Embracing innovation to tackle humanity’s greatest challenges
Thanks to the Connecting Cities to Solutions initiative, governments and global innovators can work together on tech-based responses to issues such as Islamabad’s water crisis.
By David Wallerstein, Tencent chief exploration officer, Taimur Khilji, UNDP Bangkok regional hub economist and urban development lead, Sahba Sobhani, UNDP private sector adviser, Paula Pelaez, head of Business Call to Action and Shakeel Ahmad, Assistant Country Director and Chief, Development Policy Unit for UNDP in Pakistan.
Cities use close to 65 percent of the world’s energy and generate more than 70 percent of greenhouse gases. They also drive economic growth and account for 80 percent of GDP. They are home to over half of the world’s population.
Ensuring city-dwellers have enough food, energy and water is essential for prosperity. These resources are often interdependent. And as cities become more densely populated, the vulnerable will suffer the most. Over the next 25 years, the number of people living in cities will rise to six billion. Climate change and ecological degradation are expected to add to the mounting challenges.
Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, has significant problems with water scarcity and quality. In 2015-16, about 70 percent of water was contaminated, significantly higher than in previous years, and leading to high rates of hepatitis.
At 50 million gallons per day, Islamabad gets less than 40 percent of the water it needs, and it loses around 60 percent of it during transportation. Groundwater is being depleted at an alarming rate, and more severe droughts and water outages are expected by 2025. The problem is complex and has wide-ranging ramifications.
The tech company Tencent supports the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Islamabad municipal government in piloting Connecting Cities to Solutions, an initiative that addresses Islamabad’s water issues by working with the private sector.
Many entrepreneurial startups are already working with powerful technologies to address the city’s water needs. Sensors help understand flows, volumes, and purity of water. Artificial intelligence is improving fresh water processing and efficiency; data collection, forecasting and improved alert management are helping prevent water loss; and behavioural insights provide new options for addressing water scarcity.
Connecting Cities to Solutions will create a web platform that lists the most pressing challenges and invite entrepreneurs to address them. It will also create a playbook where municipal, regional and even national governments can apply to work with global innovators.
The initiative identifies four components.
Sharing information between public and private sectors enables companies to play a much greater role in combating problems. Connecting Cities to Solutions aims to become a best example of governments informing global innovation centres, incubators and accelerators, and the public about the most important challenges affecting a region.
Incubators, accelerators, startups, academic groups, and hackathons can foster ideas. What was previously a Silicon Valley phenomenon has now become commonplace. Using the Connecting Cities model, governments can directly relay challenges to the startup world. Entrepreneurs are presented with urgent problems (which are also market opportunities), identifiable patrons, and the potential for impact. New technologies and innovations can be applied to address important societal issues.
Entrepreneurs have answers, but often lack capital. Public-private partnerships can support projects that use accelerated tender or suitability review processes to ensure a faster take up rate. For this to happen, entrepreneurs must show more rapid traction with projects to secure funding, and governments should develop regulations that support the deployment already-proven solutions.
For projects that offer viable ideas but insufficient funding, governments and UNDP can make a case to financial bodies such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as well as those with focused mandates, such as the Green Climate Fund.
Underpinning the whole initiative is buy-in from governments. They must first assess their readiness to participate. This includes asking: what are the most important challenges and what is the commitment to solving them? Who in the private sector is best placed to partner with? What are the most appropriate means of engagement? And how are results measured?
UNDP supports initiatives by creating the online platform that helps find solutions, helping connect cities and those who have the answers. The idea is to develop a platform that can provide a blueprint to guide other regions. Across 70 countries Business Call to Action is already bringing many of these ideas.
The Islamabad initiative will lay the foundation for future public-private partnerships. It will be a model for how governments and entrepreneurs can use technology to meet the greatest needs.
Connecting Cities to Solutions will not only improve the lives of underserved communities, but also mark a new generation of partnerships between UNDP, governments and the private sector as we work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.