Technology can tackle urban challenges

Jim Hagemann Snabe says creative solutions to the problems of resource overuse and inefficiency will make cities better places to live - and information technology can help

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 September, 2012, 2:42am

Today, more people are living in cities than in villages. The United Nations estimates that about 52 per cent of the global population of 7 billion live in towns and cities. By 2030, this will swell to almost 5 billion, or about 60 per cent of the estimated global population of 8 billion, with urban growth concentrated in Africa and Asia. The fastest population growth will continue to take place in countries that are currently the least developed.

While news reports have focused on megacities, most of the actual growth will occur in mid-sized cities in Asia and Africa, which have few resources to respond to the magnitude of the change. The Asian Development Bank estimates that within five years, there will be more than 900 large cities in Asia, many with more than one million inhabitants, and nearly 20 with more than 10 million.

How will we manage our finite resources under these circumstances? Today, between 20 and 30 per cent of the world's food is wasted along the chain from farm to table. And water shortages - clean drinking water is one of the most precious resources - are expected to worsen in the next two decades.

The powerful technology used by global business - information technology - has worked near-miracles in Asia. It has been a major factor in raising hundreds of millions of Asians from poverty into the middle class and has helped create the conditions for the increasing number of Asia's super-cities.

Now it's time for the creators and users of IT to apply its world-changing capabilities to solving the manifold challenges of those super-cities and their people, from the richest to the poorest. It's not just because helping improve their quality of life is the right thing to do, but because responsible action by the IT community will create vast new markets, generate more opportunity and more business, and make the new middle class less eager to upset their increasingly comfortable lives by rising up against their governments.

It is no longer enough for a city to be able to handle large flows of people and goods. It also has to be efficient in its use of resources that are becoming increasingly scarce, including clean air, clean water, open space and fresh food.

In Mumbai, for example, the cost of one cubic metre of clean water in an affluent neighbourhood is 3 US cents, while in a nearby shanty town, the same water costs US$1.12. Why the disparity? Affluent neighbourhoods are blessed with solid infrastructure monitored by sophisticated technology and managed by well-trained experts. Shanty towns, by contrast, receive their water through terribly inefficient means. Technology - in combination with infrastructure - could change that.

The UN has noted that water availability is expected to decrease over the next several decades, while its consumption for agriculture is expected to increase by 19 per cent by 2050 to meet the rising demand for food.

The McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that, with average economic growth, global demand for fresh water will grow from 4.5 trillion cubic meters annually to 6.9 trillion in 2030. Fresh water is already scarce and we don't have any new source. We badly need improvements in efficiency. In every part of the world, planners are under heavy pressure to improve our use of resources, and IT can help.

For instance, wireless sensors placed along water pipelines and linked to computers can detect leaks and breakages - as well as any pilferage. Smart metering through IT can improve efficiency in water usage and reduce wastage.

IT could also help farmers grow more food with the water they have. A company in California's water-parched Central Valley has developed an inexpensive process that gathers data from widely dispersed weather reporting stations and then wirelessly transmits watering instructions to computerised controllers installed on customers' irrigation systems. The 16,500 subscribers to the data feed save more than 44.5 million litres of water and US$75 million per year, according to the company. Customers for the technology, which could easily be adapted for Asia, include nearly 100 US cities and towns.

In the industrialised West, more food is wasted by careless consumers than by inefficiencies in production and transportation to market. In Asia, by contrast, consumers waste little food once they get their hands on it, but much of it spoils because of inefficient production methods and poor logistics on the way to market. By making sure perishables are tracked properly and all attendant conditions (like air conditioning) are met to reduce spoilage, IT can help greatly.

The heavy traffic that clogs the streets of every megacity has been shown to have a tremendous negative impact on productivity, as well as on air quality and energy consumption. Congestion pricing can improve this situation, but so can the increasingly sophisticated IT systems that control the timing of traffic lights and the time between buses and trains on the same routes. Carpooling in cities can help as well. (For instance, SAP has developed a solution that uses software and mobile smartphones to co-ordinate sharing of rides.)

Carbon emission monitoring through IT of factories in urban areas can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality, aiding sustainability goals. Smart grids and smart metering of electricity can improve efficiency. Better recycling of materials like used electronics and batteries through IT-enabled programmes are better for the environment.

At its heart, IT has always been about efficiency. Today, the latest generation of software is putting that efficiency to work to make modern megacities more productive, liveable and sustainable.

With comprehensive planning, we have the power to build sustainable cities that are bigger, cleaner, more efficient and more dynamic than ever before. Information technology has a central role to play in enabling us to address the challenges.

Jim Hagemann Snabe is the co-CEO of SAP, the world's leading provider of business software