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More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and countries such as India and China are in need of hundreds of additional cities to accommodate growing populations. People in many cities suffer from inadequate transportation, sub-standard buildings, lack of sanitation, and poor public safety, highlighting the need for sustainable and livable urban planning. Information and communication technology (ICT) can be a useful tool in helping cities improve their safety, cleanliness, and sustainability.

ICT not only contributes to sustainable urban initiatives, but also encourages more environmentally conscious consumer choices. In Singapore, for example, commuters can use mobile phones to avoid hours in traffic by accessing data mapping tools that display traffic and provide alternate travel routes. Commuters can also plan trips on public transportation and be notified of delays or changes in service.

iPhone Mape (Photo via flickr, by gothick_matt)

As cities try to become more sustainable, some municipal governments are finding out just how useful ICT can be. Cities can be run more intelligently with the help of digital infrastructure, such as motion-sensor street lamps and energy chips in transit passes that allow people to enter a subway or bus with the simple swipe of a card.

In many cases, cities are partnering directly with businesses to boost urban sustainability. The Dutch city of Rotterdam, for example, is working with General Electric (GE) in an effort to reach the city’s goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent compared with 1990 levels. GE will use data visualizations, smart meters, and other technologies to optimize energy efficiency and improve water management. The use of these ICTs will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Rotterdam, which emits as much carbon dioxide as New York City, while being only a tenth of its size.

ICT can be an excellent tool, but it is not the silver bullet solution to greening cities. To be effective, ICT must be used not only in mapping problems encountered across cities, but also to find sustainable solutions to those problems.

In my chapter, “Information and Communications Technologies Creating Livable, Equitable, and Sustainable Cities,” in State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, I highlight three ways that communities can effectively use ICT to promote sustainability:

Open access to data. Improving data access is critical to creating sustainable cities. By sharing information, it is possible to make connections among seemingly disparate variables. The Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University in New York used data to establish the connection between crime and poor housing, education, and health care. By analyzing data from the criminal justice system, researchers found that a disproportionate number of felons were from specific neighborhoods in large U.S. cities. Similar research may help officials target policies around education and poverty reduction in these areas, which could help in preventing crime.

Nairobi skyline (Photo via Flickr, by fwooper)

Community mapping. Mapping all neighborhoods and regions of a city is vital to ensuring effective and sustainable urban planning. Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is home to approximately 1 million people. Yet Kibera has been excluded from city maps, discounting its thousands of residents. Recently, an independent team of researchers partnered with Kibera youth to create an interactive map of the slums. In 2009, the team succeeded in placing Kibera on official Nairobi maps, which resulted in a new project, Voice of Kibera, which helps citizens report the location of robberies or fires, and hold discussions by text message.

Community watch. ICTs can enhance community involvement and help authorities respond to local concerns. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a grassroots-mapping community based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses low-tech materials, including helium balloons and digital cameras, to take aerial photos of areas that may endanger public health or be of environmental concern. These tools helped identify contaminated areas in the Gulf of Mexico after a major oil spill and an illegal dumping site in Brooklyn, New York. In addition, FixMyStreet in the United Kingdom or SeeClickFix in the United States are websites where people can report concerns, such as a burned out street light. Each problem is logged on the site, making it easier for local governments to respond to issues of importance to the community.

Using ICT helps cities achieve sustainability efficiently while connecting with local communities, to ensure that diverse perspectives are included in the city’s plans.

Diana Lind is Editor-in-Chief of Next American City and contributing author to State of the World 2012.

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