With 60% of global population expected to live in urban areas by 2030, cities are central to the Sustainable Development Goals. Cities are also great sandboxes for experimentation at the most impact scale as, ultimately, that’s where the future of our world will play out.
The United Development Programme (UNDP) is taking steps to imagine, test and scale collaborative innovation practices, the next generation of diverse and fast-moving solutions emerging in cities. Whether it’s securing remittances in Serbia from families living abroad, delivering food for refugees in Jordan, or banking the “unbankable” in Sierra Leone.
But the collective imagination of the Future of Cities may be alluring, and dangerously incomplete.
Evidence suggests that past 15 years of Open, Green, and Smart cities has further entrenched inequities within cities rather than equalizing the urban experience. This ever-widening gap threatens cities’ very reason for being: to accelerate opportunity, possibility and innovation. In response, global organizations are (finally) asking the important question, “Smart cities for who?” To begin to answer this question, let’s first examine how we got here.
1. Data is political
The Open Data/Gov movement that took off in the mid-2000s gave rise to a new crop of civil society organizations like Code for America, Sunlight Foundation, and Omidyar Network that funded and worked with (predominately global north) municipal governments to unpack and unleash the vast amount of data aggregated by cities for better decision making and policy development in health, mobility, and economy. From the United States to Taiwan, the Gov 2.0 movement was marked by young, data literate, data hungry developers designing governments from the outside-in. It began with digitizing paper-based services, moved onto to Municipal Dashboards and off the shelf software solutions for procurement, to using social media platforms for consensus building.
But data is political — as the Open Data movement itself has shown. In many countries, developing and developed alike, who and what gets measured, how and if it gets measured or used are highly politicized questions. A recent study by the World Wide Web Foundation found that 10 years into the movement to make government data open, leading governments have opened fewer than 1 in 5 datasets.
Seeing the world the way it is, also involves collecting data from people who are hard to track: migrants, those without access to basic services, those without access to the internet. In India, only 18% of 1.25 billion people have access to the internet; that is 225 million people whose opinions are simply not factored into data-driven policy making.
2. Smart is exclusive
Albeit with incomplete information, we barrel toward the Smart City, with smart cars, transportation, and sensors, driving responsive efficiency fueled by the 4th Industrial Revolution. With the ubiquity of smartphones, cities have begun to ease traffic congestion in real-time, monitor the health of the city and its infrastructure, and develop new planning policies. But it is also giving access to some of our most personal data.
But Smart, like open, is a vision that caters to those who shape and utilize the technology being leveraged. It often skips over resident engagement, and uses a “smart one-size-fits-all“ template that results in frustrated residents and planners alike. If buildings are capturing air quality data, it is often hyper-located in urban centers and doesn’t capture the levels of air pollution further out, where the factories spew greenhouse emissions and marginalized communities live.
3. Green is imperative and incomplete
As the Smart City dawned, people became keenly aware of the need for smart and open interventions to be grounded by a green ethos. Circular waste systems can now turn black water into drinking water, aquaponic farms grow food in pristine underground labs, smart transportation systems run on time and with zero emissions, and buildings have carbon sequestration machines that vacuum up air pollution. It is a compelling vision of the future, but comes with a caveat.
“Going Green” is initially an expensive and time-consuming process that is difficult to achieve if either the organizational/political will or strong capital is missing. For developing and middle-income countries, green is still seen as a luxury. Although plenty of evidence demonstrates the far-reaching economic and environmental benefits of low-carbon models, for many places it remains a case of avoiding short-term pain for long-term gain. This is not to underestimate the importance of retrofitting factories and adding solar arrays, but it is rather important that we also reduce the demand for power and consciously reassess our extractive relationship with the global ecosystem.
Moving away from the “smart cities” narrative, the new narrative needs dreamers and doers from all walks of life to envision a future that is equitable, diverse, representative, open, green, and yes… even smart.
People and collections of people, have long been designing and testing interventions at the edges. These ideas cut across domains, technologies, sectors, and approaches to reach the “last mile,” they design and deliver inclusive services, move faster to tackle global challenges and, in effect, beat international aid at its own game. Current institutions are, paradoxically, too small for the problem and the ambition of the solutions, and much too large to match the agility of these decentralized, unconstrained actors.
If Lagos, Nigeria is set to be the first city with 100 million people and by 2030 more than 50% of global population will be concentrated in China, India, Tunisia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Malaysia, and South America, then the world demands an inclusive narrative for the future of our cities. We need new structures that are designed and shaped by those who were once called beneficiaries and are now called participants; we must center marginalized voices, amplify them, and provide them with the tools, space, and permission they need to dream and dare a new, and wholly unpredictable, future.
With this vision in mind, UNDP is undertaking an ambitious strategy to launch more than 60 policy innovation labs around the world in an effort to truly match the grand scale of the challenges we collectively face.