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UN-Habitat is the United Nations programme for sustainable urbanization, with a mission to promote socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements and the achievement of adequate shelter for all. UN-Habitat works with partners to build inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and communities and promotes urbanization as a positive transformative force reducing inequality, discrimination and poverty. UN-Habitat works in over 90 countries through knowledge, policy advice, technical assistance and collaborative action.

UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd. Sharif and Senior Adviser Francesca Bria launch the People-Centered Smart Cities programme at the World Urban Forum, February 2020

The UN-Habitat Strategic Plan 2020-2023 sets out a strengthened focus on 'frontier technologies'. Technologies are profoundly influencing the emergence of smart cities, the ways in which we build and manage our cities and other human settlements and how urban managers take more informed decisions. To contribute effectively to urban sustainability, frontier technologies need to be applied appropriately to ensure that the prosperity they bring is shared among citizens, cities and regions.

To do that, UN-Habitat is integrating a new approach to technology in both its normative and operational activities, including anticipating trends and conditions and their long-term impact on urbanization; developing innovative ways to collect and use data, including spatial analysis for urban management; and elaborating smart city plans and strategies. UN-Habitat encourages the creation of open, user-friendly and participatory data platforms to ensure that the benefits of data collection and integration are shared by all, with strong guidance within that context on data protection, data ownership, privacy rights and human rights. Ultimately, the deployment of frontier technologies need to pay particular attention to underserved populations in order to address inequalities and bridge social and spatial divides.

A key component of the implementation of UN-Habitat’s Strategic Plan is five new ‘flagship’ programmes that were launched at the tenth session of the World Urban Forum in February 2020. The main objective of flagship programme 2, People-Centered Smart Cities, is to make urban digital transformation work for the benefits of all, driving sustainability, inclusivity and prosperity and the realization of human rights in cities and human settlements. Overall, this programme enables UN-Habitat and its partners to make a serious and deep contribution to a field that is often focused on the technology itself and not sufficiently focused on inclusion, ethics, quality of life, human rights and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

UN-Habitat is taking an approach that starts with identifying real challenges, aspirations and priorities coming from all urban residents and communities, while respecting human rights. It is critical that smart city planning focuses on solving specific sustainability problems and key missions such as climate change and reducing poverty, while at the same time engaging with a strong inclusion agenda. A sectoral, industry or technology driven, approach is not appropriate.

The work of ensuring that digital technologies and smart cities benefit all needs to be undertaken by a wide array of actors - including networks such as the Cities for Digital Rights Coalition - and UN-Habitat can play a facilitating role in the process to ensure that they positively impact sustainable development.

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