Utilities and Energy

Habitat III can set the urban-tech vision for years to come

The New Urban Agenda is an opportunity to bridge the gap between urbanists and technologists, radically improving the lives of people in cities worldwide.

By Rohit T. Aggarwala

Luis Astudillo C. / Cancillería del Ecuador

Luis Astudillo C. / Cancillería del Ecuador / Flickr

This commentary originally appeared at Citiscope.

The world of technology rarely seems to focus on the United Nations. And although the U.N. has made efforts to use technology, the world of diplomacy doesn't tend to connect well with the tech world.

This is an understandable divide. Global diplomatic institutions often move at a glacial pace compared with that of the technology industry. Further, the consumer-focused tech world can seem irrelevant to the very serious, typically very low-tech issues that occupy much of the United Nations' time.

But there is one current discussion where this gap could result in a terrible missed opportunity if it's not closed. That's the third U.N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, or Habitat III, the global meeting on urban policy convening in Quito, Ecuador, in October.

While many in the urban policy world know about Habitat, few in the tech world do— even in the world of urban tech. An event that has happened only twice before, in 1976 and 1996, Habitat III is a moment for the world's governments to define a vision of the future of cities.

Further, there's reason to believe that the strategy that comes out of Habitat III, far more than its predecessors, could be a document that crystallizes a positive, progressive global perspective on the urban agenda — and that technology will help inform that vision.

But there is equal reason to believe that the full potential of urban tech will be left out of that document, known as the New Urban Agenda. That would lead the world's cities to under-exploit technology, especially for people who need it most.

One reason for optimism about Habitat III is that it comes at a moment that favors thoughtful urban policy. While the world of international development has traditionally focused on improving rural conditions, over the past decade its attention has turned to cities as both the inevitable and the desirable future.

The success of the recent Paris climate talks included a significant focus on cities as areas where a low-carbon future can be realized at high standards of living. And the new Sustainable Development Goals, adopted last fall by the U.N. as the overarching anti-poverty and sustainability agenda for the next two decades, include one goal dedicated specifically to "sustainable cities and communities."

Significant role

Meanwhile, the Habitat III process is currently focused on political negotiations over the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year global vision on sustainable urbanization to be finalized in Quito. The current draft of that document is encouraging in several regards. (NOTE: this commentary was written prior to the release of the most recent draft of the New Urban Agenda.)

The original "zero draft" of the New Urban Agenda, released in May, reflected state-of-the-art thinking on urban policy. It touched even on topics sensitive to national governments, such as devolving power to local authorities. While some of these measures were watered down in the "revised zero draft" released in mid-June, reflecting the first inputs of national representatives, the document still retains much of its value.

Even more, the revised zero draft retains a significant role for technology in the world's urban future:

  • Paragraph 132 expresses the need to bridge the digital divide, as a means of encouraging civic engagement and improving access to urban services.
  • Paragraph 135 highlights the importance of local governments in "data collection, analysis, and dissemination," including "locally-generated disaggregated data" as a means to promote "evidence-based governance."
  • Perhaps most significantly, Paragraph 97 expresses support for changes in urban mobility, "including new technology that enables shared mobility services."

All in all, the urban-tech aspects of the draft New Urban Agenda sound like something that could have come out of any mayor's office of digital innovation.

This focus is significant, and far more so than most in the tech world might assume. Many in richer countries, particularly in the United States, tend to overlook the United Nations; its work is largely focused on lower-income countries. But in those countries, the U.N. and efforts such as Habitat III carry great weight.

If Habitat III were to incorporate a sophisticated, nuanced vision of urban technology into the global discussion, that would influence the way national and municipal governments make decisions about technology in the great urban markets of the near future.

While Habitat III probably won't change the discourse in San Francisco or London, anyone thinking seriously about urban tech also will be concerned about its future in the cities of the Global South, where the Habitat III agreement is likely to be influential.

That's why the tech world should pay close attention to what Habitat III says about technology. But there are also reasons for the world of diplomacy to pay close attention as well, and that's because of what is missing from the current draft of the New Urban Agenda.

Beyond digital solutions

While open data, civic engagement and shared rides are all key aspects of urban technology, we are only beginning to plumb the opportunities that this fourth urban revolution offers cities, especially in lower-income countries. Technology can never replace honest and effective government institutions when it comes to cities, but it can do far more than gather feedback and hail a taxi.

Consider the problem of slum housing and informal settlements, an issue that Silicon Valley itself doesn't face. Theft of property is a big challenge, and property rights and land tenure often can't be proven. Given that so many of world's urban poor do have mobile phones, however, it's possible to imagine that tenure of residence could be shown by phone records.

Similarly, the transfer of real estate is, in many countries, managed at the local government level. The potential for what's known as blockchain technology to enable transparent, reliable property ownership records seems like an approach that could secure people's ownership rights and facilitate real estate markets. If expressed as a goal for urban tech in the Habitat document, it could spur the technology world to work on solutions.

If its vision document is clear, Habitat III also has the potential to push the world of urban technology into ever more meaningful areas of focus. One of the shortcomings of the tech world is that it has tended to solve those problems that are most tractable and most digital. We can hail a cab in many different ways and tourists can find a room more easily, but we don't have tech-enabled solutions for delivering clean drinking water more cheaply or constructing buildings more reliably.

The information-only aspect of the "smart cities" efforts of large companies such as IBM and Cisco have been dismissed as irrelevant by some, because they can't address the basic needs that must be the top priorities in most cities around the world. This is what PayPal founder Peter Thiel was complaining about in his famous comment, "We wanted flying cars; we got 140 characters."

A key challenge will be getting the world of urban tech out of information-only solutions and into those that deal with atoms as well as bits and bytes. One interesting area could be robotics, which thus far has replaced labour in ways that might be cost-effective in developed cities but make little sense in places where low-skilled jobs are desperately needed.

But robotics still can play a role in low-income cities if applied to things humans can't do, such as repairing leaking water pipes from within, or perhaps to jobs that humans shouldn't do for health reasons, such as dealing with human waste.

It's hard to imagine a less-compelling venture-capital pitch than "my robot can muck out a latrine!" But it would be far more impactful than the next business plan that can deliver something you don't need to your door within 30 minutes.

Vital mission

Habitat III also might play a role in identifying the limits to the future of urban technology. While tech might help substitute for some roles currently played by government, it can't replace government altogether. In the end, strong institutions matter more than almost anything else to the well-being of urban dwellers.

Similarly, the New Urban Agenda draft is silent on privacy regimes, which may wind up being the key stumbling block for how well information is applied to solve urban problems.

At the moment, the privacy attitudes of the world's national governments range from pro-business laissez-faire to the surveillance state to the extreme in terms of keeping all individual information private. None of these are particularly helpful for urban technology, because they fail to wrestle with the core problem of how we trade off the public's benefit of making information known against the individual's risk of that information being misused.

At the very least, however, Habitat III could identify that a new approach needs to be developed.

At Sidewalk Labs, we often talk about the need to bridge the gap between urbanists and technologists. We also believe that technology has the potential to radically improve the lives of people in cities worldwide. Habitat III offers the rare chance to unite these two groups around that vital mission.