Davos Agenda

Why developing nations are defining the smart cities of the future

The Aquapolo water purification plant in Sao Paolo is increasing efficiency using digital solutions.

The Aquapolo water purification plant in Sao Paolo is increasing efficiency using digital solutions. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Peter Herweck
Chief Executive Officer, Schneider Electric
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • With most future urbanization projected in Africa and Asia, this is where to look to see the trends shaping the cities of the future.
  • High-tech, climate-positive infrastructure in smart cities will be key for sustainable outcomes.
  • Forward-looking civic authorities will aim to further integrate urban systems.

In PCMC smart city just outside Pune, India, it used to take an hour to call an ambulance. Now, using integrated data systems for traffic management, health services and transport, emergency services take advantage of “green corridors” to cut through traffic, reaching those in need in half the time. They do this because the city’s authorities gather integrated data in their command-and-control centre, enabling teams to synchronize activities and work more efficiently. As a result, livability standards are increasing, and the energy efficiency of services improved by 50%.

This kind of digital thinking is enabling the development of new infrastructure that is both lower carbon and more suited to our sustainable future. As momentum builds to tackle climate change, the paradigms being forged in developing nations will be different from today’s established norms. From the growth of microgrids in Africa to biomass and solar energy in Asia and the Middle East, new, climate-positive infrastructure blends high-tech approaches with highly accessible grassroots networks to enable actionable change.

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The economic slowdown is likely to accelerate this, as countries and businesses look for cost- and carbon-efficient workarounds that support social development and growth. With the recent launch of the WEF smart city toolkit, it’s timely to explore the role that digitalization is playing in the evolution of infrastructure and the development of new sustainable cities.

Sustainable smart cities in Africa and Asia

As emphasized in the most recent IPCC report, the way in which civic authorities evolve in the next decade will be key to keeping the possibility of a 1.5°C future alive. Another 2.5 billion people are projected to flock to urban areas by 2050, with close to 90% of this increase in Asia and Africa. Many of the established urbanization norms are highly carbon-intensive, so new models are evolving.

A great example is the development of smart cities, which enable more sustainable growth while improving safety, security and livability. From smart sewerage and traffic control to street lighting and education enhancements, many cities across Africa and Asia are harnessing the power of smart city technologies to drive efficiency, cut pollution and support citizen welfare.

India’s PCMC is part of the Indian government’s smart cities programme. Here, smart systems including AVEVA’s unified operations centre have helped to cut pollution by 12% by reducing traffic waiting times, and optimising water leakage, cutting water lost from the sewerage system by 25%. During COVID, the city was able to use digital smart kiosks to issue vaccination tickets to citizens remotely, meaning that people could get their vaccines faster. Indeed, PCMC was among the fastest cities in India to roll out the government’s inoculation programme.

Another example is Aquapolo, Brazil’s largest water recycling authority. The team there increased operational efficiency by 15% by taking a digital approach to process optimization using software in water purification plants. They have grown efficiency to the point where for every clean litre of water produced, a litre of water is conserved, protecting scarce resources for Sao Paolo.

Smart city software solutions don’t just apply to developing world cities. South Korea’s ultra-modern capital, Seoul, has embraced smart city solutions to fulfil its vision of energy independence and sharing. The authorities are installing solar panels in over 1 million households, combined with hydrogen fuel-cell plants and micro-wind turbine deployments, to manage a more complex energy ecosystem with a lower carbon footprint. Digital systems are key to helping balance the intermittency and geographic distribution challenges that come with renewables, while also allowing the city to take advantage of the increased resiliency that comes with decentralization and variability of energy sources being developed.

The power of integration

As civic authorities, industries and governments switch to focus on outward thinking, simplifying processes, minimizing wasted work and creating value and sustainable growth, agility and resiliency grow. Yet, integrating complex networks can be difficult, requiring incorporating multiple different systems. This is why we are encouraged to see civic authorities who are rethinking how they approach industrial transformation; harnessing the power of data in context and enhancing it with artificial intelligence and human insight, industries can drive higher efficiencies, reduce carbon and optimize performance. This kind of integrated and systemic approach is already transforming India’s smart cities at an individual level, and enabling the government to scale its transformation plans fast.


How is the World Economic Forum supporting the development of cities and communities globally?

Empowering people is the heart of the vision for smart cities. By bringing teams together using shared data and insight, civic authorities are driving deeper collaboration and unlocking better decision-making, as the example of PCMC shows. This the key to staying ahead of the rapidly evolving climate crisis. In empowering people to succeed, our prize will be higher growth for our lower carbon world. The challenge of 2030 is before us, and smart city technologies provide a clear path forward.

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Davos AgendaFairer EconomiesCities and Urbanization
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