Embracing Innovation to Tackle Humanity’s Greatest Challenges

Jan 30, 2019 12:00 PM ET

As the global population increases in a climate-stressed world, we face mounting challenges. On the one hand, cities consume close to 65% of the world’s energy and generate more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But on the other, they drive economic growth and account for 80% of global GDP. They are home to over half of the world’s population. Over the next 25 years, the number of people living in cities will rise to 6 billion, adding 2 billion more residents to already crowded spaces.

For every city, ensuring their citizens have enough food, energy and water is the foundation upon which future prosperity will be built. These resources are often interdependent, and a lack of one can impact the other. And as cities become more densely populated, these resources become further stressed. When shortages occur, the people who suffer the most are those who are most vulnerable. Furthermore, factors related to climate change and ecological degradation are expected to add to the mounting challenges. Cities around the world need more solutions now, and urgently.

Connecting Cities to Solutions
Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, experiences significant challenges with water scarcity and quality. In 2015-16, about 70% of supplied water was contaminated, leading to high rates of hepatitis. The level of contamination was significantly higher than in previous years. This staggering figure refers to the challenges in just the city of Islamabad alone, and when experienced on the ground, represents a harsh reality that is hard to convey via articles such as this one. The challenges are visceral and beg concrete solutions.

At 50m gallons per day, Islamabad gets less than 40% of the water it needs, and loss during transportation hovers at around 60% (pdf). Groundwater is being depleted at an alarming rate, and more severe droughts and water outages are expected by 2025. The problem is complex and has wide-ranging ramifications for society and people’s wellbeing.

The tech company Tencent is supporting the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Islamabad municipal government to pilot Connecting Cities to Solutions, an initiative that aims to address Islamabad’s water issues by engaging the private sector to contribute with tech-based solutions.

Many small entrepreneurial startups are already working with powerful technologies to address the city’s water challenges. Sensors have been installed to help understand flows, volumes, and purity of water; artificial intelligence-driven efficiency technologies are improving freshwater processing productivity and usage efficiency; data collection, forecasting and improved alert management are limiting further challenges to flows; and behaviour insights are providing new options for addressing issues of water scarcity.

Recognising this, Connecting Cities to Solutions will create a web-based platform that lists priority challenges and invites entrepreneurs to address them. At the same time, it will create a “playbook” that municipal, regional and even national governments can apply to engage global innovators to develop solutions for shared challenges.

The initiative identifies four crucial components for success:

1. Information sharing
Information sharing between the public and private sectors enables companies to play a much greater role in combating problems that arise due to increased urbanisation. Connecting Cities to Solutions aims to become a best-practice example of governments informing global innovation centres, incubators and accelerators, and the general public about the most important challenges affecting a region via a reliable online resource.

2. Innovation
Incubators, accelerators, startup communities, academic groups, hackathons, and the like can help advocate and foster development of solutions to global challenges. What was previously a Silicon Valley phenomenon has now become commonplace. Utilising the Connecting Cities model, governments are able to directly communicate challenges to the startup ecosystem. Thus, entrepreneurs are directly presented with urgent problems (which are also market opportunities), identifiable patrons, and the potential for major impact, on a regular basis. As a result, new technologies and innovations can be applied to address important societal issues.

3. Funding
Entrepreneurs have solutions, but often lack the capital to achieve their goals at scale. Public-private partnerships can help to remove barriers by supporting projects that use accelerated tender or suitability review processes to reduce lag times and ensure that solutions are implemented at entrepreneurial speed. For this to happen, entrepreneurs need to show more rapid traction with projects to secure funding for their next funding round, and governments should develop regulations that support the deployment of solutions that are already proven to work.

For projects that offer viable solutions but are limited by insufficient funding, governments and UNDP can make a case to development banks, such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and financial facilities with focused mandates, such as the Green Climate Fund, to aid in solving major challenges and stimulate sustainable growth. Kickstarter-type campaigns can also be launched by third parties to help a region raise funds for a specific objective. This can help achieve scale by bringing in the support of global volunteers and citizens.

4. Good governance
Underpinning the whole initiative is having buy-in from governments – the initiative would not succeed without this. So, as a first step, governments eager to partner with the private sector to solve pressing issues – such as Islamabad’s water problem – must first assess their readiness to participate. This includes asking: what are the most important challenges and what is the government’s commitment level to solving them? Who are the private-sector actors best placed locally to partner with? What are the most appropriate means of engagement? And finally, how are results measured?

These questions provide a framework for evaluating readiness. By using this rubric, a government can feel confident to participate in technological innovation and well prepared to engage with startups around the world.

With all these factors in place, UNDP supports initiatives by creating the online platform that helps source solutions, facilitating engagement between cities and solution providers. The idea is to develop a platform that can provide a blueprint to guide other regions to learn from, benchmark, and emulate. Complementing this, Business Call to Action provides a network of impactful businesses, which are already bringing many of these solutions in 70 countries around the world, that can be drawn on for ideas and information sharing.

The Islamabad initiative will lay the foundation for future public-private partnership efforts to tackle pervasive global challenges, serving as a model for how governments and entrepreneurs can work together to accelerate the diffusion of cutting-edge technology to places where needs are the greatest.

Through this collaborative approach, Connecting Cities to Solutions will not only improve the lives of underserved communities, but also mark a new generation of partnerships between UNDP, governments and private-sector actors to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Time is of the essence to address mounting challenges. We hope to generate more opportunities and interest to bridge these gaps globally, and accelerate technological flows that can lead to tangible quality-of-life improvements.

By David Wallerstein, Tencent chief exploration officer, Taimur Khilji, UNDP Bangkok regional hub economist and urban development lead, Sahba Sobhani, UNDP private sector adviser, and Paula Pelaez, head of Business Call to Action