Although migration to urban centres has a long history, an increasing number of rural people are being attracted to cities by the potential for jobs and a better life overall.

In fact, this increasing migration is accelerating the need for digital transformation, as municipalities face growing pressure to ensure their cities are safe, smart and sustainable – something that should be a central focus this World Population Day.

There can be little doubt that a growing urban population creates challenges like mobility issues, traffic congestion and pollution, just to name a few. And with the UN projecting that some 68% of the global population will live in cities by 2050, these problems will continue to rise.

Riaan Graham, director of Ruckus Networks sub-Saharan Africa, points out that smart cities can help solve many of the potential challenges created by a rising urban population. Urban data, he says, provides an in-depth and accurate look into what we need without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries.

“Technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) can help to gather and sift through data – at speeds far beyond what humans could accomplish – to help make smarter decisions that lead to more sustainable communities, such as by helping to improve water capacity and reduce leaks, for example,” he says.

“The role of WiFi and effective connectivity is crucial here, as smart services are dependent on it for service delivery, as well as for the purposes of smart education, healthcare and government services, not to mention its role in aiding the development of under-serviced areas.”

Graham notes that technology adoption was initially accelerated by the pandemic and it is clear that cities need to leverage innovative and sustainable infrastructure solutions that harness data, energy, space, budgets and time efficiently.

“This is the essence of a smart city, which is built on the foundation of pervasive, high-performance and reliable connectivity. Connectivity is also vital in assisting the increasing urban population to find jobs, improve education and to seek out entertainment.

“Ultimately a smart city uses technology to harness data. This, in turn, provides actionable intelligence in real-time, enabling changes to be made that positively and sustainably impact on developing urban communities,” he says.

Sustainable construction

Technology also has a role to play in boosting public health and well-being, since a healthy society requires a healthy planet. Satellites, for example, can identify how much greenery exists in a city and which areas require improvement.

Making the identified changes should enhance air quality and support natural ecosystems. In addition, smart parks can ensure lawns and plants are watered in response to weather changes, making plant maintenance an automated process.

“There can be little doubt that green construction is the way to achieve both urban growth and to address the challenges of climate change, job creation and poverty alleviation,” says Brian Unsted, asset management executive and head of good spaces at Liberty Two Degrees.

There are actually many practices that can be utilised by construction companies to reduce their overall environmental impact. These include the creation of new habitats, buffer areas and landscapes. These will help to prevent biodiversity loss in the areas where they are implemented.

“The future of urban construction lies in harnessing our cities’ natural ecosystems and supporting ambitious designs that embed nature in new or upgraded infrastructure. It is my belief that a sustainable construction sector simply must support an urban development model in harmony with biodiversity.

“To this end the Green Building Council of SA (GBCSA) is also playing an important role of leading the greening of South Africa’s commercial property sector. The GBCSA provides the tools, training, knowledge and networks to promote green building practices across the country and build a national movement that will change the way the world is built. More pertinently, the GBCSA has launched a net zero building certification scheme, with no less a goal than ensuring that all buildings are net zero carbon by 2050,” adds Unsted.

The waste conundrum

Ensuring that the buildings are suitable for an increasing number of urban dwellers to live and work in are smarter and more sustainable is only half the battle. With cities around the globe generating over two billion tonnes of solid waste per annum – and this figure will have grown to 3,4-billion tonnes by 2050, it is clear that new plans for dealing with waste are critical.

Unsted states: “The pandemic has provided a new opportunity to reset our environmental future, presenting ways to change processes to be as efficient as possible. Therefore, it is imperative that as government and the private sector focus on the transition to a cleaner economy. A raft of measures can be adopted with waste management operations to drive South Africa’s green economy.”

Kate Stubbs, marketing director at Interwaste, suggests that the 122-million tonnes of waste generated in South Africa last year was worth around R25,2-billion, approximately 90% of which went directly to landfill. This means that at present, only 10% of waste is being recycled, something that must change drastically if we wish to be truly sustainable and create stronger circular economy models.

“We have to place more focus on changing the ‘throw away culture’ that many businesses, individuals, and households have, if we truly want to support a healthier planet and preserve and restore biodiversity around the globe,” she says. “The waste management industry has not been idle, with new regulations driving a lot of innovation around new forms of waste beneficiation, using various green technologies and an increase in the number of materials re-used and recycled in the market.”

Re-use and recycling are key components, as they play directly into the principles of the circular economy. This is a model whereby all unnecessary waste materials, energy losses and related carbon emissions are stripped out of supply chains. Then, through innovation, it promotes closing these gaps to allow materials, energy and resources to be ‘fed’ back into the cycle. A strong focus on this, is an enabler to sustainable development.

“The ultimate goal is to make progress towards a Net Zero waste status to make a significant contribution to the achievement of a green economy. This means; ensuring waste avoidance, resource recovery, and the retrieval of recyclable materials before they enter the waste stream. Products should be designed with materials that can be recycled and are more valuable throughout the waste value chain,” Unsted adds.

“It is necessary for us all to taking recycling, reuse and repurposing seriously. Only by doing this, along with embracing emerging green technologies and implementing smart technologies – like AI and IoT – to update infrastructure or reduce resource use, can we continue to develop innovative ways to solve the world’s challenges around sustainability and urban population growth,” concludes Stubbs.