The Future of Cities

Published on 24th July 2018

The future itself  IS cities; and our major challenge is how do we build our own future in the cities of the future!

Since time immemorial, human beings are governed by the law of proximity. They have always had natural tendency to congregate and agglomerate; in sum to build big cities. Yesterday Jericho, Athens and Axum; today Shanghai, Mumbai and Lagos; and we are seeing literally thousands of  entirely new cities sprouting all around the globe, at an even faster pace and at a bigger  scale than in the past ; some as new political centers, some positioned to become new hubs of logistics, and others  designed to become new epicenters of trade, finance, or technology; they all share one common ambition: to be long-term engines of economic growth and center of gravity of sustainable development. 

Emerging agglomerations such as Xiongan in China, Konza Technology City in Kenya, Diamniado  Lake City in Senegal , have even greater  ambition: to be smart cities of the future.

The law of proximity is accelerating. Today some 55% of population live in urban areas ; a proportion that is expected to increase to 60 % by 2030 and almost 70% % by 2050; with close to 90% of this  increase taking place  in Asia and Africa.

Cities today generate more than 80% of global GDP. They are powerful vectors for economic development; but they carry challenges too. They consume close to 2/3 of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And as they develop, their exposure to climate and disaster risk also increases. Almost half a billion urban residents live in coastal areas, increasing their vulnerability to storm surges and sea level rise.

As the world becomes more urban, it also becomes more digital and connected. These are opportunities to capitalize on.

The information and communications technology (ICT) sector had been the fastest growing sector around the world and figures in much of the urbanization processes --- in building modern infrastructure and improving services; in the conduct of business and trade; in the management of data-driven operations like finance and public administration, enabling many developing countries to leapfrog traditional systems and communications networks.

Data from the ITU shows that today’s ICT development is driven by the spread of mobile-broadband services largely in part because mobile-broadband prices have dropped by 50 percent on average over the last three years. These factors have resulted in about half of the world’s population getting online at higher speeds. Most notably is that young people are at forefront of today’s digital economy as 70 percent of the world’s youth – those between 15 to 24 years old – are online.

Frontier technologies are reshaping the interaction between countries, cities and people. Artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced robotics and new forms of automation, sensors and the Internet of Things, Blockchain and distributed ledgers, 3D printing, self-driving vehicles, drones, bio-engineering, the list goes on –they are not only part of our vocabulary today but a reality of our daily lives.

But smart cities should not only be temples of automation and efficiency gains; they must also be hubs of sustainability and geometric locus of sociability. They must be the true soul of the spirit embedded in Agenda 2030, so that No One Should be Left behind! They must help us vanquish major assaults on our modern civilization such as poverty, inequality, hunger, exclusion, diseases, violent extremism and climate change.

Smart Cities do exist! Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative leverages technologies to improve urban environment and delivers services and information that citizens need.  Bold climate action, leading the way towards a healthier and more sustainable future.

C40 Alliance shows us how cities are using technologies to address challenges posed by climate change beyond their national boundaries. With e-Estonia, we have now a model on how to use the Internet to reimagine what it means to be a country in the digital age. And we have many more very good examples of Smart Cities to emulate.

Smart cities do not rise by themselves; they have to be planned, designed, implemented, and managed effectively and thus require strategic policies and strategic investments. I am convinced that, with our collective wisdom, that wisdom which gave birth to the Millennium Declaration and designed, as a sequel, the Universal Agenda 2030, we will avert the prophecy of James Bridle, and we will ensure that technology will not end the future; and that the future will not be a New Dark Age!

By Abdoulaye Mar Dieye

UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the UNDP Bureau for Policy and Programme Support 

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