Cities in 2018: Simple ideas, fancy urban tech

The SDGs and the New Urban Agenda remain a challenge for cities. Goal 11 of the SDGs, to build sustainable cities, has proved to be a particularly tough one for urban areas across continents.
Picture only for representation.(HT PHOTO)
Picture only for representation.(HT PHOTO)
Updated on Dec 26, 2018 11:53 PM IST
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By Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai

This column last week looked at trends in urbanism through 2018, both as a wrap-up of the year and as learning for Mumbai. Here’s a curation, in no particular order, of some innovations that cities across the world adopted, received acclaim for, and put to work to make life safer or more comfortable or equitable for their residents.

The over-arching purpose of innovations seemed to follow two routes: One was to align cities’ systems and goals with the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which the United Nations laid out a blueprint for, to be attained by 2030; the other was to adopt cutting-edge tools and technologies for urban issues to either offer solutions to old problems or present new ways to live.

The SDGs and the New Urban Agenda remain a challenge for cities. Goal 11 of the SDGs, to build sustainable cities, has proved to be a particularly tough one for urban areas across continents. The SDG Trends Dashboard this year was a bird’s eye view of how countries are faring. The bad news is that no country even in the G20 bracket is on course to achieve the goals. Worse, among the G20, India is most in the red with a yawning 24% points average gap in achieving the SDGs by 2018 to make her cities sustainable, address climate change, provide water and sanitation, and clean energy.

Other cities are doing better. London, for instance, set out a comprehensive city transport plan in which cycling, walking, and public transport will take precedence over private motorised transport. This has the world’s first Cycling Action Plan worked down to the city’s boroughs to improve air quality and reduce road congestion. Mayor Sadiq Khan wants cycling, walking and public transport to form 80% of all journeys in 2041; not every Londoner approves but he has got the transport plan off the ground. And yes, London has a walking and cycling commissioner. New York City mapped its OneNYC Plan, to become the world’s most resilient and equitable city, to SDG goals.

Wuhan, the Chinese city of 11 million, showed the world what to do with a big stinky garbage dump. Among Asia’s largest dumps, once smouldering with trash fires and emanating methane to an extent that Wuhan’s residents couldn’t open their windows, it was reclaimed and turned into a green oasis which is now a popular recreation space, wedding venue, and site for international events. More than 20 departments of various tiers of government made it possible; Wuhan’s innovation won it the top honours at the Guangzhou International Awards this year.

Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, showed the world what public-sourced and equitable land-use planning looked like – and how to do it. For its Ruta 2042, like Mumbai’s Development Plan 2034, the city’s administrators engaged in the largest public outreach effort ever, soliciting inputs from literally thousands of residents across address, education and income categories.

Some innovations were simple and low-tech, but with far-reaching implications. Milan re-jigged its urban food chain; a new policy mandated that canteens in schools and public institutions would source from local/nearby agricultural producers, and restaurants could claim 20% rebate in tax if they donated excess food to charities in the city. Surabaya in Indonesia has a direct lesson for Mumbai. It mandated that the city’s buses accept plastic bottles of designated sizes as payment. A three-in-one strike, it boosted public transport ridership, encouraged recycling, and reduced waste by 10% even when the city’s population increased.

Urban tech is the definitive new frontier. And it goes beyond the ubiquitous ‘Smart City’ concept. From food delivery and retail consumption to co-working, co-living, city parking and real estate analytics, tech has been re-defining urban life, space, and mobility to an extent that urban tech companies and start-ups featured among some of the very largest venture capital investments this year. Blockchain technology is being slowly – and cautiously – adopted by cities for specific services. App-enabled services like e-scooters are being held out as a panacea for urban transportation headaches – but they are also causing new problems in a few cities.

Urban tech is clearly the space to watch out for next year but it brought home a truth: tech can transform or enhance life in a city but it cannot replace public policy and programmes.

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