One (long and mostly virtual) year on: UNDP's Smart Cities and Digitalisation Programme

Calum Handforth

One (long and mostly virtual) year on: Our Smart Cities and Digitalisation Programme

by Calum Handforth - Advisor, Digitalisation and Smart Cities | UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development Singapore

At the start of 2020, the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development launched its ‘smart cities and digitalisation’ programme. Since then, the team has worked with 25+ UNDP Country Offices, and local and national partners, to explore the role of digital, data, and technology in improving urban lives and livelihoods. This collaboration has included working on digital platforms for informal traders in Gambia; through to delivering virtual training on Big Data, the Circular Economy, and other concepts – as well as launching an open-source toolkit that has saved one country millions of dollars. Read the team’s ‘year in review’ here.

Urbanisation is likely to be one of the defining trends of the 21st century - with 2.5 billion more people moving to cities by 2050. With this in mind, the new UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development - in collaboration with the Government of Singapore - established a dedicated 'smart cities and digitalisation' programme at the start of 2020. 

This is a snapshot of our work since January.

We have focused on how to make smart cities work for this next 2.5 billion. Often, this approach seems financially – and conceptually – out-of-reach for many cities. To this end we were very excited to launch our 'Smart Urban Innovations Playbook' last week - recognising that every city can be a smart city. It is about the decisions that city leaders make - and partnerships with communities, and the private sector - that drive urban development and innovation. This is much more than technology and Big Data. Our Director also spoke about this work in a recent TEDx talk. We'll be looking to work with an initial cohort of cities in 2021 to put the playbook into action. Get in touch if you'd like to learn more!

This year, we collaborated with more than 25 UNDP Country Offices. We’re looking forward to sharing more about this work in 2021 – including our collaborations to reduce traffic accidents in cities, leading analysis to inform sustainable mobility solutions and policymaking, undertaking digital needs assessments to identify the transformation priorities of a number of parliaments, and shaping a cohort of waste management innovators. There’s a small preview of some of our collaboration efforts in this blog from the UNDP Accelerator Lab team in Gambia

More broadly, we're also focusing on how smart cities and digitalisation can accelerate the development of small states. This includes through leveraging key assets of these countries – for example, agile governance structures that enable them to pilot and scale innovation and new ways of thinking and working. We’re also shaping the implementation of the crucial foundations of smart cities and digitalisation – such as connectivity. This is all in the context of the 'great reset' prompted by COVID-19 and the need for truly 'smart' cities – recognising that tackling urban challenges requires technology, but also innovation more broadly.

COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation in many countries – with an era of social distancing demanding shifts to digital public services, digital delivery, and remote learning and working. In response, this year we've worked with a number of UNDP Country Offices - and their partner governments - on shaping digital transformation strategies and approaches. Data has been a big focus - including highlighting best practice on big data (our accompanying training webinar can be found here), lean data (training webinar here), and launching a major study on the foundations and processes needed to drive the role of cross-border data. The report will be uploaded shortly, and we recently shared some of our findings at the Open and Innovative Government in Southeast Asia event organised by the OECD

key foundation of digitalization

These 'training webinars' have been a big focus for the team in 2020. We've also focused on the role of mobility (the accompanying blog can be found here), creating gender-inclusive smart cities, the need to prioritise sustainability, and the importance of the circular economy On the topic of the circular economy, we also launched a 'Deep Tech' collaboration with SG Innovate that will explore this potentially transformative topic in more detail in 2021. As we shape our training curriculum for next year, please do let us know what other topics would be of interest for your work.

We have also seen the importance of shaping local innovation ecosystems – for COVID-19 response, and beyond. This year, we've been running a COVID-19 global open-source hardware innovation challenge in collaboration with Hackster - and tech companies from around the world. Makerthons in KenyaSouth Africa, and Tanzania have highlighted the crucial role of building these skills and knowledge. We now have 350+ fully-fledged innovations, with several winnersprofiled during our successful livestream earlier this year. We also worked with The GovLab to highlight how others can implement this approach in the international development sector.

It's not just about hardware, though. Our open-source digital toolkit has saved one government significant money and time. You can read more about this case study here and here. We’ll be adding more tools – particularly ones proven to drive digital transformation in governments – to the toolkit soon. We're also exploring the wider-role of open source in digital development - and are keen to build on our existing partnerships here. For some more of our thinking on this topic, you may find this piece in Apolitical useful.

We've seen important innovation efforts in countries around the world. For example, we're particularly proud to have supported the journey of some of the exciting and innovative startups participating in the inaugural Bluetribe incubation programme in Cambodia. We’ve also been learning from global innovators, such as Dr. David Sengeh - Sierra Leone’s first-ever Chief Innovation Officer and Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education. 

From open-source, to open innovation – this year we’ve also been focusing on the need to identify promising solutions wherever they can be found. Recently, we launched the Multi-City Challenge Africa - working with UNDP Country Offices and their city partners in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Focusing on the areas of waste management, integrating the informal economy, and building urban resilience, citizens in each of the cities have submitted hundreds of potential solutions related to these areas. Building on extensive (virtual) training around problem definition that we delivered in collaboration with The GovLab, city officials are now even better prepared to turn the ideas of their citizens into reality.

MCC Africa_Session Screenshot

Recognising that open innovation should also be guided, wherever possible, by building on best practice, we've also focused this year on developing and collating resources. This includes global best practice guides on waste management, mobility, and data – including the drivers of success for each innovation. 

Follow us on Twitter to find out when these are released!

We're also working with a number of UNDP Country Offices on commissioned work to identify examples of open innovation for their local or national government partners - or broker partnerships with those implementing solutions around the world. Please reach out if this work, or a similar collaboration, would be of interest. We also produced, in partnership with PALO IT, an introduction to design thinking for those working in international development.

We're also trying to find ways to identify and share best practice, particularly in an era of shared challenges. With this in mind, we are delighted to soon launch a global Community of Practice on smart city resilience. Early in 2021, we will also be working on defining and piloting a digital-first methodology to ensure that no one is excluded from learning by the impact of COVID-19 – and focusing on the importance of telemedicine for 21st century healthcare. More information on these initiatives will be coming soon!

In achieving all of this in 2020, partnership has been crucial. This has included internal collaboration, across UNDP (particularly a strong and growing collaboration with our Chief Digital Office - including this great piece on smart cities from Rob Opp, UNDP's Chief Digital Officer), collaborations in Singapore with the Nordic Innovation House on healthand smart cities, and exploring Singapore's innovation ecosystem. In the region, through partnership with the corporate innovation specialist ICMG, we will support Japan’s Aichi Prefecture in developing its approach to smart and sustainable urban spaces. 

We have also been building partnerships on an individual level. Elba, our smart cities technical expert, was appointed a 'Movin'On' Ambassador and a member of the Movin'On Startup Challenge Grand Final jury. I've been supporting the World Economic Forum's G20 Smart Cities Working Group as Co-Chair of the Digital Infrastructure Taskforce – as part of this work, we've developed a model policy toolkit that will be piloted by 20+ cities in 2021.

We'll be announcing more partnerships very soon - including launching a major global initiative to support policymakers and young people in engaging with AI - in collaboration with a global tech firm - and exploring the role of cloud technology and 5G in development. If you'd like to work with us - on project delivery, programme development, building best practice, or funding or supporting our work - please do get in touch (using the link at the bottom of this post). 

Finally, we have been delighted to share our work and thinking at a number of events this year – which is always an enormous privilege. In 2020, we've focused on the role of smart cities in shaping smart urban governance, identifying the cities of the future, the importance of smart cities in achieving the SDGs (as part of the Thailand Smart City Week – and their role on the African continent), their relevance for sustainability – and how we can measure the impact of smart cities. We also highlighted the role of digitalisation in open innovationdisaster risk management, and the delivery of inclusive healthcare – and the importance of innovation ecosystems in ideating, testing, and scaling sustainable development.

We also rounded out 2020 with a full spread of events at SFFxSWITCH2020 - the region's premier innovation event. Here, we hosted and collaborated with global experts to explore how open innovation is changing the way governments approach service delivery and tech solutions, the importance of robust and secure cross-border data flows, identifying how we can redefine smart cities outside of the Global North (including how cities can learn from the successes and experiments of others), and provided an in-depth look at circular economies - including emerging best practices, and the barriers that remain to making a circular economy a global reality.

This has been a very long, and challenging year for all of us.  We are fortunate, as a team, to have weathered the COVID-19 storm in Singapore - a country that has dealt better than many in managing this unprecedented crisis. Our thoughts and support have been with our friends, partners, and individuals and organisations badly impacted by the pandemic. In 2021, we are keen to support their efforts to rebuild, to get back on track, and to build forward better. Please do get in touch if we can support you on this journey.

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