Cities are places where large numbers of people live and work; they are hubs of government, innovation, commerce, trade, and transportation. The population living in cities is continuously growing due to migration from rural to urban areas and international migration between countries seeking new opportunities. According to UN Sustainable Cities and Communities reports, more than 54% of the world’s population is living in cities and that number is projected to increase to about 5 billion people by 2030 as more than 1 Million people are added every week to the Urban population. The world’s cities occupy just 3 percent of the Earth’s land, but cities contribute 80% of GDP and account for 60-80 percent of carbon and 75 percent of energy consumption.

Urbanization and its Present Challenges

Due to rapid urbanization, infrastructure and resources are becoming limited, as cities consume more. Consequently, new problems are emerging, such as CO2 emissions, transport, energy and water shortages, sanitation and sewage, congestion, aging infrastructures, health care, provision of educations, accommodations, and more. Urbanization also contributes to social inequalities due to the gap between rich and poor, low income, poverty, unemployment, segregation, crimes, safety, and aging population.

If cities don’t work for investors, employers, and citizens alike, then the interconnected flows of trade, capital, people, and technology will stall. Planning and developing the urban ecosystem – including managing the impacts on rural areas that get absorbed into the expanding urban area – is just the start. To address a range of infrastructure, transit, utilities, and connectivity challenges, city administrators will need to harness data-driven intelligence to identify appropriate priorities and ensure overall livability for all residents.

If cities don’t work for investors, employers, and citizens alike, then the interconnected flows of trade, capital, people, and technology will stall.

However, that’s not all. To counter the multiple social challenges arising from urbanization, they must ensure that data sources – which today mostly sit in silos across agencies and departments and commercial third-party providers – can be brought together seamlessly. Only then will they be able to ease citizen burden through the delivery of predictive services – getting the right services to the right population cohort, at the right time.

Little wonder, then, that many municipalities are embracing the “smart city” concept. However, the definition of what a smart city is, or should be, varies significantly. For some, it’s about using technology to optimize city operations and urban flows. For others, it’s about initiating smart governance where policymaking is more flexible, practical, and closer to citizens – enabling experimentation, open dialogue, and fast-paced adaption in which policies are “initiated from below, and diffused by example.”

Digitalization: A Solution to Urbanization Challenges

To be clear, technology can indeed help solve some of the large and growing challenges of urbanization. By 2030, more than 5 billion people—60% of the 2010 global population—will live in cities. Meeting the needs of these urban residents will put a tremendous strain on municipal governments, and many are rushing to invest in technology, hoping that it will provide a fast and easy solution. The impulse is understandable: technology is advancing rapidly and has transformed many industries. However, under the current approach to implementation—a series of short-term decisions—technology is unlikely to achieve its full potential.

Digital technology is among the most promising means to help meet these multiple challenges. The right digital tools can enhance the quality of life in cities by enabling governments to deliver services more efficiently. Digitalization can also create jobs in promising, tech-driven areas such as data analysis and app development, and reduce the environmental impact of mega-cities by, for example, making urban transport more efficient.

By 2030, more than 5 billion people—60% of the 2010 global population—will live in cities.

The next step is to apply digitalization more directly to urban planning, to create “digital cities,” or intelligent ecosystems that are better able to meet the challenges of growth and sprawl. Unlike traditional cities, which have developed haphazardly, digital cities are purposely designed around integrated infrastructure, leaving them better equipped to deliver integrated value-added services such as e-health, e-government, and e-transport, among others.

The “Smart Dubai” initiative is one promising example. The five-year plan aims to transform the emirate using digital technology, allowing it to offer a range of online government services to citizens, local businesses, and government entities. In addition to quality-of-life benefits, the project will add US$5.5 billion to Dubai’s GDP, along with 27,000 jobs.

Other cities are launching similar programs. Singapore is currently implementing a 10-year master plan (called “Intelligent Nation 2015“) that relies heavily on digital technology. As part of the initiative, Singapore developed a city-wide smart transit system that collects and processes traffic data from the location and speed of moving cars, through crowd-sourcing, and gives residents real-time traffic data on a public television channel. Singapore also has a large telemedicine initiative—some 3 million patients, or 60 percent of the population, are seen by medical doctors through remote consultations on digital media.

What’s more, technology can help cities use resources more effectively and create healthier urban environments. Digital solutions are helping cities generate reductions of 15% to 30% in CO2 emissions, energy and water consumption, traffic congestion, and crime. They also help cities deliver services far more efficiently. In Australia, for example, approximately 80% of the population is expected to access government services through digital channels by 2020. For these reasons, city governments are spending significantly on technology. In India, the government plans to invest more than $1.5 billion in technology initiatives across 100 cities. China launched pilot projects in more than 500 cities in 2017 alone. Canada plans to build 100 smart buildings in the next three years and reduce energy consumption in existing buildings by 17%.

In Conclusion

The message for policymakers in cities around the world is clear. Instead of taking a piecemeal approach to technology, they should create a more expansive agenda and create “digital cities” that can tackle the economic, social, and environmental problems of urbanization. These efforts require significant infrastructure, namely a backbone of the digital hub that connects city agencies, residents, and businesses. They also require a centralized digital twin that can coordinate data among multiple applications and services, and connect to end users through multiple access points, such as smartphones, tablets, urban transit elements, and other devices.

Once these components are in place, the potential applications are virtually limitless. For example, a city-wide monitoring system equipped with intelligence could detect suspicious behavior on public premises and proactively prevent crimes; the result is a better allocation of law-enforcement resources and lower crime rates. Similarly, teachers and students could more easily exchange learning materials and assignments.

Of course, digital transformations are long, complex, and expensive. Given the political or economic obstacles that will inevitably arise, the process will require city leaders to work with all stakeholders to establish the right objectives and development efforts. This is particularly true in older cities that already have a dense infrastructure in place and often require expensive, complex retrofits to accommodate digital technology.

We at BuildingMinds aim to help property managers, asset managers and facility managers digitalising their existing building portfolio as well as provide meaningful, actionable insights under a single dashboard.

To know more about how BuildingMinds can help you, get in touch with us.