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Expert Views: Smart Cities Should Be Sustainable Too

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become an essential tool to overcome the devastating impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on cities. ESI ThoughtLab’s survey of 167 cities worldwide determined that 77% of cities have included each of the SDGs as a framework for their plans. With a public health crisis to solve despite exhausted budgets, cities will need to find sustainable solutions to recover.

ESI ThoughtLab’s thought leadership team asked experts participating in our Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World global study to offer their perspectives on how the SDGs can help rebuild cities after the pandemic shock and serve as a roadmap in their future development.

Our research shows a clear correlation between smart city maturity and progress on the SDGs. How do cities use smart innovation to achieve their sustainable development goals?

William Baver, Vice President, Smart Platform, NTT: NTT certainly believes there is a correlation between smart city maturity and progress on the SDGs. Smart solutions and data are powerful tools for cities to achieve their sustainability goals: these can in fact provide useful information not only to track progress on how they are doing against their goals and set new measurable KPIs, but also to really understand their starting points and therefore outline a precise and relevant strategy. Cities without data have a harder time starting and working towards clear objectives and consequently they often end up failing because they lack a strategy aligned with their situations and capabilities. By focusing on specific citizens’ needs, cities can easily get momentum and then enlarge the scope of their projects.

Jose Antonio Ondiviela, Microsoft Western Europe Industry Executive Smart Cities:  Smart innovation is the main driver to achieve the SDGs, not only for goal #11 (Sustainable Cities) but also for the rest. Technology plays a crucial role in achieving sustainable cities and communities, as it is the key enabler for energy, water, air, traffic, buildings and processes to work efficiency and in alignment with expected goals.

Andrew Caruso, Director, Urban Solutions, Hatch: Technology enables SDG progress because it can integrate both technical and social solutions. It optimizes use of scarce resources, connects governments with their citizens, and scales quickly to respond to dynamically changing conditions. Further, it enables both front-end insights, and feedback loops that power a cycle of continuous improvement which drives progress.

Gordon Feller, Board Member, Alliance for Innovation: Some cities are using SDGs as a vision statement and as a goal-post. Other cities are using SDGs as a benchmarking tool. This allows city executives to evaluate themselves (and/or their contractors), by comparison, against other cities that are either geographically close or similar to them. When benchmarking their urban performance against the SDGs, these cities are using the SDGs as a stand-in for external criteria.

Gerald Uche Maduabuchi, Director of Sales, Panorama Data Solutions Ltd: Africa faces the most challenges in meeting the SDG commitments with its highest environmental degradation, poverty and unemployment rates. But, counterpoints like social media and high mobile broadband penetration provide some unique opportunities for Smart City solutions. Smart City technologies can help Africa meet its SDG commitment. It entails enabling policy reforms and the use of new and existing technologies to improve all sectors of the economy.

Miguel Eiras Antunes, Global Smart City, Smart Nation & Local Government Leader, Deloitte: The link between smart city maturity and progress on SDGs is almost logical, and now we have the data from the ESI ThoughtLab survey to prove that link. While traditionally characterized by high population density and construction, cities are now rethinking their structure and functions to secure ecosystem resilience and human well-being and ensuring sustainable urban living. COVID-19 has only further accelerated the trend to create these cleaner air, walkable, green, bicycle cities.

Eugenie L. Birch, Nussdorf Professor and co-Director, Penn IUR: Cities use smart innovation to advance any number of SDGs depending on what they have selected to concentrate. For example, if they are focusing on Goal 3 health, they might use smart phone apps to help mothers keep track of their children’s vaccinations. If they are pursuing Goal 11 cities and human settlements, they might invest in various systems (water, sanitation, transit) to make them more efficient.

Ton de Vries, Senior Director, Business Development, Bentley Systems: The City of Porto, Portugal is focused on improving its entire urban water cycle. They commissioned a smart water management platform called H2Porto. This digital twin has helped to improve the accuracy of data produced from sensor readings to nearly 99%. Their water service interruptions fell by 22.9%, sewer collapses decreased by 54%; repairs for pipe burst and sewer and service connections improved as well by 8.3% and 45.5%.  The integration of real-time data and ability to access information in the field helped improve operations by 23%.‍

Cities like New York, Copenhagen, London, and Singapore stand out as leaders in both sustainability and smart innovation—what we call Cities 4.0. What can city leaders learn from these 4.0 approaches? Do they represent the urban model of the future? What do you see as the hallmarks of success for cities in the future?  

Jose Antonio Ondiviela, Microsoft Western Europe Industry Executive Smart Cities: Most cities are still in the 2.0 stage, gathering data to monitor and control the city. Few are starting the 3.0 ladder where they offer a citizen-centered service and none has fully achieved the 4.0 as a Cognitive/Inteligent city with technology managing all automated processes and citizens fully and permanently connected and cocreating the future of the city.

Aseem Joshi, General Manager of Smart Cities, Honeywell: Three important factors differentiate these cities in a shared vision, which is developed with deep stakeholder engagement and brought to reality by strong, execution-focused leadership. Instead of siloed approaches, these cities take a more integrated view to create improvements across a range of functional areas. As Honeywell has worked with multiple cities around the world, we have found this to be a consistent theme for success.

Jarendra Reddy, Director, Urban Solutions, Hatch: Many cities struggle to drive growth without compromising the quality of life for citizens or the long term social and environmental sustainability of their communities. Cities 4.0 — those making measurable progress in both SDGs and Smart Solutions — create balanced growth and share the benefits of this growth across broader segments of society. Investment in enabling infrastructure, grassroots innovation programs, tailored service provision, reduced dependence on scarce resources, and innovative delivery models are hallmarks of smart city solutions that advance SDG achievement.

Eugenie L. Birch, Nussdorf Professor and co-Director, Penn IUR: Many cities can learn from New York, Copenhagen, London, and Singapore but they have to realize that all adaptations have to be context specific – it is important for the “model” cities to reveal the conditions that allowed them to undertake their innovations and equally important for the adapting city to understand its own conditions – not to adopt something without adapting it.

Ton de Vries, Senior Director, Business Development, Bentley Systems: In our experience, we see successful innovation happening when collaboration happens. It’s where city leaders are collaborating across departments, partnering with technology providers, and partnering third party companies to identify a problem to solve or a service to provide, to connect the right data sources to build a digital twin fit for purpose, and delight their stakeholders by deliver new or improved services.

Our research shows that cities making the most progress on the SDGs typically monitor that progress, conduct voluntary reviews, and designate specific departments to lead SDG initiatives. What best practices would you recommend that cities follow to achieve the SDGs?    

Andrew Caruso, Director, Urban Solutions, Hatch: Strategy alone is not enough. Monitoring and evaluation help track progress on implementation at a tactical and operational level. Interventions should be informed by business case frameworks with SDGs as a central objective, using evidence to understand the triple-bottom-line outcomes and describing impacts in ways relevant to stakeholder groups. A system thinking approach is essential to aligning stakeholders and disciplines around objectives, performance, and needed refinement to achieve SDGs.

Gerald Uche Maduabuchi, Director of Sales, Panorama Data Solutions Ltd: The bottom-up approach is a holistic and most productive approach whereby the government institutes some study groups to conduct grassroots research and stakeholders’ consultation forums with the citizens, communities, NGOs, trade unions, private and foreign companies to enact a bill and formulate a Smart City Act. The Act, through its frameworks and directives, will be used to form an independent governing body who will be in charge of developing rules and regulations that will create an enabling environment for the SDGs and Smart City innovations; and it is achievable at any or all levels of government: federal, state or local.

Eugenie L. Birch, Nussdorf Professor and co-Director, Penn IUR: Cities need to align their own goals and objectives with those of the SDGs.  Many cities already have sustainability plans, so the key is to see where the SDG efforts and their own agree on directions. In other words, the global community cannot expect to impose the SDGs on cities – they have to let the cities (and nations) use the aspirational framework (that is what the SDGs are) as guidance.

Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World is an in-depth global study designed to create an evidence-based roadmap to make cities safer, more sustainable, and resilient. The research reveals lessons learned from the pandemic, centered on the social, environmental, and economic imperatives that matter most, and based on objective quantitative analysis that shows which investments and technologies will be most effective for achieving their goals.

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