Report from the United Nations’ World Urban Forum
by Mei Lin Fung, Chair, People-Centered Internet.
At this year’s World Urban Forum (WUF), I saw first-hand how the United Nations is working to build trust and relationships for those addressing emerging issues in cities around the world. The WUF operates as an open-ended think tank and advisory body to the UN every two years, with a focus on housing and cities. The February 2020 in Abu Dhabi meeting focused on Cities of Opportunity: Connecting Innovation and Culture.
At People-Centered Internet, we have been exploring how “smart” cities can be both sustainable and “people-centered.” With this focus, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this year’s WUF did not exclusively feature the latest-and-greatest technology but provided ample space for the work of architects, policy makers, politicians, planners and civil society and how technology can amplify their efforts.
Of course, there was an emphasis on edgy technologies for smart cities: Artificial intelligence, machine learning and other ways to solve existing problems. But besides solving today’s problems of transportation, housing, crowding, and education, some of us emphasized a people-centered approach to quality of life.
On my panel, we introduced ideas about how Smart Cities should help people flourish and improve social and economic opportunities. How can we help people to thrive in a future that is still being developed? How do we — people, families, neighborhoods and businesses — adapt to a changing world and plot a path to prosperity for ourselves and our children?
One example is Singapore’s approach to housing. Providing public housing was one of Singapore’s highest priorities. When the big global companies came in asking for big money to build the housing, the Singapore government said, “what good does that do us? It doesn’t help us to pay you to put up housing if our people can’t pay the rent.”
Singapore hired master engineering firms to break down the public housing plans into “bite size chunks” that local small businesses could handle. Over the decades, those who were able to do the job got more and more business. Today, Singapore companies are world class in engineering; they were given a start in building “flatted factories” or manufacturing in high rise buildings, and building high rise housing for 80% of the people of Singapore
We are hoping that globally that future Smart Cities will include clear objectives about how people are at the center and their hopes and dreams are the ones to be realized. Architecture prizes used to be about which buildings other architects appreciated, not whether the buildings were good to work or live in. As more voices are included we hope to see greater emphasis on nurturing elderly families, children, young people and their careers. Yes, it will take some effort. People are messy and they don’t always like what is planned for them! But they ARE the reason for almost all we plan and do.
We are working to make sure that people are at the center of the world’s networks of smart sustainable cities, and will be doing so within various global initiatives in the coming months. WUF provided a technical forum for experts to exchange views, providing opportunities for debate and discussion about the challenges of urbanization — critically important when 55% of the world’s population already lives in cities and and expected 75% will do so by 2030.
The WUF’s bi annual meetingswill influence outcomes of several UN conferences on sustainable development, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the New Urban Agenda (NUA) that was adopted at the Habitat III conference in Ecuador in 2016. I am glad to bring your attention to this important series.