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Science, Technology ‘Key Elements’ of Sustainable Urbanization

Their use may not solve all urbanization problems, but can provide a multitude of solutions that can be leveraged by cities

As the Habitat III process continues to pick up speed, agencies within the U. N. system that are not traditionally focused on cities have begun turning their attention to urbanization.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is one such entity. In early May, the body released a report looking at ways in which science, technology and innovation can bolster sustainable urbanization.

“Science, technology and innovation are key elements of sustainable urbanization and will play a growing role as such,” the report’s authors argue. “Their use may not solve all urbanization problems, yet can provide a multitude of solutions that can be leveraged by cities.”

To that extent, the report highlights best practices and policy implications among seven aspects of urbanization: density, land use and spatial planning; mobility; resilience regarding natural hazards; energy for cities; solid-waste management; resource-efficient buildings; and water and agriculture.

Some of the examples are tried and true for veteran urbanists — congestion pricing in London and Singapore, for instance, metropolitan planning in Portland or the transformation of Seoul’s downtown Cheonggyecheon Expressway into a park. Kuala Lumpur’s road tunnel that serves as a combination solution for storm-water management and traffic also gets a nod, an innovation that won UN-Habitat’s Scroll of Honour in 2011.

Other policies cited in the report have received far less attention, however, highlighting the potential for fresh eyes from outside the field to uncover innovations is unexpected places.

For example, UNCTAD describes a planning information system for Oman prepared in partnership with the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP). It also looks at the application of high-tech tools to manage the traffic congestion that disrupts public buses in the capitals of Ireland and Côte d’Ivoire.

Some examples operate at a more grass-roots level. The Bangladeshi NGO Waste Concern, for instance, has entered into a public-private partnership to pick up the slack in Dhaka, where the municipal government can only handle up to 40 percent of the city’s solid waste.

UNCTAD’s emphasis on national-level science and technology policy also points to several energy programmes with urban implications. The report highlights, for instance, how an Indian target to reduce fossil-fuel energy sources by 10 percent in 60 cities between 2007 to 2012 led to a boom in solar panels.

Likewise following dictates from the Chinese central government, Shanghai is embarking on a major offshore wind farm. Officials in charge of the project envision the production of 2.1 gigawatts of wind power by 2020, enough electricity for 4 million households.

Meanwhile, two biogas projects on former Sao Paulo landfills are generating as many “carbon credits” as the rest of Brazil’s Clean Development Mechanism-certified projects combined. (These tradable market-based credits, now widely used around the world, offer a system by which companies and others can emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide, while allowing regulators to limit the overall level of these emissions.)

The projects, policies and programmes showcased in UNCTAD’s report are all viable tools to meet the targets and indicators of Sustainable Development Goal 11, the urban SDG. Such information could be especially helpful as a new body of experts — the Interagency and Expert Group for the Sustainable Development Goals (IAEG-SDG) — prepares for its first meeting in early June.

That UNCTAD would engage with this process is an encouraging sign for next year’s Habitat III conference on cities. The Habitat negotiations are seeking dialogue with the entire U. N. system, soliciting contributions of expertise for the Habitat III outcome document, the New Urban Agenda. Input relevant to each agency’s topic areas will be especially important in informing these discussions — in this case, the role of science and technology in supporting sustainable urbanization.

The new report is Number 10 in a series: Science, Technology and Innovation — Current Studies.

This story was originally published by Citiscope, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at