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Case study: Harnessing the 4th industrial revolution for sustainable emerging cities

We now know that it is in emerging cities like Bogota, Lagos and Mumbai that the battle for a sustainable future will likely be lost or won. Today’s emerging economies attract more urban citizens than ever before and cities in Asia and Africa are forecast to absorb 90% of the world’s 2.5 billion new urbanites by 2050. We are also experiencing a disruptive period of technological innovation, a Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which presents great promise for growing cities to leapfrog traditional development and accelerate their transition to a more sustainable and advanced urban future.

Technology-enabled people, places and cities are creating more diverse forms growth and prosperity. Cities can both benefit from the use of technology to enhance productivity, inclusion and innovation. In collaboration with the World Economic Forum and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the PwC Cities & Urbanisation team led the development of a thought paper on Harnessing the 4IR for Sustainable Emerging Cities. The paper identifies five key climate and environmental challenges in emerging cities, and explores how 4IR innovations could be harnessed to tackle these to create a more sustainable urban future.

The five challenge areas are:

  1. Smart planning and construction to make better use of the built environment;
  2. Sustainable transport and logistics to increase mobility and connectivity;
  3. Clean energy and utilities to improve efficiency of urban systems and the environment;
  4. Urban health and resources to lower pollution and improve liveability and affordability;
  5. Resilient urban systems to enable cities to prepare for, and withstand, environmental shocks and disasters.

Launched at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting of Global Future Councils in Dubai in November 2017, the paper also outlines recommendations to speed up innovation, minimise environmental risks, and increase the positive environmental impact of 4IR technologies for different, but intertwined, urban stakeholders, with the ultimate aim to inspire discussion and further work in the area.

Technologies of the 4IR – such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and drones, the Internet of things, advanced materials, 3D printing and biotechnology – are particularly relevant to sustainable emerging cities. Many are already showing promise at reshaping urban systems and change will only accelerate. Cities can harness these pioneering technologies, combined with each other and with new business models, to not only enhance urban economic productivity but to reduce environmental impact and increase wellbeing. The 4IR, however, also presents its own set of risks. Emerging cities need to invest in the enabling technological infrastructure and skills to ensure they don’t get left behind, and to minimise unintended harmful impacts of the 4IR.

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