How Can Digital Innovation Create More Sustainable Cities?

How Can Digital Innovation Create More Sustainable Cities?
  • Jan 30, 2023

By 2050, two third of the world's population are living in cities, especially in developing countries. This rapid urbanization brings together the growth and challenges for both the government and the citizens, making it requires a new approach to make the cities sustainable: able to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Digital technology is believed to facilitate the approach to creating sustainable cities that encompass all aspects of environmental stewardship, social development, and economic progress.


Rapid urbanization is one of the challenges to the development of countries in the world, especially in the Asia Pacific. The World Bank predicts more than half of the world's population amounting to nearly 4 billion people, live in cities. By 2050, it is expected to reach more than 6.5 billion, or about two-thirds of humanity.

In a report entitled Expanding Opportunities for the Urban Poor, the World Bank states that East Asia and the Pacific is the fastest urbanizing area in the world, with an average annual urbanization rate of 3 percent. Similarly, the Asian Development Bank also notes that the rate of urbanization in the Asia Pacific has reached 120,000 people per day. It is estimated that the percentage of the population living in urban areas in Asia will reach more than 50 percent within 90 years. Even Indonesia and China only need 60 years. Meanwhile in Europe, reaching a proportion level above 50 percent requires more than 100 years.

Rapid urbanization provides both opportunities and challenges. According to the World Bank report, cities' economies contribute to more than 80 percent of the gross domestic product in many countries in the Asia Pacific and are an engine of economic growth that has helped hundreds of millions of people escape poverty in the last two decades. Urban areas can also create a better overall quality of life in several ways. When urban areas become bustling cities, they become a society of culture that can facilitate financial, educational, and cultural growth.

However, in many cities in the Asia Pacific, the pace of infrastructure development, job opportunities, and social services is not as rapid as urbanization, leading to widening inequalities that can hamper economic growth and cause new social problems. Among these are the lacks of access to jobs, public transportation, sanitation, and other infrastructure, as well as affordable housing.  

Urbanization also causes the emergence of slum areas. The World Bank records that the Asia Pacific region has the world's largest slum population: 250 million people, with poor quality housing, limited access to basic services, and risks from disasters such as flooding. Indonesia together with China and the Philippines have the majority of the urban poor. That means 75 million people in the region live on less than US$ 3.10 a day. In contrast, in countries with high income, such as Japan and Korea, urbanization includes creating space for higher economic growth. In Singapore, the economic growth averages 8 percent annually, thanks to effective infrastructure, affordable housing, and good social services.

So, how does the city deal with this rapid urbanization to make it a sustainable living place for the citizens and the global environment?


Sustainable City

The Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals pays special attention to urban development by establishing the 11th goal particularly related to cities, under the commitment to creating cities and human settlements that are inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. We call it a sustainable city. 

The World Bank defines a sustainable city as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Thus, there are several aspects to include in sustainable city development, as follows:

  • Public Transportation: An efficient public transportation system is one of the most effective strategies employed by a sustainable city to combat issues such as congestion and rising carbon emissions. Cost-efficient and accessible public transportation takes cars off the road, reducing harmful emissions generated by daily driving commutes and errands.
  • Pedestrian and Bike-Friendly Sidewalks: Sustainable cities promote emission-free modes of transportation such as walking and cycling. To improve the walkability of urban spaces, urban planners in eco-friendly cities incorporate pedestrian- and bike-friendly infrastructure.
  • Electric Car Charging Stations: To incentivize people to purchase electric cars over their less eco-friendly counterparts, sustainable cities offer electric car charging stations that are conveniently located throughout the city.
  • Renewable Energy: Many sustainable cities have invested in solar farms and wind farms for greener energy. Since the infrastructure for renewable energy is a costly, albeit smart investment, the transition to clean energy is occurring gradually for many green cities.
  • Sustainable Architecture: Many newer skyscrapers in sustainable cities are green buildings, boasting features such as energy-efficient cooling, heating, and water systems as well as solar energy panels.
  • Urban Agriculture and Food Production: Sustainable cities are dabbling in urban farming and often encourage growing food for personal consumption through community gardening.
  • Strong Social Planning Efforts: In addition to investing in environmental policies, sustainable cities also strive to provide their citizens with ample social support by investing in community centers, public health measures, and cultural amenities, to give citizens their best chance to thrive.
  • Green Water Management: Conserving urban water usage and urban water management is an essential aspect of sustainable cities.
  • Urban Green Spaces: Urban planning in sustainable cities understands the importance of public green spaces to the mental wellness of urban dwellers.
  • 10. Green Waste Solutions: Some sustainable cities actively regulate recycling and composting policies to help keep their citizens accountable for waste management.


Digital technology for developing sustainable cities

Referring to the 10 indicators mentioned above, sustainable urban development cannot be separated from technology. Why? Here are the reasons:

Emerging technologies are already becoming indispensable to citizens' daily lives, whether they live in cities, towns, or rural areas. The first we can think of is smartphones, then there is also artificial intelligence (AI), big data analysis, 3D printing, industrial robots which produce goods, and others. Other emerging technologies look to be on the verge of making a transformative contribution, like blockchain and self-driving cars. These technological innovations will affect all of society but cities, in particular, stand to be transformed by the digital revolution.

Digital innovations also bring opportunities for ground-breaking innovations in urban design, policymaking, and infrastructure. Many cities are already tapping this potential, often with the close involvement of the private sector. Around the world, governments are making cities "smarter". They are using data and digital technology to help tackle climate change and to improve administrative processes by searching for efficiencies, cutting red tape, delivering better value for money, and engaging citizens. 

In Indonesia, following the 2020-2024 RPJMN, digital technology is implemented in the concepts of Smart City, Green City, and Sustainable City, to support the achievement of SDGs through 3 enablers, namely access to information and public services, connectivity between individuals and organizations, and resources efficiency of increased productivity. Digital technology is applied to increase the benefits and reduce the negative impacts of urbanization that may arise, such as traffic jams, waste and garbage, a decrease in water and air quality, and higher crime. The government has also initiated the Digital Transformation Strategy Framework as a guide in implementing the digitalization process which is directed at 3 strategic sectors, namely Digital Government, Digital Economy, and Digital Society, where Smart City is one of the indicators. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK) has implemented digitization in the implementation of the National Forest Monitoring System (SIMONTANA) to obtain information on hotspots for forest and land fires, as well as to control water pollution online. In the education sector, the Government implemented online or in-network schools when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Indonesia. Various educational support applications have also emerged. One of them is the existence of a digital library, which makes it easier for students to increase their interest in reading or improve literacy.

Digital innovation has brought advantages in cities in terms of efficiency gains, improved public service delivery, opportunities for more integrated urban services, lower barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and SMEs, greater citizen participation, as well as more transparency and accountability in the public sector. 



We are entering a new era in which organizations that embrace digital innovation as a core component of their sustainability efforts will forge ahead. Cities need to be open to implementing new technologies of all types, as they develop development plans and find ways to progress faster at every level. By taking advantage of innovative approaches such as cloud computing, machine learning, and emerging digital platforms, cities and local governments can collect and compile data, inform decision-making, facilitate greater collaboration, and report progress more transparently; empowering urban communities with the information and tools necessary to work towards a more sustainable future at greater speed and scale.

Happy Digital X
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