The Fourth Industrial Revolution heralds a new era in human development, one characterized by extraordinary technological advances coupled with unprecedented investment in how data can drive urban futures. Feedback loops between humans and the urban environment are the driving force behind both technological developments and the generation of data to advance human progress. While nation-states in the global North and South have embraced the transforming potential of technology and data, it is clear that the roles of the two must differ given the vast variations in human well-being and urban environments across and within cities.

This blog post contrasts insights and observations made at the 2019 Urban Intelligence Forum, co-hosted by MIT and the Futures Council on Cities and Urbanization, with my own research on urban knowledge and sustainability in the African context through the Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA) to illustrate the parallel focuses on urban intelligence and urban knowledge in these different contexts. While there appears to be a north-south polarization in approach, the discourses of urban intelligence and urban knowledge can be productively bridged by focusing on the potential of both to contribute to improved interfaces between science and policy.

The Urban Intelligence Forum was a celebration of technology and innovation designed to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of existing infrastructure with application in northern cities, whose rates of urbanization have essentially stabilized in recent decades. A crude characterization of the urban problem in these contexts is increasing the (carbon) efficiency of outdated infrastructures whilst simultaneously enhancing user efficiency for urban citizens. The discussions at the forum indicate that urban intelligence, new forms of mobility, visual informatics, governing innovation and new forms of citizenship provide the architecture for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

By contrast, the LIRA Programme is focused on the generation of urban knowledge in contexts of rapid urbanization and the dominance of informality (in service delivery and governance systems) in addressing the needs of diverse urban dwellers in highly unequal cities. Understanding the prevalence of risk, distribution of pollution, household livelihood strategies, prevalence of disease, among other issues, are the focus of research in cities that operate parallel economic, governance and service delivery mechanisms. The delivery of infrastructure and the incremental upgrading of infrastructure and services in vast informal settlements is the focus of urban interventions.

Despite many African governments embracing the discourse of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there are murmurings that economic development models based on technological advances can reinforce systems of power that entrench patterns of inequality.

The differences in urbanization and development trajectories, infrastructural development and technological capacities in cities of the global North and South result in seemingly parallel strategies focused on urban intelligence and urban knowledge. Urban intelligence based on artificial intelligence and big data has a significant anticipatory role in maximizing the efficiency of infrastructures in the North; while transitions in southern cities depend on generating data and urban knowledge on everyday urban processes and systems (which are predominantly informal). However, this is not to say that the role of technology in urban transformation is less significant in the South, rather that the use of technology should be reconceptualized in different contexts.

The future of automated vehicles, for example, might well be a relevant and productive discussion in congested cities such as London or Boston. In cities such as Nairobi or Kampala, however, autonomous vehicles would not address the job creation opportunities presented by the informal taxi industry that fill the gap created by poor spatial planning and the lack of an integrated rapid mass transit system. Developing mobility and transit solutions for Nairobi or Kampala is premised on generating data about the transit patterns of the urban poor. Here, technology in the form of mobile phones has the potential to provide the necessary data and urban knowledge required to inform interventions to address congestion.

This example illustrates that technology and innovation have roles to play in both the global North and South, but that the different contexts mean they cannot be transferred from one context to the next with the same results. Significantly, the example shows the potential role of technology to generate science and data on and for cities and for data to translate to action.

Critical engagement with the role of technology is important, as evidence suggests that transitions focused on the intersections between society, nature and technology can leave many places behind. Engaging with the different drivers underpinning the relationship between data, technology and action while developing feedback loops between urban dwellers and the city across different contexts is critical. The transfer of innovation, intelligence and knowledge therefore is not nearly as valuable as recognizing that intelligence and knowledge must necessarily look quite different in different contexts.

The centrality of data and the significance of knowledge systems is obvious when one hones in on the indicator framework of the SDGs. Improving science-policy connections across the world has been prioritized by the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG), which calls for a data revolution involving the strengthening of statistical systems at local, national and international levels and new means of collecting data of high quality and coverage.

Common to both contexts is the need for action. This action could be about scaling experimental technological innovations based on urban intelligence or using urban knowledge (generated through the use of technology) to inform decisions to improve the daily lives of citizens. Additionally common to both is the development of policy environments that facilitate appropriate actions.

Whilst it is useful to differentiate between the knowledge, data and technological capacities and requirements of cities of the North and South, both approaches are in fact parts of a continuum of knowledge production that are central to the Science and the Future of Cities agenda. Nature Sustainability's expert panel highlights the threefold role of science for the future of all cities:

  • to understand how cities work;
  • to provide an understanding of the opportunities and challenges cities afford to humanity;
  • and to inform how we can harness these to transition to more sustainable and just societies.

In order to secure more effective science to strengthen science-policy connections, the panel has identified two strategies. Firstly, the forging of new knowledge that responds to complex urban challenges and hastening the uptake of scientific urban information by practitioners and decision-makers. Both strategies require anticipatory urban intelligence and feedback systems, as well as urban knowledge on urban systems.

In both cases, how intelligence and knowledge are generated is critical if the power dynamics that have left sections of society behind are to be redressed. What is common to both is the proliferation of new knowledge partnerships that bring together scholars from different fields, working with innovators, citizens, the private sector and other knowledge brokers to jointly experiment with alternate futures.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities.

Getting solutions to scale requires the transformation of current interfaces between science and policy by breaking down the conventional divides between science and politics and by derailing notions of who does science where and who does politics and where. Transdisciplinary practices have been shown to be an effective vehicle for facilitating the production of knowledge through alternate tracks and forging much needed alternate pathways to urban progress.

It is suggested that reorientating the discussion on the future of cities to the interfaces between science and policy provides a more expansive approach to urban change than that offered by the suggested centrality of technology in the urban intelligence discourse. This shift is helpful in moving the discussion away from polarized north-south positioning, inviting a more productive project of building bridges between urban intelligence and knowledge.