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Data-driven cities a key to the Habitat III new urban agenda

The history of global gatherings and frameworks around urban settlements and sustainability have resonated with a few particular groups: government diplomats, international advocacy groups, more representatives representing government, and more representatives representing advocacy groups.

Too high level for some. Important detail for others. Whatever your position, one common thread of DNA joins us – it’s all about better cities.

And there seems to be a spring in the step of those in Quito, Ecuador, this week where Habitat III is now underway. A group of urban leaders, followers and change agents seeking confirmation and clarification on the global fundamentals needed to make our cities work for people. In particular, for the most vulnerable.

Urbanisation has been identified as one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends. With this, comes the sustainability challenges of housing, infrastructure, basic services, food security, health, education, decent jobs, safety and natural resources, among others. The New Urban Agenda, already drafted and ready for adoption, reaffirms our collective commitment to a more effective sustainable urban development that delivers on these outcomes.

Let’s talk about time

Consider this: at the time of Habitat I, the world’s urban population stood at just under 40 per cent. Currently it’s at 54 per cent. Where we are going is getting pretty unreal – 66 per cent by 2050.

That’s nothing new to you. But the challenge, as stated by former mayor of Barcelona and executive director of UN Habitat, Joan Clos, we have been making lots of mistakes over the past 20 years. “The level of planned organisation has decreased, and the quality of the planning [of our cities] has also decreased,” Clos has said.

“That has created a very deadly situation where a lot of people are suffering in many cities for lack of urban design, and lack of adequate management, and lack of urban finances, and we need to recover that,” he stressed.

But what is the relevance of these types of statements for Australia, one of the wealthiest, educated, highly urbanised countries in the world? Well, you don’t have to drive too far out of any major city in Australia to experience such conditions – sprawl, congestion, poor urban design, lack of transit and connectivity.

Our cities, and human settlements in general, are on the clock. A climate crisis, rising inequality, declining human health. There seems, as I observed in the lead up to Quito, a sense of urgency. And this is good. But have we not been here before? Crunch time always seems to be the context with these global gatherings.

For The New Urban Agenda, the time horizon is 2050. Another clock set. Counting down.

The smart cities interface

Habitat III is no short-term workshopping session for tomorrow. This is about our collective global future. Informal settlements are the fastest growing communities in the world. Yet we are at the same time cramming into out highly urbanised mega and major cities alike.

The New Urban Agenda contains the right words, concepts, principles and narratives. It contains a shared vision and a call to action. It also contains the most important part: an implementation plan, which includes a range of transformative commitments.

And why does Habitat III matter to the smart cities movement? Quite simply, this movement has created a number of the solutions to many of our urban problems.

The smart cities movement has created a range of approaches and applications to enable a smarter built environment. It has looked at the dependencies in the built environment and then lifted up the benefits by applying intelligent design, technology and data acquisition and analytics. Smart cities strategies are being applied in developing economies and established nations alike.

The West African city of Gabon has introduced a Smart Code as the primary basis for urban land development in Libreville, the nation’s capital and largest city. The Smart Code provides a framework for flexibility that is not possible with traditional zoning, making it possible to incorporate new ideas in land planning as well as smart technologies in transport and water utilities. Smart Cities Council member Bechtel is working with the Gabonese government to deliver several development projects intended to address pressing issues related to the housing stock and enhancing Libreville’s built environment.

Philadelphia’s Navy Yard has been transformed from the nation’s first naval shipyard to a 480 hectare mixed-use campus that is home to 11,000 employees working with 145 companies. In June 2015 Alstom and Penn State launched the Microgrid Center of Excellence. The first-of-its-kind facility will help advance the development of microgrid technologies as part of the Navy Yard’s grid modernisation project. The campus will be able to operate independently from the main grid in case of an outage due to extreme weather or other extraordinary events. By implementing optimal instrumentation, they have full situational awareness on their energy use. Only with this, can the most sustainable decisions be made.

Delivering the New Urban Agenda through data-driven cities

The smart cities movement is one driven by targets, and principles – better liveability, greater workability and enhanced sustainability. For the built environment, our vertical and horizontal infrastructure, and the spaces and places in between, we need to embrace a data-driven decision making culture.

Collecting data, communicating it to relevant platforms, and then crunching that data into useful information is the blueprint. Collect, communicate and crunch. Only when we have this information, this situational awareness, do we know if our interventions and our investments are making a difference.

Whether it be a park bench, set of traffic lights, water distribution system, or residential dwelling, we need to understand the level of performance of the component parts of our cities, if we are to understand their overall performance as a whole system. And for this, we need a city planning and management approach focussed on digital connectivity, interoperability and data sharing and management.

So back in Quito, UN Habitat’s Joan Clos is clear on the why Habitat III is so important. “It represents a great opportunity to recover 20-30 years of loss of focus, and loss of direction in the urbanisation process,” He says.

So, over the coming days, weeks and months, as national and local politicians shape up the necessary but complex policies for driving greater sustainable urbanisation under The New Urban Agenda, we invite the necessary dialogue between those in the sustainable cities movement, and the smart cities practitioners who have developed the solutions to our cities’ most critical sustainability challenges.

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