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Author's profile photo David Jonker

11 Weeks to Davos: Data Matters in Urban Matters

17 weeks to Davos. 17 global goals to achieve a sustainable future. 17 blog posts exploring the UN’s vision for humankind. Here is number 11.

Global Goal #11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

By the time the storm had passed 80% of the city was flooded with water, over 1800 of the 10,000 or so who did not evacuate were dead, and 1 million people returned not knowing if their homes were dry. Considered the largest engineering disaster in U.S. history, the broken levees of New Orleans failed to hold back the tide for the half of the city residing below the water’s surface. With a storm surge 16 feet high even neighborhoods above sea level were not immune.

In a city already plagued with racial and economic disparities, hurricane Katrina devastated the poorest neighborhoods killing many who lacked the means to flee or modern communication tools to even know they should. In the wake of the disaster those hit hardest had the least means to recover.

The inhabitants of Port au Prince didn’t get any warning to evacuate when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck 25 kilometers west of the city. An estimated 160,000 people died that afternoon from the 280,000 building that collapsed or were severely damaged. For 1.5 million who survived there was no safe home to return to.

Port au Prince struggled before the earthquake. Half of its residents lacked running water or basic sanitation such as toilets. Sewage ran in open gutters between the buildings and streets in many parts. Built on substandard construction practices, Port au Prince turned to rubble in moments. The president of Haiti promised to rebuild ‘better’, but despite billions in aid life is not markedly different than before the fateful day in January 2010.

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro face similar challenges. Often perched on mountain sides the slums of Brazil’s cities are exposed to mud slides caused by tropical rain storms. Like New Orleans the poorest were the most affected by landslides in 2010, leaving 15,000 homeless and 212 dead.

Housing the city’s poorest, favelas lack basic city services or even police protection. Ruled by gangs and drug lords, fear kept the police and city workers out. But that all changed over the last ten years when President da Silva decided to clean house. Brazil’s military and police forces systematically arrested, and sometimes killed, gang members in an effort to gain control over the favelas; a necessary step to ensuring Brazil’s poor and marginalized can live safely with life’s basic necessities.

Our Urban Future

Cities are critical ecosystems across the globe. Over 50% of the world’s population dwell in cities, with 10% living in just 100 cities. By the end of the 21st century some estimate that those 100 cities will hold close to 20% of the world’s population. The twenty largest cities rank with the top 100 nations by population. Tokyo, the largest city on earth, has over 36 million residents making it larger than Canada’s population, though using less than 0.1% of Canada’s land area.

In many ways cities are small – and in some cases not so small – microcosms of the issues we face on a global level. The architects of the Sustainable Development Goals wisely focus cities in 3 critical areas. First, ensuring the marginalized are included and protected – from others and natural disasters. Second, ensuring people have equal access to basic infrastructure and services, including water, sanitation, utilities and transportation. Third, overcoming the negative environmental aspects of modern cities such as waste and air pollution.

The compactness of cities is why they play a critical role in a sustainable future. Dense urban living can foster innovation and collaboration, education and life’s basic necessities more accessible, and drive economic growth. As an added bonus, they reduce resource consumption and ensure critical, fertile land for agriculture and healthy biomes. For emerging countries, adopting sustainable development practices outlined in Goal #11, along with proven technologies and business practices, will catapult them forward economically and socially.

A Future Built on Technology

Technology will play a critical role in helping cities become more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive. Data collected from sensors embedded into city infrastructure, like the sewer systems in Buenos Aires, will help ensure basic services are working but can also help save people from natural disasters and other emergencies. Innovation in Cape Town shows how data from sensors in water utilities, electrical smart meters, and RFID tags on garbage cans can help improve basic services; and how software can help improve the financial management of taxes and other revenues.

Delhi and Boston are showing how mobile apps can deliver city services to residents, and to collect information about the state of roads and other infrastructure. In the case of Boston, they are adopting performance management techniques with the help of dashboards to ensure the city and its services are operating at peak performance. In Pune, officials are using mobile technology to carry out a census of its trees, which are crucial to improving air quality and quality of life. And SAP is proud to be helping cities and local governments as part of our vision and purpose to improve people’s lives.

This blog was originally published here. To learn more about the Global Goals, and to view previous blogs in this series, visit:

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