address the pressing challenges facing the sector today, whilst simultaneously helping the world meet its climate and energy targets.

Climate Change and disaster management

According to the World Bank, cities consume close to 2/3 of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. As cities expand, so does the climate and disaster risks. In the developing world, much of the urban expansion occurs near hazard-prone areas and unplanned settlements.

Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) could generate over USD 11 trillion in economic benefits per year by 2030 and offer significant environmental benefits including saving 300 trillion liters of water per year. ICT tools can enable a 20 percent reduction of global CO2e emissions by 2030, holding emissions at 2015 levels, says a GeSI (Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative) report titled “SMARTer2030- ICT Solutions for the 21st Century challenges”.

In the immediate aftermath of disasters, timely and effective information is critical for the decision-making process. Emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning, geospatial data, and big data can play a significant role in all phases of disaster management: prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery. 

For example, the United Nations flagship Global Pulse has developed a collaborative web-based tool called PulseSatellite that combines cutting edge artificial intelligence with human expertise to extract the most relevant information from satellite imagery for use in humanitarian contexts including monitoring population displacement, settlement mapping, damage assessment, flood assessment and identifying the direct impact of earthquakes, volcanoes, cyclones, and landslides. 

Image Credit: Global Pulse

Another example is the Artificial Intelligence for Digital Response (AIDR) platform that uses human and machine intelligence to automatically collect and classify tweets during emergencies, disasters, and humanitarian crises.

Waste management

Globally, 2 billion people lack access to waste collection services and 3 billion people lack access to controlled waste disposal facilities. With increasing urban populations and the existence of consumer-oriented economies amid rising income levels and rapid urbanization, it is estimated that the total waste generated in the world will double from nearly 2 billion tons in 2016 to about 4 billion tons by 2050.

The Internet of Things (IoT), an ecosystem of internet-connected physical devices that interact and exchange information, has provided new and transparent ways to manage waste. Smart waste companies are increasingly utilizing IoT to change the way trash is traditionally collected and managed.

Enevo, a progressive waste technology company uses sensors, a dynamic analytics platform, and dedicated planning software to efficiently manage waste across the U.S. and throughout the UK and Europe.

The waste solution uses sensors to collect data including measuring fill levels and detecting collections, then Envo's analytics software analyzes the data to create a customized collection schedule and advanced waste programs. Enevo's waste management technology proactively manages waste, whilst reducing operating costs and environmental impact.

Governments, private actors, and civil society should collaborate to realize the full potential of disruptive technologies by integrating them with urban development strategies.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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