One of the most critical tasks to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is making cities hospitable, productive, and healthful places to live, as called for by SDG 11. As the world population crosses the 8 billion mark, it is imperative to unlock innovative solutions to spur social and economic development in urban centres through the development of smart sustainable cities, and young people will have a key role to play in that endeavour. Two demographic patterns stand out in today’s global landscape: rapid urbanisation and large youth populations.
The Problem With Modern Cities
Many cities today have become big pollution centres, with more than 4 million yearly deaths related to air contamination and another million from water and sanitation-related diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Urban areas worldwide have also become vulnerable to climate-related disasters, with heatwaves and floods on the rise. While trying to tackle these problems, governments must also plan resources to attend to increasing demand for public services as the number of people moving out of rural areas and into the cities is exponentially growing.
Over the last century, most countries have experienced a massive wave of urbanisation, with the number of people living in cities growing from 751 million in 1950 to 4.5 billion in 2022, according to UN Habitat’s latest World Cities Report. This trend is expected to continue as the same publication shows that 55% of the world’s populace already live in urban areas and predicts the number will grow to 68% by 2050.
What’s more, the United Nations estimates that there will be 43 megacities in the world by the end of the current decade. Megacities are metropolitan areas with a total population of more than 10 million people. Most of them are located in developing countries, which already struggle to provide basic services that contribute to the well-being of their populations while respecting the planetary boundaries and trying to achieve sustainable development. Due to this sharp population increase, many urban centers have an enormous challenge in front of them and must prepare now more than ever to undertake projects related to efficient public transportation, green architecture, renewable energy sources, waste management, and water conservation.
What Are Smart Sustainable Cities and Why Do We Need Them?
A smart sustainable city is a relatively new term that combines two popular development-oriented themes: Sustainability and connectivity.
Smart cities are those focused on harnessing innovative Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to improve a city’s operational efficiency, facilitate the sharing of information with the public, and providing a better quality of government administration and citizen welfare. On the other hand, sustainable cities rely on and integrate more efficient air, water, waste management, and other low emissions practices.
As technology in both disciplines advances, the line between smart and sustainable cities begins to blur. When merging both concepts, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) define a smart sustainable city as: “An innovative city that uses ICTs and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects.”
Apart from an official definition, UNECE and ITU also developed a framework based on 91 Key Performance Indicators to analyse the extent to which a place can be considered a smart sustainable city.
The relevance of smart technologies to achieve sustainability is underlined by Jeffrey Sachs and colleagues in their paper “Six Transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.” The fifth transformation particularly calls for building sustainable cities and communities through smart infrastructure, zoning patterns, information and communication networks, resilience to environmental hazards, and intercity transport and architecture. Organising this transformation is complex due to the large number of stakeholders involved.
Additionally, cities also require competent and adequately resourced local authorities that can pursue integrated strategies and ensure participatory design. However, the reward is certainly worth it as we will achieve more livable, healthful, efficient, resilient, and safer greener cities that will contribute to improving the physical and mental well-being of people.
What Role Do Young People Play in Developing Smart Sustainable Cities?
In most countries, urban planning and development have traditionally been monopolised by local authorities and governmental agencies. They have taken over the strategic, decision-making, and technical implementation roles, but most do not possess the skills needed to carry out an entire smart city project. For this reason, it is necessary to stop working in silos and involve all groups of interest to find new solutions to the problems of modern cities. An underrepresented group in this process are young people, who are quickly increasing in number and actively demanding new spaces and services to realise their potential.
UN Habitat reports that 60% of urban populations will be under the age of 18 by 2030, a group of people also known as the “youth bulge”. Experts in demographics suggest that a high youth bulge presents both challenges and opportunities for cities, especially in developing countries. If accompanied by favourable conditions, it frees up investment resources, creates employment opportunities, and boosts productivity. In their absence, youth bulges pose several demographic and socio-economic challenges. Overall, the large share of the youth population in cities is expected to persist, so cities should plan for this demographic shift in order to turn threats into chances.
The newer generations have a set of characteristics that will influence and ultimately reinvent the economic, social, and environmental models of cities. A 2021 study by the Pew Research Center found that Generation Z and Millennials – those born after 1980 – are “more likely to make green decisions” than Generation X and Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1979. The study also show that 83% of younger people are knowledgeable about responsible waste management, 74% are interested in reducing their energy usage, and 71% are willing to make sustainable shopping choices. They are also less fond of the idea of owning a car and more likely to use public transport or carpooling services.
In terms of the digital properties of smart cities, ITU reported that youth are now the main users of the internet in all world regions. While it may be easy to suppose that they are only using it for connecting to social media, Eurostat shows that they are also predominantly using it for education, job searching, coding, and connecting to their governments, pursuits that fit within the scope of smart cities.
These statistics are just a few examples of how youth are starting to influence and reshape the urban environment through their daily-life activities, pushing our societies to become more sustainable and digital.
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How Can We Enhance Youth Participation in the Development of Smart Sustainable Cities?
A vital part of empowering youth is providing them with proper education to create a generation of environmentally conscious citizens who understand the importance of sustainable development and the impact of their actions on the environment and their communities. This way, they can also learn about the importance of civic engagement and advocacy in making cities a better place to live.
Unfortunately, we are still far from this goal. A report by Education International, an organisation that brings together teachers and other education employees worldwide, found that most countries are abandoning commitments to provide Climate Change Education (CCE). Its research says that out of 95 countries that submitted Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement’s goals, only 24% mentioned the education of youth, while none are working on compulsory CCE under their national climate strategy.
The study also suggests that developed nations are not doing enough: “None of the top 20 carbon emitting countries nor the top 20 wealthiest countries that have submitted their updated NDC makes a reference to CCE. Instead, countries with the lowest carbon emissions are more likely to discuss CCE in the context of their national climate strategy.”
Not only is there a shortage of CCE, but Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) skills also need to be addressed to promote the development of youth-led solutions that will lead to smarter and more sustainable cities.
Increasing transparency and engagement should also be elements to turn to as the existing power disbalance between decision-makers and youth is an obstacle. Young people today demonstrate to be more informed and interested in civic participation than previous generations, but they are typically excluded from resolutive processes, even though they are driving some of the largest activism movements ever seen. As a result, younger people have lower trust in their governments than older ones, with an almost ten percentage point trust gap in surveyed Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
To tackle this problem, governments must focus on increasing the access of youth to information, providing them with more opportunities for hard and soft skills development, fostering collaboration between private, public, and youth organisations, and providing incentives to pursue entrepreneurial ventures, particularly in the form of funding.
This article is Part 1 of a two-part series on Smart Sustainable Cities. Check out Part 2: ‘Plan Your Brisbane’: How to Get the Youth Involved in Sustainable Urban Development