Printing our way out of the Netherlands housing crisis

Printing our way out of the Netherlands housing crisis

Printing our way out of the Netherlands housing crisis by Ivo Jongsma, Eindhoven University of Technology could not only resolve the Netherlands’ housing crisis but an intelligent way of sorting out the MENA region’s shortage of endemic lack of proper accommodation, particularly in those heavily populated areas. It is worth noting that the end product bears similarities with the vernacular architecture of many of the MENA housing typologies.

The picture above is of Eindhoven University of Technology

Printing our way out of the Netherlands housing crisis: ‘It is desperately needed’

Eindhoven leads the way: for the first time, Dutch residents are moving into a 3D-printed concrete home. Professor Theo Salet of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) is the driving force behind Project Milestone, which is more relevant than ever before due to the housing crisis. An interview with an impassioned man: “We are facing an unprecedented challenge.”

It sometimes seems as if freshly printed concrete has a will of its own. The mixture constantly reacts to changes in temperature during curing and tends to collapse like a plum pudding when there is insufficient stiffness. To complicate matters further, the printing process needs to account for inclined walls and the changing weight of the structure.

With a little imagination, you can compare concrete printing to walking on a very thin tightrope: you must not print too quickly (the structure then becomes unstable) but also not too slowly (the printed layers will no longer adhere). It’s no small feat.

Customization on a large scale

Under these difficult conditions, Theo Salet and his team have spent years looking for ways to develop safe, rigid structures through which unique homes with a distinctive character can roll out of the concrete printer. Customization on a large scale instead of standardization.

The project caused him some headaches. Salet is a professor and dean of the Department of the Built Environment at TU/e and the driving force behind the Project Milestone, a collaboration between TU/e, Eindhoven municipality, construction company Van Wijnen, building materials manufacturer Saint Gobain Weber Beamix, engineering firm Witteveen + Bos and housing investor Vesteda.

For years, Salet worked with Ph.D. students Rob Wolfs and Zeeshan Ahmend and various master’s students and third parties on the construction of the first completely 3D-printed house that meets all building requirements. He regularly had to swallow disappointments, such as during the search for the right combination of concrete and insulation material for the sandwich walls, but these were just as often followed by the realization that his team was making progress.

“The fact that we’ve already come this far makes me a proud man,” Salet says as he strolls the grounds near the 3D-printed home in Eindhoven’s Meerhoven district this morning. He is also proud of how the knowledge developed has found its way to industry so quickly. Printing a wall is one thing, but producing a complete house is a different kettle of fish. This can only be done with the right industrial partners, emphasizes the professor.

“What’s nice is that there’s still so much to be gained just by learning from this experience,” he explains as his eye travels across the structure. The shape of the house is inspired by that of a boulder, a polished version of the housing that used to be featured in the Flintstones cartoon, with a sleek and modern interior.

First occupant of 3D concrete printed house in Eindhoven receives the key

The first tenant of the first Dutch home made of 3D-printed concrete will receive the key today, April 30. The house in Eindhoven, the first of five from Project Milestone, fully complies with all strict Dutch building requirements.

The house is a detached single-story home with 94 square meters of net floor area, a generous living room and two bedrooms. It is located in the Eindhoven neighborhood of Bosrijk. The home consists of 24 printed concrete elements, which were printed layer by layer at the print factory in Eindhoven. The elements were transported by trucks to the building site where they were placed on a foundation.

https://www.youtube.com/embed//suDusQKvzu8?color=whiteThe shape of the house is inspired by that of a boulder. The video shows the outside of the house in more detail. Credit: Bart van Overbeeke

Real necessity

There’s a reason Salet is putting his heart and soul into this project. The urgency is profound, he stresses several times this morning. “This is not about the ambition of some scientist, it’s about the rock-hard necessity of making major changes to the way we build,” Salet says, referring to the ever-expanding housing shortage and the pressing climate issue, among other things. “Understand that we need to build in the Netherlands alone a million homes in 10 years and make 7.5 million homes drastically more sustainable in 30 years. In addition, infrastructure from the 1960s and 1970s is heading towards the end of its design life. We are facing an unprecedented challenge.”

Unprecedented challenges call for rigorous measures. In fact, the professor argues, you need to turn the entire chain upside down. The construction sector must be more focused on the demands of society and, at the same time, more productive and sustainable. People, profit, planet, to put it briefly. According to Salet, this is the path along which we must pursue the transition. Close collaboration between academia, industry and the government is of great importance—the triple helix model. Salet: “Make that the quadruple helix model. You have to involve the public as well. Isn’t it crazy that residents barely have a say in their own built environment?”

In order to break the chain, the need must first be felt by all parties involved. Salet: “Take the government, which must realize that the housing shortage is an issue for which it does not have an answer, simply because no one has the answer. The academic world can stimulate innovation, but there has to be a concrete question on the table. Industry must also be given the opportunity to make the transition to high-quality manufacturing. The municipality of Eindhoven understood this in the Milestone project and dared to take on this unique challenge.”

Indeed, the government can create the conditions that foster partnerships which accelerate innovation. “Create pilot projects to experiment with and then scale them up. In tenders, look not only at price but also whether the construction project scores highly in areas such as circularity or innovation in the construction and manufacturing industries. If the urgency is felt, parties will seek each other out.” The professor points to Eindhoven-based VDL, for example, which will be working with Van Wijnen in Heerenveen.

Industrial customization

In the media, Salet regularly reads that standardization should become the new norm. Modular construction is gathering more and more attention, but he dismisses this idea. “We’ll then start delivering mass production and, in a while, the same houses will line every street. That would be extremely monotonous; no one is waiting for that and it isn’t necessary either. You have to digitize the entire process from design to construction. A robot doesn’t care what shape it has to print, so you then get industrial customization with variation. Let’s make that step in one go, as challenging as it may be.”

If the construction industry can make a dramatic shift, as Salet says it can, the benefits of industrial customization will be huge. Productivity will skyrocket. Additionally, you will need less high-quality craftsmanship in a market with a desperate shortage of skilled workers. The heavy work will disappear. This will make more room for women in the sector while the health of employees will also improve; a bad back or worn knees will be a thing of the past.

The biggest gains, however, will be in the areas of sustainability and circularity. “The amount of material we currently use in construction is unprecedented. We need to cut down.” Concrete, for example, is one of the largest emitters of CO2 worldwide. By both adjusting the composition and reducing the user quantity, giant leaps can be made. The reuse of materials and elements of a 3D-printed house should also become possible in the future. “We’re currently working hard on that.” Salet is hopeful and sets his sights high: “It’s absolutely possible to use 50% fewer raw materials and increase construction speed by 35%.”

Second floor

For this reason, the professor would prefer to continue developing the printing method as quickly as possible. The momentum is there. In addition to the first home, he wants to realize a second house in the near future which will be a step further along than its predecessor: a second floor. In total, Project Milestone covers five concrete-printed homes. Salet: “I now want to work from industrial product to design instead of the other way around. For the first house we first created a design without an estimate of whether the printer can produce certain shapes, so we tried to force the printer. The question should be: which products can the printer handle? From there, we can create a variety of designs. Artificial intelligence is going to help with this and will become necessary in order to keep the quality of the printed work consistent, especially if we’re going to print a home on site.”

Meanwhile, research into 3D concrete printing is gaining popularity around the world. “We’ve set the tone,” says Salet. “In terms of technological development, we’re at the forefront. Printing layers and building a wall can be done by others. But producing an entire house that meets the strict requirements of a building permit and is also inhabited, that’s truly unique. We can be very proud of that. We’re increasingly understanding the will of printed concrete.”


Explore furtherTU Eindhoven starts using kingsize 3-D concrete printer


Provided by Eindhoven University of Technology

Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region

Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region

The MENA region, like much of the undeveloped world, is characterised by an omnipresent Informal Economy with however differing specifics. This label dates back to most countries Planned Economy. So why is now the Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region? And how?
All world economies have an informal economy, and the duties of all business and governments alike leaders are to sustain, help and assist in its good maintenance and eventual development. Informal Economy is not Black Market and can easily be formalised to become the locomotive of any nation’s economic life. Could Fintech be of serious help here?

Any way, the reasons are tied to those specifics at this conjecture as well summarised by Ayad Nahas below.

The Financial Technology (Fintech) industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) looks well placed to enjoy a period of substantial growth.

  • As many as 69% of adults remain totally unbanked in the region
  • Internet penetration in Saudi Arabia stood at 95.7% in January 2021
  • Fintech is going to be the “game-changer”

Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region

Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region

By Ayad Nahas, Communication Strategist

The Financial Technology (fintech) industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) looks well placed to enjoy a period of substantial growth.

 Part of this growth could come from a large unbanked population.

According to the World Bank, only 8% of adults belonged to the banked population in 2018 and as many as 69% of adults remain totally unbanked in the region.

GCC expatriates with low and middle-income salaries constitute a large proportion of the unbanked such as in the UAE, where around 80% of the population is outside the current financial system.

Yet, regional smartphone and internet penetration is very high, reaching 2 mobile-cellular subscriptions per UAE inhabitant in 2019, while Internet penetration in Saudi Arabia stood at 95.7% in January 2021.

 Regional governments spotted this opportunity and introduced regulation to substantially attract investments into the sector.

 Fintech is a term that describes new technology which seeks to improve and automate the delivery and usage of financial services. At its core, fintech helps companies, business owners, and consumers better manage their financial operations, processes, and lives by applying specialized software and algorithms on computers and, increasingly, smartphones.

 Fintech’s adaptability across a slew of consumer sectors is propelling its widespread acceptability. Managing finances, trading shares, furnishing payments, and shopping online (often on your smartphone) has never been more convenient.

At the forefront of the fintech disruption are agile innovations such as peer-to-peer (P2P) lending and crowdfunding, providing alternative lending platforms, and widening access to fundraising.

While they may currently still need some centralized form of finance, at the minimum, P2P lending and crowdfunding can use fintech and blockchain to quicken the process, avoid paying high banking fees, and garner the interest of digitally-minded Millennials and future Z-generations.   

A recent report by consultancy firm Deloitte also states that the UAE houses over 50% of the region’s fintech companies, with nearly 39% of the population using fintech for P2P money transfer.

Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region
https://i2.wp.com/ameinfo-images.s3.eu-central-1.wasabisys.com/291d51ba3284b54c513f24aaf0db04e5.jpg?w=1080&ssl=1

According to a report by Crowd Funder, a leading online source for the fintech industry, the number of financial technology companies in the Middle East increased from around 105 companies in 2015 to 250 firms in the year 2021.

Hanna Sarraf, a senior banking executive from the MENA region, said fintech is going to be the “game-changer” that will decide the winners and losers within the financial services industry, globally and in the Middle East, in the short and long terms.  

He points out that new technologies and advanced data analytics are transforming the traditional banking business models from the way banks interact with customers to the way banks manage their middle and back-office operations. 

The global fintech market is expected to reach $309.98 billion at a CAGR of 24.8% by the year 2022 according to many key sources from the banking industry. In the MENA, the fintech industry is expected to hit a record valuation of $3.45 bn by 2026.

The growth of this sector is currently being propelled by the rapid rise in fintech startups as a result of the very high internet penetration in the region. Another major factor is that several traditional banks are undergoing digital transformations or even becoming neo-banks, a trend especially evident in the UAE.

In a survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) last October, 70% of respondents said they are actively searching for a new bank, and 87% said they would be willing to open an account with a branchless digital-only lender.

Today, the UAE is leading the pack in financial technology and developing itself as a digital-first nation when it comes to banking, payments, and fintech, as evidenced by the UAE’s first digital bank to provide both retail and corporate banking services and which will soon be launched and led by Former Emaar Chairman, Mohamed Alabbar.

According to many experts, the fintech market in the MENA region is set to account for 8% of the Middle East financial services revenue by 2022. COVID-19 turned out to be a wakeup call to switch from traditionally deployed financial services to more sustainable finance and technology platforms

The fintech revolution is set to continue to disrupt, and traditional banks must keep up with the pace of technology in order to stay relevant and competitive. In this rapidly evolving, ever-changing market, it’s time to innovate, integrate and accelerate into the future.

Published by AMEInfo on 28 April 2021.

Corporate net zero: we need a more sophisticated approach

Corporate net zero: we need a more sophisticated approach

Ian Simm, Founder & Chief Executive at Impax Asset Management, writes about achieving a Corporate net-zero possibly through a more sophisticated approach required of all, big or small corporations of all countries. So here it is.

Corporate net zero: we need a more sophisticated approach

The private sector holds the key to decarbonising the economy over the next quarter century. As countries set “net zero” or equivalent targets backed by carefully designed roadmaps for sectors such as energy, transportation and food, there’s a widespread assumption that “national net zero” should mean “net zero for all”, including “corporate net zero” (CNZ) for today’s businesses.  Although there are some benefits to unpacking national net-zero targets in this way, there are also several important drawbacks. A more sophisticated approach is urgently required.

Ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year, governments are likely to set or raise national targets for decarbonising their economies. In much of the world, the private sector will mobilise to serve rapidly expanding markets, for example for electric vehicles or plant-based food. Experience suggests that we’re about to witness a huge amount of creative destruction as entirely new industries are born, nascent sectors flourish and demand for products and services we once considered permanent fades, threatening or even destroying what have been large companies – a fate similar to landline-based telephony or, potentially, to cash-based transactions.

As the opportunities and risks linked to climate change become mainstream for many companies and their stakeholders, corporate net-zero targets have several attractions. Faced with a simple message that they should develop, analyse and act on specific climate change opportunities and risks, management teams will not only identify ways to improve the company’s risk-adjusted returns but may also produce or facilitate breakthroughs for their customers or suppliers, for example by placing bulk orders for low-carbon products. 

Similarly, multiple CNZ commitments across a sector may enable discussions around possible collective action, for example the establishment of clusters to generate and consume “green” hydrogen. Early action by companies can encourage governments to develop further their policies to mitigate climate change, while corporate pledges may unlock capital to catalyse new climate-friendly activities, for example in nature-based solutions.

The drawbacks of a blanket adoption of corporate net zero

And yet there are several crucial drawbacks to the blanket adoption of corporate net-zero targets. 

First, and most obvious, is the definition and interpretation of net zero. Apart from the ambiguity around each entity’s pathway to net zero (i.e. “how much, by when?”), the role for offsets is contentious – for example, should a cement manufacturer be able to account for the carbon benefits of its investments in peatland restoration, or if we allow this, does that create a moral hazard (to pollute)? And how should low-carbon technologies be treated: for example, when a new wind farm is built, does it really make sense that the entity purchasing the electricity gets the carbon benefit while the investor (or wind farm owner) receives no such boost to their own carbon accounting?

Second is capital inefficiency. To ensure there’s sufficient “creative destruction” as we reset our economy, we need to avoid hampering the essential sunsetting of certain activities in favour of new ones. The law of diminishing returns predicts that, as companies implement efficiency measures and cost-competitive technologies to reduce their emissions, they will need to consume more and more capital to save the next tonne of carbon, for example, steel manufacturers seeking to switch to direct hydrogen reduction. At the same time, companies producing alternative products, for example construction materials based on wood, may offer much higher financial returns on an equivalent amount of capital with much lower risk. Faced with a choice, investors are likely to prefer the latter.

Third, skills. To pivot successfully to entirely new activities, today’s companies need to harness alternative expertise. For example, can today’s oil majors with their competence in seismology and the handling of liquids, realistically develop a competitive advantage in the development of power projects and in electricity trading to outcompete today’s power generators? 

Fourth, value chain effects. Notwithstanding the challenges of measuring so-called “Scope 3” emissions, a company that pursues a net-zero position without concern for its customers or even its suppliers may unwittingly hold back climate change mitigation across the “system” (i.e., the wider economy).  For example, if the renewable energy supply required to enable a manufacturer of insulation material to become net zero costs significantly more than the fossil fuel supply it used previously, the price of its product will rise, thereby reducing its potential to assist customers with their energy savings. 

Fifth, the “someone else’s problem” effect. It’s too easy for today’s management team to commit a company to long-term targets that they personally won’t be around to deliver on.

And lastly, confusing signals. As decarbonisation progresses, management teams may be faced with a conflict between achieving financial objectives and delivering on the company’s net-zero pledge. This may not matter at the outset, but once the “early wins” in emissions reduction have been secured, difficult conversations about the trade-off between financial and environmental outcomes are, in my view, inevitable.

Climate change resilience first

So, what’s to be done? A sound starting point is to use “corporate net zero” as an agenda item for a deeper discussion on climate change between companies and their investors. But rather than starting that conversation by simply insisting on the adoption of net-zero targets, investors should seek to assess whether the company is already or aiming to become “climate change resilient” using the framework recommended by the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure (“TCFD”) which covers both emissions reductions and physical climate risks. 

This should cover the four areas outlined by TCFD: 

  • First, governance: what changes has the company considered and made to ensure that climate change issues are managed comprehensively over a long timeframe?
  • Second, strategy: how has the company’s business strategy evolved in response, what alternatives has management considered and what will be the impact on the company’s expected return on invested capital? 
  • Third, risk and opportunity: has the company mapped out the key changes in these areas arising from climate change and implemented programmes to monitor them over a long timeframe?  
  • And fourth, metrics, targets and reporting: is the company’s planned reporting in this area likely to provide decision-useful information to shareholders and other stakeholders?

These conversations should lead to a comprehensive, rational plan for each company to manage climate change issues over time, tailored to its individual circumstances. For some, the optimal result will be to adopt a (simple to communicate) corporate net-zero target described in a way that avoids the drawbacks discussed earlier.  For others (and in particular, in hard-to-abate sectors), a more appropriate response would be (a) a business plan focused on the efficient use of capital in the context of a wider set of risks, (b) imaginative and proactive collaboration with peers and government to shape new markets, and (c) clear communication with all stakeholders. 

We need to be careful that “corporate net zero” does not turn into “one-size-fits-all”. The failure to take a thoughtful and sophisticated approach to these issues is likely to result in management confusion, muddled or misleading external communication and perhaps most significantly, the misallocation of capital. Now is the time to get our proverbial ducks in a row!Report this

Published on Linkedin

The current enthusiasm for “corporate net zero” is understandable, but there are significant drawbacks that are set to lead to confusion and unintended consequences. My take on why, in the face of climate change, companies should follow TCFD guidance and reporting, prioritising sound strategy and resilience.

Ian Simm

Read more in Ian Simm‘s 8 articles

What are the Major Challenges that Smart Cities face?

What are the Major Challenges that Smart Cities face?

Press Release in answer to the question such as ‘What are the Major Challenges that Smart Cities face?’ elaborated on by TechJuice gives us a good idea of what to expect in the future of all urban settlements throughout the world.

Smart cities are mushrooming across the globe. Countries are making use of technology, the defining factor of smart cities –  to make gains in sectors of health, education, mobility, energy use and urban governance. While it is heralded as a game-changer by various stakeholders primarily due to its revolutionary working mechanisms, it has also received its fair share of criticism. Researchers claim that unequal access to technology coupled with unequal opportunities will create disparities, leading to social stratification. Nonetheless, the digitalisation of societies remains an undisputed truth. Yet, in order to reap the full benefits of technology and the subsequent adoption of smart cities, their challenges need to be discussed. 

The challenges faced by smart cities are manifold, and their problems are multidimensional.  Graana.com identifies the difficulties faced and provides an analysis of its barriers. 

  • Assimilation of Knowledge 

The main ingredient of smart cities is the use of technology. The assimilation of this knowledge for citizens will be a prominent challenge faced in the new dynamics of a smart city. The greatest threat to the citizens is the question of privacy and the quality of life where data related to the households and private information is concerned. 

The introduction of technology in everyday life can be bliss as well as a curse. There is a chance that technological advancements will replace the work done by human resources causing unemployment and fragmentation of the social fabric. Moreover, it can further contribute to poverty and inequality. There are also chances that it will cause social stratification where people in urban and rural areas will be affected and marginalized differently. This will further contribute to inequality. In addition, the introduction of technology will severely impact the ageing population that is not receptive to new advancements. Their training will be time-consuming and cumbersome.

  • Provision of Services 

The method of services provided will be a new area of concern. The employment of technological modifications is largely left to two channels: top-down or bottom-up. The top-down approach suggests that the implementation of sustainable mechanisms in smart cities are left to the large companies that have the resources and the technical know-how to successfully implement the assessments. The downside of this approach is that these top-down giants amass the power to act as monopolies which ultimately acts as a deterrent to creativity. 

The bottom-up approach is the other viable solution. The approach suggests that the government makes use of small-scale technological hubs and other grassroots initiatives. The rationale behind this approach is that the grassroots have immense potential that can be untapped to enhance creativity and free-thinking. This will allow for creative solutions on multiple fronts. However, the weakness of this line of action is that the fragmented initiatives will be difficult to monitor and a cohesive action plan will be demanding to achieve. This will compel the government to take the center stage and resolve issues, if and when they arise. 

  • Infrastructure Development 

The development of infrastructure is the backbone of the economy in today’s society. Developed infrastructure automatically translates into the wellbeing of its citizens. For the development of smart cities, it is imperative to develop the requisite infrastructure to sustain the developmental projects. However, most developed cities are already ensnared in challenges related to population growth and old infrastructure. The condition in some cities is abysmal. There is an absence of proper sewage systems, inadequate housing facilities and an underdeveloped road network. 

With a move towards making cities more efficient and ‘smart’, there will be a need to develop the already underdeveloped infrastructure. The resources available to do that are already scarce, and the bureaucratic protocols to get approval are tedious. If approved, new technological devices are not welcomed by the people with open arms. It takes time for people to get accustomed to changes. 

  • Strategic Assessment

Since the concept of smart cities is a relatively new one, it is incumbent to conduct a strategic assessment of the steps undertaken to make cities more technologically advanced. For this purpose, assistance will be required to identify the problems faced and then develop and implement the best practices and methods to address the issues. It helps analyse the mistakes taken in the past and provide an opportunity to rectify them for the future. Moreover, it will aid in the assessment of the proposed solutions in order to check their viability. 

It should be borne in mind that while developing the indicators for the usage during these strategic assessments, special attention should be paid to the indicators that will measure their effectiveness. It will ultimately give shape or define the characteristics or key features of a smart city. Furthermore, attention should be given to differing interests and ways should be formed to mitigate conflicts. For example, these conflicts may arise between sustainability factors such as the conflict between food production and biofuel or within sustainability factors such as a conflict between biodiversity and biofuel production. 

IoT Growth in Cities Accelerated by COVID-19sMART

IoT Growth in Cities Accelerated by COVID-19sMART

An ESI ThoughtLab report on sustainable development goals in 167 cities, representing nearly 7 percent of the world’s population, found that the coronavirus has accelerated technology growth worldwide as planners, administrators and businesses consider the post-pandemic realities of urban centers. Claire Swedberg explains why and how IoT Growth in Cities was Accelerated by COVID-19.

Global Study Shows IoT Growth in Cities Accelerated by COVID-19

By Claire Swedberg

Analytics company  ESI ThoughtLab (ESITL) has found that technology, including Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, is at the forefront as municipalities plan their COVID-19 pandemic recovery, along with sustainability initiatives. According to the company’s recent report, released this spring and titled “Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World,” COVID-19 served cities an unexpected stress test. The study found that cities are investing in technology-based solutions to meet sustainability development goals (SDGs) at an accelerated pace.

IoT Growth in Cities Accelerated by COVID-19
Lou Celi

To make that transition possible, says Lou Celi, ESI ThoughtLab’s CEO, a dual effort needs to be made to ensure citizen support and cybersecurity for IoT rollouts. ESITL collaborated with a coalition of businesses, government agencies and academics to conduct the overarching research, which explored 167 cities in 82 countries on all continents, representing 526 million residents (6.8 percent of the world’s population). The organization studied and interviewed cities to learn about their SDG efforts, including their existing and planned use of IoT and other smart technologies.

The project, which launched in early 2020, took approximately a year to complete. This was accomplished during the pandemic, and tracking will continue going forward in order to compare data following the outbreak. The IoT plays a part in the study, with the researchers examining the intersection of technology and sustainability goals. “It was a real watershed study,” Celi says, and cities were found to be already well invested in SDG and smart-city solutions, with most seeking to accelerate their adoption.

The study focused on urban rather than rural areas. “More than half of the world lives in cities, and that’s where social and environmental issues require the most attention,” Celi says. The research team’s survey used a scoring methodology that allowed them to categorize cities by their progress against the United Nations’ 17 SDGs. Cities were categorized in three stages of SDG progress—implementers that were still in the early stages, advancers that were making progress, and sprinters that have made the most progress on SDGs—and about 22 percent of the cities studied were sprinters.

When gathering information, ESITL collected quality-of-life data from such sources as the  World Bank,  Numbeo, Spain’s  University of Navarra and the  IESE Business School. The organization also conducted interviews with urban leaders and experts. “To identify best practices and provide case studies, we had in-depth discussions with government decision-makers and business leaders in smart cities around the world,” Celi states. ESITL established a multi-disciplinary advisory board to review the results, which consisted of city leaders, corporate executives and academic experts.

The study found that while IoT and other technologies are already being adopted to meet SDGs, COVID-19 has punched the gas pedal, with 65 percent of cities interviewed indicating that the biggest lesson they learned during the pandemic was how crucial smart-city programs are for their future. “One thing that’s very clear is that the pandemic has led us into an undeniably digital-first world,” Celi states, adding, “We knew the digital economy was coming, just not this soon.”

Smart-city solutions already yield sensor data that drives intelligence, Celi says, ranging from traffic control to air-quality measurements and infrastructure management. Now, he reports, “Cities are upping the ante. They are adopting transformative technologies, the exponential ones like IoT, blockchain and AI [artificial intelligence], as they try to harness data.” The cities that are most advanced in the use of smart technologies and are achieving the most progress in meeting their SDGs are those described as Cities 4.0, which are gearing up for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Such cities are advanced in using smart technologies and data to drive their social, environmental and economic agenda. Some examples, the survey found, include Athens, Helsinki, Moscow, Philadelphia and Tallinn. All 20 of the 4.0 cities have made large investments in IoT and cloud-based technologies, while 84 percent said they are currently making large investments in the IoT. On average, the study found, cities currently use six types of data, including biometrics and behavioral data, and will be using seven in the next three years. Those at the forefront of adoption—the sprinters—are expected to increase some of the fastest growing digital technology sources to nine.

When asked if the pandemic has had a lasting impact on their planning, 69 percent of the respondents indicated they are reconsidering urban planning and the use of space. More than half (53 percent) said the pandemic has permanently changed how people live, work, socialize and travel in cities. For 36 percent, COVID-19 exposed the weaknesses in cities’ operational continuity capabilities.

“Cities have changed dramatically since the pandemic,” Celi says, “and we’re not going back. They’re going to be using technology to reposition their cities and their focus is going to be on SDGs.” Additionally, 65 percent of respondents reported that the pandemic has demonstrated how crucial smart-city programs are for a city’s future. “Cities’ use of the IoT, from interconnected devices, is already very high, but it will be growing even faster and converge with other digital technologies, such as cloud, 5G and edge computing.”

According to the study’s results, two key challenges must be considered as technology expands in cities: public investment and security. As technology is adopted, Celi states, “It must be done in a smart way for security, and with citizens onboard.” With regard to security, 60 percent of cities indicated they still have cybersecurity vulnerabilities with their technology deployments. Smaller cities are the least secure, he notes, with only 29 percent reporting that they are well-secured against cybercrime.

“We found cybersecurity was a very big issue,” Celi states. “IoT raises a lot of digital risk.” Bad actors could do damage with cyberattacks, he explains, and the incidence of such attacks rose by about 50 percent during the pandemic. “The lesson is that cybersecurity should not be an afterthought. It should be something adopted initially.”

According to Celi, the most successful deployments were those from which the public gained benefits, while also reducing concerns about privacy. Already, the use of technology during the pandemic has lowered the level of privacy worries as citizens grow accustomed to having more technology in their lives to solve common problems. Based on the survey results, he says, the public’s data-privacy concerns have yielded to the realization in the past year that digital solutions can improve safety and lifestyle. Still, he adds, without a concerted effort to include the public in technology deployments, privacy concerns can result, leading to mistrust.

Cities with high levels of citizen participation tend to be those with stronger communities and more empowered citizens, the study indicated. Those deemed sprinters used a variety of techniques to bring the public onboard, such as ensuring that disadvantaged populations were included in technology capture and use, as well as providing gamification and incentives. City employees need to be brought into the decision-making process as well, the research found, in order to make technology adoption successful and inclusive. Other potential headwinds ahead for SDG efforts may include regulations, finding the right partners and keeping pace with technology changes.

Going forward, Celi says, “Our big push is going to be ‘What’s next?’ What everyone wants to know is, ‘What’s Main Street going to look like in three years?'” ESITL plans to continue researching the SDG progress and technology use of cities as the pandemic ends. He offers some predictions in the meantime: Remote work will continue, he says, and that affects cities in numerous ways, ranging from transportation to the environment. “One of the lessons learned from the pandemic was that there are ways to run a city with less of a carbon footprint.” As COVID-19 eases, he adds, “I think there’s more of a social awareness that we have to be better at keeping people and the planet healthy and safe.”

The study found that cities have been making strides in meeting their SDG goals. “I wasn’t expecting that so many cities were already embracing SDGs,” Celi admits. “But I was happy to see the correlation between technology and the SDGs.” As efforts build to meet sustainability demands, the research indicated that the most successful deployment consists of a collaborative effort. City governments benefit from working with partners ranging from businesses, associations and universities to other cities, federal agencies and multilateral organizations. “We need to work together to find the solution. And through the enlightened use of technology, we can help make the world a better place.”

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