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Cities: Agents of change in an urbanizing world

30 September 2011 - The world’s population is not only growing – it is urbanizing at a rapid rate. By 2050, according to UN estimates, about 70 per cent of us will be living in cities, compared with just over half today. The global urban population is expected to double to 6.4 billion, a challenging prospect. Many cities, especially in the developing world, are already feeling the strain on limited resources as people flock from the countryside in search of a better life for themselves and their families. And although cities occupy only 2 per cent of the earth’s landmass, they are responsible for 80 per cent of global energy consumption and half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

If cities are to support future growth and avoid potentially catastrophic environmental and social repercussions, they need to act now to ‘future-proof’ urban infrastructure and ensure that all their inhabitants have access to the opportunities cities can offer. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) can provide solutions to many of the problems confronting cities, helping to make them more environmentally sustainable and economically viable.

In terms of infrastructure, ICTs enable us to manage our cities in innovative ways:

  • Smart grids, coupled with smart meters in homes and businesses, produce better matching of power supply and demand, discourage waste and permit integration of irregular inputs from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

  • Smart water systems lead to better water management, including collection and disposal of storm water, rapid detection of leakages and reduction of wasteful use.

  • Smart buildings minimize energy consumption – or power themselves and feed energy back into the electricity grid. Lighting and appliances turn off automatically when not in use.

  • Smart street lights come on only when and where they are needed.

  • Intelligent transport systems cut energy use, pollution and traffic jams. In connected cities GPS-based systems will direct drivers to the nearest available parking space and manage traffic flows. Wireless communications will enable fast, flexible personalized public transport to respond more efficiently to customer needs.

  • Smart electric cars can act as distributed storage devices for electricity, charging from the grid at off-peak times (or from renewable energy sources) and releasing electricity to the grid when demand is higher.

  • E-commerce, teleconferencing and teleworking reduce transport and travel demands (and reduce the need to construct energy-consuming offices and shops). Less commuting will also give people more time to spend with their families and take an active interest in their local communities.

ICTs can also help improve the lives of slum dwellers, millions of whom have no access to the means of communication and information that many of us take for granted. Innovative ICT projects have already proved their worth in such countries as Brazil, India and Kenya, for example, through providing access to employment and training. But ICTs can do far more than this, enabling the delivery of government services online and giving small businesses in slum areas the opportunity to participate in e-commerce.

Perhaps most important of all, ICTs can empower slum dwellers, often excluded from the political process, by giving them access to information and providing a means for them to communicate, share their concerns and mobilize for change. ICTs are thus a powerful tool for local democracy and social inclusion.

ITU is working with its Members in a number of ways to help make smart cities a reality and to bridge the digital divide. On the occasion of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day 2010, with the theme ‘Better city, better life with ICTs’, ITU called on its Members to:

  • Promote sustainable urban policies at the national level by encouraging and investing in ICTs for smart cities.

  • Support ITU’s ongoing work aimed at developing standards in areas such as intelligent transport systems, smart grids and energy-efficient buildings. ITU is also active in UN Habitat’s World Urban Campaign.

  • Support ITU’s ongoing work on the use of ICTs for emergency communications for the police, ambulance and fire services.

  • Identify priority areas where ICTs can be used to achieve equitable, sustainable urban development for slum dwellers.

  • Connect all institutions in urban areas. In particular, ITU is urging Member States, Sector Members and partners to help connect all schools by 2015. Schools are community hubs, so connecting schools means connecting youth and others in the community to knowledge and information, in turn helping them to find (and create) employment, and aiding social and economic development.

Digital Cities will also be a key topic on the agenda of ITU Telecom World 2011, taking place from 24-27 October 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland the Digital Cities’ 11 conference will focus on the trends shaping global city development, and will ask city mayors, leading urban developers and experts in the provision of essential public services for their views on the opportunities and solutions offered by ICTs.


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