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ICTs as enablers for sustainability, implementation of SDGs and ESG adoption for Smart Sustainable Cities

A Think Tank team selected stalwarts, business thinkers and successful leaders in their respective fields pen their thoughts exclusively for us, making gripping narratives.

Developing nations face a lot of challenges when it comes to the environment, water, food and agriculture, health, education, infrastructure, financial inclusion, security, disaster mitigation, etc., caused by mismanagement as well as an inherent shortage of resources. The United Nations has come up with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to mitigate some of these challenges. A number of UN agencies have been working on ways and means of implementing these goals. One of them being U4SSC – United for Smart Sustainable Cities, a joint initiative of ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) and 14 other agencies of the UN.

Some of the other initiatives of the UN include:

  • ITU-FG AI4EE. Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence for Environmental Efficiency;
  • ITU-FG AI4H. Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence for Health; and
  • ITU-FG AI4A. Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence for Agriculture.

One major enabler in this process of meeting the SDGs has been the proliferation of mobile phones. These terminal devices in the hands of the common man have led to a digital revolution, particularly in the developing nations. This is because the deficit in the infrastructure cannot be met through the traditional methods. Further, the emerging technologies have opened new vistas.

The objective of this series of articles is to highlight how emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Quantum Computing, Extended Reality, Blockchain, Big Data Analytics, e-networks, Drones, Digital Twins, and 5G networks can be leveraged to meet these sustainable development goals – SDGs 2030, while impacting various domains including:

  • Smart Sustainable Cities;
  • Education;
  • Health;
  • Food and agriculture;
  • Environment;
  • Energy;
  • Industry innovation and Infrastructure – Industry 4.0; and
  • Financial inclusion.

One important objective of this series of articles is to highlight how leveraging all these technologies can help create business opportunities in various domains.

At this juncture, it would be imperative to also mention the enablement of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) adoption by these technologies. Addressing ESG factors can help organizations manage their environmental and social imprint and determine their business risks and opportunities, thereby ensuring sustainable business practices.

So, we shall start with the first article in this series on Smart Sustainable Cities (SSCs).

Smart Sustainable Cities
In the recent years, there has been a sharp increase in migration of populations to urban habitats worldwide, due to enhanced increase in job opportunities in the cities. This has been posing a big challenge to the infrastructure in those cities. UN Habitat and other sister organizations, being cognizant of these challenges posed to the infrastructure and the environment and the society as such, have been working on Smart Sustainable Cities (SSCs). One of the initiatives is U4SSC, which has developed key performance indicators – KPIs, and other aspects of sustainability leveraging ICTs.

UNECE and ITU in October 2015 defined a Smart Sustainable City (SSC) as an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects.

Objectives of Smart Sustainable Cities:

  • Improve the quality of life of people’s lives through increased economic activities, affordable health services, quality education, conducive environment, equitable distribution of resources and social inclusion;
  • Make urban operations and services efficient, and competitive through people’s participation in governance, with minimum need for commuting, optimizing on use of energy, water supply, with a proper sewage and solid waste management; and
  • Meet the needs of present and future generations through effective urban planning and innovation, taking care of economic, social and cultural aspects.

Three pillars of technology for meeting these objectives are:

  • Telecom infrastructure;
  • IT infrastructure; and
  • Emerging technologies.

Smart Cities in India
Smart Cities Program for 100 cities has been started in India in 2015. While there has been emphasis on smartness, sustainability in some cases has taken a back seat.

India is different from the West. It continues to be faced with challenges that are typical of developing nations. While many countries follow the UN KPIs (key performance indicators,, India has decided to be more democratic in its approach by giving freedom to each of these 100 smart cities to follow the will of the residents.

The government appoints an administrator of the smart city, who in turn chooses the consultant, on L1 basis. The consultant then formulates a questionnaire. The residents are then accordingly asked to choose. Now sometimes the challenge is that this position of the consultant is grabbed by some reputed organization, by quoting abnormally low consultancy charges, eliminating genuine local companies, and with backhand understanding with the international vendors, drive the projects in our cities. What it all results in is projects that could look very flashy, but may not meet the actual needs of the people in a city.

Projects in the Smart Sustainable Cities domain relevant to India
Food and agriculture. It is important to ensure that food for the residents of the Smart Sustainable Cities is grown in the adjacent rural areas, so that the carbon footprints due to transportation from long distances are minimized. Also, it is a well-established fact that excess of chemical fertilizers and insecticides, while increasing productivity, also pose health-related challenges to consumers, thus increasing spending on the health domain, apart from resulting in loss of man days. So, the way out is Precision Agriculture, leveraging IoT, using water supply in a controlled manner, with limited fertilizers and limited insecticides, preferably organic ones.

Besides this, the paradox in a mega city in the developing world is that while a lot of high-end hotels have a lot of surplus food, at the end of the day a lot of people in the slums go to bed hungry. A solution in a city like Mumbai has been found in the form of the Roti Bank ( waste/index.html#p=6).

Housing. Smartness does not always mean high-tech. Objective of any architecture in an SSC should be to minimize energy consumption in the interest of sustainability. Emerging technologies like Digital Twin help us in optimizing on the resources in an SSC. Also, there is a move for net-zero buildings, where the net energy and water consumed from the common resources of the city by the building is zero.
Besides this, there are other means of ensuring that the pressure on the environment is reduced as far as possible. UN Habitat advises a mandatory location of accommodation within the same premises for the domestic and industrial help.

Also technologies like 3D printing can help in making 3D printed houses in the low-income segment to optimize on the cost of the units, and thus provide housing for all.

Empowerment of citizens. Governance in a developing nation is a big challenge. This has a lot of ramifications on the cities as well. E-governance is the mantra in such situations. This can include activities like GIS mapping of infrastructure, digitization of land records, monitoring of welfare schemes, etc. GIS mapping of utilities ensures that utility services do not work at cross purposes by damaging one another’s infrastructure. Also, the asset management/management of land records ensures transparency. Technologies like Blockchain, Digital Twins, Internet of Things, etc. could help in the process.

A provision for government services including driving licenses, citizenship identification cards, passports, environmental clearances, etc., online would ensure that the tasks become easy for the citizens, and the corruption is reduced.

Education. Emerging technologies like Extended Reality, Blockchain, 3D printing, e-networking platforms, Digital Twins, etc., can transform education and skill development in a big way. We have seen how during the pandemic, communication platforms like Zoom have proved to be boon for continuing with the online schooling.

Digital libraries, besides widening the scope can prove to be a boon for the students and other scholars as they can access content from the comfort of their home. Skill-enabling courses and learn as you earn initiatives are meant for those individuals who have not been privileged enough to complete their studies and are pushed into jobs too early.

There is a challenge of fake degrees/certificates in the country. This can be mitigated by leveraging technologies like Blockchain, etc.

Health. A majority of the people in developing countries are faced with health problems due to the environmental challenges, malnutrition and lack of medical services in the hinterland. Good health and wellbeing. We have seen how technology played a big role in countries like India during Covid-19, with a platform like CoWin. Here again emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Extended Reality, Blockchain, Big Data Analytics, Quantum Computing, Internet of Medical Things, 3D printing, Digital Twins, Drones, etc., ensure that concepts like Digital Health can be implemented in the developing world as well, where there is an acute shortage of trained healthcare professionals.

Energy-saving solutions. Providing energy supply to households and the industry in a developing world has been a challenge for quite some time. We, in India, too have a first-hand experience of the same. This challenge has been handled in multiple ways in the form of smart grids, smart meters, smart lighting, net metering, peak-power pricing, etc.

For sustaining these measures, technologies like the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Digital Twins, etc., play a big role, besides renewable sources of energy.

Safety and security. Countries like India are vulnerable from the perspective of safety and security as well. These could be in the form of terrorism, women/children safety, collapse of critical infrastructure, etc. These challenges are felt more in cities rather than in the rural areas, and can be mitigated with measures like CCTNS (crime and criminal tracking system), which also incorporates technologies like Big Data Analytics.

Also, monitoring of the critical infrastructure like flyovers, bridges, etc., becomes important when it comes to cities. We have seen what sort of a chaos happens when there is a collapse of any of these. Technologies like Internet of Things play a critical role in preventing such occurrences.

Tourism plays a big role in boosting the economy of a city, and thereby raising the standards of living. But for that to happen, the city has to be tourist friendly. The visiting tourists should find the information pertaining to a tourist site in a structured way. Location-based tourist information in multiple languages, preferably international ones, should be made available. This can be in audio visual format so that the tourists would have an option of moving at their pace, and not necessarily be led by the conducted tour personnel. These projects can also be undertaken in a PPP mode so that the private enterprise gets involved in a big way, and it can also be an employment generator.

MSME sector with almost 65 million enterprises, could prove to be a game changer in India’s growth story. Procurement of raw materials through optimal sources, e-marketing of products, capacity building, and financial guidance can go a long way in this direction. ERP service on Pay as you use basis could be a big support for this segment, who may find it difficult to afford on their own. This would also ensure better tax compliance.

Mobility. In the first place, a smart city ensures that its citizens do not have to travel long distances to markets and work places as far as possible. Also, the effort should be on minimizing on the carbon footprints by minimizing on private transport as far as possible. Hence, we need to have a combination of metro rail services, electric buses, electric taxis, cycle tracks, inland waterways, etc. The architectural design of a SSC should involve the minimum movement of people and goods and services, besides minimizing traffic congestion with AI-based automated traffic lights and traffic monitoring.

Smart environment. Environment is not only a challenge for the developing nations, but also for the developed ones. Climate change is a reality. We need to ensure that we leave this planet habitable for our future generations. Emerging technologies like Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence can help us mitigate serious challenges to our planet.

Air. We can always monitor the air quality at different locations, with no polluting industries around the city. There needs to be stress on non-conventional sources of energy.

Water. Recycling of water is of prime importance. The green patches in the city can have automated IoT-based drip irrigation. Rain water harvesting in every home and building has to be made mandatory. Sewage water treated with chemicals, can be used for a number of applications, including flushing in toilets and also for maintaining greenery in the city. Cities along the coastal lines can have desalination plants. All water bodies can be monitored continuously for CoD (chemically dissolved oxygen), BoD (biologically dissolved oxygen) levels, using chemical transducers and a centralized monitoring mechanism, leveraging IoT and AI. Industries using water can receive automated warning when the levels of chemicals from their ETPs (effluent treatment plants) exceed the threshold.

Solid waste disposal. The approach to handling needs to be a decentralized one rather than a centralized system.

E-waste management. The approach has to be two-fold – refurbish, reuse electronic goods, which would have a good market in a developing country like India, and at the same time there need to be recycling plants to extract precious metals and make such an activity commercially viable as well.

Industry innovation and infrastructure. We have been noticing challenges with the infrastructure in the developing world. Collapse of bridges, flyovers, buildings is not such an uncommon sight. This can easily be prevented by leveraging technologies like Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Digital Twins, etc.

At present, there are many hazardous industries where humans are forced to work due to lack of other job opportunities, or the lure of extra money. This results in many individuals getting permanent health-related issues, which could also result in reduced life. Use of AI, robotics, IoT could help us in automating these processes. It is possible to create a template for resilient automation using Industry 4.0 by creation of Centers of Excellence, linking educational institutions with the industry. Ancient knowledge dissemination needs to be encouraged; no need to reinvent at the wheel.

Communications. All the emerging technologies that play a role in making cities smart and sustainable, need to have a robust telecom system at the backhand. So, it is imperative that all the SSCs need to keep a provision for upgradation of the telecom infrastructure with minimum effort and disruption. There is a need for the use of street furniture for deployment of the 5G radio network. There also needs to be provision for optical fiber infrastructure in the city.

Enablement of ESG
As we can see, there are a lot of business opportunities in various applications of the emerging technologies in the Smart Sustainable Cities. Organizations that work on those are cognizant that investors in their project would also expect them to adopt ESG principles and thus consider, measure, report and work to improve the environmental, social, and governance aspects of their business alongside the financial considerations. It is about creating sustained outcomes, and fuel growth while strengthening the environment and our societies.

Emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Quantum Computing, Extended Reality, Blockchain, Big Data Analytics, etc., can be leveraged to meet these sustainable development goals – SDGs 2030, which in turn can meet the economic, environmental, and social and cultural objectives in various domains including the Smart Sustainable Cities (SSCs). These SSC projects have the potential to take existing Indian cities to the next level. The organizations involved in these Smart Sustainable Cities projects, have reasons to focus on the ESG aspects as well, thus having an impact on the society on the whole. Much of it can be achieved by 2025!

This article is authored by Vimal Wakhlu, Former Chairman & Managing Director, TCIL. Views expressed are personal.

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