Between 2019-21, the world made no progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Aside from the global health impact, the COVID-19 pandemic hampered educational outcomes because of school closures, while economic growth stalled and millions more people are now living in extreme poverty.
Since early 2022, Russia’s large-scale aggression against Ukraine and its far-reaching impacts on trade, economic growth, inflation, and food and energy security have posed yet another major threat to achieving the 2030 Agenda.
Several sustainable development goals are particularly hanging in the balance, not only in Ukraine but worldwide, including goals on peace, justice and strong institutions, but also poverty and hunger, sustainable cities and communities, and climate action.
Getting Back on Track
Cities will be central to getting the SDGs back on track. The OECD estimates that about 105 of the 169 SDGs targets will only be reached if local and regional governments are actively engaged – as they are responsible for 55% of public investment and 37% of public expenditure across OECD countries and hold key levers over water, housing, transport, infrastructure, and land use.
Their proximity to local businesses, residents, and civil society also means they are uniquely placed to mobilise collective action towards the SDGs. Nevertheless, 70% of OECD cities have still not achieved more than two SDGs.
Most OECD cities are still far from achieving the SDGs
OECD (2020), A Territorial Approach to the Sustainable Development Goals: Synthesis report, OECD Urban Policy Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/e86fa715-en.
How can smart city initiatives help accelerate progress towards the SDGs? A recent study among 167 cities found that cities making the most progress towards the SDGs were also frontrunners in the application of technology, data and partnerships.
In London, smart traffic management systems are estimated to have reduced congestion by around 8% annually between 2014 and 2018 (SDG 11).
In Cartagena, Colombia, the implementation of the Smart City Irrigation Management System in its municipal parks and gardens has reduced water consumption by 30% (SDG 6).
Hong Kong’s smart city strategy has helped reduce the electricity consumption of government buildings by 7.8% between 2015-16 and 2019-20 (SDG 7). And carbon emissions have been reduced by 20% since 2005.
New technologies can also help us track progress at a granular level. Smart air quality sensors to monitor air pollution and help take action are just one example. So it is possible to use smart city initiatives to drive progress on the SDGs. How can more cities follow this path?
- First, rather than coming as an afterthought, the SDGs could serve as a guiding framework for setting smart city objectives upfront. In Vienna (Austria), the SDGs have been strategically integrated into all areas of the Vienna Smart City Strategy. Recognising that smart city goals and the SDGs are closely interlinked, the strategy identifies goals and actions that can contribute to reaching the SDGs. For example, the expansion of digital platforms for shared mobility and the increase in smart charging infrastructure for electric vehicles can contribute to Vienna’s goal of decreasing per capita CO2 emissions in the transport sector by 50% by 2030 while improving accessibility and air quality.
- Second, stakeholder engagement, and particularly partnerships between public and private sectors, are key both for smart city strategies and for sustainable development, as highlighted by SDG 17. Digital innovation such as online platforms and community planning tools can help bring a broader range of stakeholders to the table, particularly citizens who are the end-users of smart city initiatives. Engaging stakeholders also helps raise awareness of smart cities’ contribution to the SDGs. For instance, Melbourne (Australia) recently launched its new online Neighbourhood Portals, as part of its Participate Melbourne platform, to help local communities connect and share ideas for the future.
- Finally, although smart city solutions can improve public services, there is no guarantee that they will automatically push cities closer to the SDGs. For example, even well-intentioned smart city initiatives might contribute to widening the digital gap and getting further away from achieving SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities). It is therefore critical to make sure smart city solutions are inclusive. For example, in Helsinki (Finland), developers have set up a GPS application helping blind and visually impaired to navigate through the city. The app uses Helsinki’s open data on public transport and mapping tools to suggest targeted travel routes.
With 2030 just around the corner, the untapped potential of smart cities to advance the SDGs remains huge. For example, only 3% of the world’s light poles are smart even though smart street lighting can reduce electricity consumption in cities by up to 80%, making a significant contribution to SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy) and SDG 13 (Climate Action). Also, more than 2 billion people in the world still do not have bank accounts.
With access to digital financial services proven to help lift people out of poverty (SDG 1), smart city initiatives can foster financial inclusion for those unbanked adults who often own a mobile phone, especially in emerging markets.
Speeding up the achievement of the SDGs through digital transformation requires investments in research and development, collaboration with academia and securing the necessary means to finance smart infrastructure while protecting citizens’ data.
Developing the necessary skills, raising awareness and building capacity in subnational governments will also be key to deploying the use of digital tools. because now is the moment to get back on track, by exploiting the potential of smart cities to achieve of the global goals, until 2030 and beyond.