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Efficiency and sustainability: key challenges for modern cities

Conference for the Italian talent abroad group
Rome, 25/09/2016 - 26/09/2016, National Interest
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Audio-video clips

The starting premise of debate at this National Interest event was that cities are the place where the future of humanity is set to play out, not just because – for the first time in history – the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas, but also because the latter will become increasingly pivotal to ensuring the sustainability of development models. Indeed, while it is outside cities that the food which feeds the planet is produced, large metropolises are among those chiefly responsible for climate changes that are impacting significantly on the availability of food, drinking water, and other natural resources.

The participants thus urged that cities need to be at the vanguard of the adoption of not just environmental but also economic and social sustainability models. Today, technology is placing new tools at our disposal to help make urban areas more sustainable, more efficient, and hence “smarter”. The smart city has become an even more important paradigm with the economic crisis: in Italy, for example, half of GDP and 80% of innovation capacity is concentrated in 14 major metropolitan areas.

It was suggested that investment is required in infrastructure and technology in order to make Italian cities “smart”. The sensor networks made available by the Internet of Things (IoT) offer great opportunities, yet it was stressed that this technological revolution cannot be accomplished without putting citizens center-stage. Cities can only be classed as smart if they can employ technology and innovation to improve the quality of life and services for their citizens. For that matter, the wellbeing of citizens (which spans a range of facets, from mobility to cultural offerings, and from sports to health) is a driver of development that can make a city more attractive, creating a virtuous cycle which attracts talent and crucial capital for growth.

On the other hand, it was noted that technological innovations which do not respond to real needs – or which are not accessible to the population – not only fail to generate wellbeing, but also result in unnecessary expense, an outcome deemed particularly risky given how heavily efforts to put public finances right are currently weighing on Italian municipalities. This was seen as militating in favor of the deployment of new technologies, both to obtain feedback and improve communications with citizens, and to invest across the board in training people in the use of new IT-based services.

It was suggested that the private sector will prove to be a key partner in this investment push, as well as in the application of new technologies to services for citizens. The difficult balance between public and private interests will, however, need to be monitored and protected. Even in this regard it was felt that technology could play a key role: the grassroots scrutiny that new forms of communication enable (starting with social networks) could in fact serve as an effective counterbalance to vested interests and provide a valuable contribution towards making a city “smarter”, not just as a physical place, but also as a theater for relations between all the people who live, work, or visit there.