Digital Solutions for Cities: An Assessment Framework

Technological transformation is rapidly changing our cities. To ensure that they are changing them for better, sustainability, digitalisation, and urban development must go hand in hand. Luciana Maia and François van Schalkwyk present an assessment tool for digital solutions which helps to find the necessary connections.

Adding to the pressing megatrends that are shaping cities globally – such as rising inequality and climate change – is rapid technological transformation. The use of digital solutions and evolving information and communication technologies (ICT) in cities is increasing at an unprecedent rate. Several buzzwords attest to how technology is (re)shaping urban centres: smart cities, intelligent cities, connected cities, sharing cities, circular cities, and so on.

Technologies frequently used by cities include digital platforms for citizen participation, smart sensors for measuring emissions, smartphone applications used for disaster early warnings or to avoid traffic congestion, to name a few. Such technologies can support the sustainable transformation of urban areas, but only if the right frameworks and solutions are in place. It is important to govern and shape these processes at city level, and to create linkages between sustainability, digitalisation, and urban development.

Working with Principles

The task at hand is not an easy one. Two concrete sets of principles can and should be used to guide the work when it comes to designing, developing, and deploying digital solutions: the implementation principles of the 2030 Agenda and the Principles for Digital Development.

The 2030 Agenda provides an ambitious plan of action at city level. As a comprehensive and transformative blueprint, it aims at eliminating extreme poverty, reducing inequality, and protecting the planet. Guiding the concrete implementation of the agenda are these five principles: universality, leave no one behind, shared responsibility, integrated approach, and accountability.

The Digital Principles are a set of guidelines which focus on the importance of developing and implementing digital solutions through human-centred, contextually appropriate, collaborative, safe, and sustainable design. The nine principles are: design with the user, understand the existing ecosystem, design for scale, build for sustainability, be data-driven, be open, reuse and improve, address privacy and security, and be collaborative.

A Tool for Practitioners

Is it possible to help practitioners to better understand where improvements can be made in the planning, design, and implementation of digital urban solutions, so that they are likely to deliver sustainable and equitable outcomes?

We strongly believe so. Inspired by the work of other colleagues and specialists, a community of practice* on urban projects in Asia has recently published the study “Compilation and analysis of digital solutions for climate-resilient and low-carbon urban development.”

Its conceptual framework is devised on the assumption that there is commonality between the digital solutions implemented on the ground, the Digital Development Principles, the 2030 Agenda Implementation Principles, and the SDGs to the extent that they seek to ensure development that is inclusive, open, and collaborative.

In the first part of the study, a sound assessment methodology was used to evaluate four different digital solutions against the Digital Development Principles, the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. A desktop review of project information and a survey with project staff allows for an assessment of how the digital development principles have been applied during the planning, design, and implementation of the digital solution.
Based on a conceptual alignment of the two sets of principles, an assessment of the digital solution against each of the 2030 Agenda principles is possible. Moreover, it indicates the primary SDG targets with which the digital solution aligns. Here it important to note that while the digital solutions assessed often contribute to several SDGs, only the most salient of the SDGs in relation to urban resilience and climate change are listed in the assessments.

Links between principles, the SDGs and digital solutions for climate resilient and low-carbon urban development. © GIZ

What is the Value of the Assessment Tool?

This assessment methodology can be used as a tool to help you build the missing links between sustainability, digitalisation, and urban development. It aims to make you more familiar with the digital development principles and to assess honestly whether the digital solutions you are developing could be improved to become more well-aligned with the two sets of principles. Ultimately, the tool should assist cities and development partners to design, develop, and deploy inclusive, open, collaborative, and effective digital solutions.

Finally, we would like to share four insights gained from this initial assessment:

  1. Be more mindful of other initiatives and solutions: None of the digital solutions assessed showed evidence of making use of previous solutions developed by the global development community. Projects should make a concerted effort to learn from past experiences of others and to identify possible solutions that can be reused or modified for their specific context. This will also create opportunities for greater collaboration and exchange between projects and between cities.
  2. Define users more clearly from the outset: Many projects clearly articulate the primary users of their digital solutions and refer to “the public” as secondary users. Such a broad definition is not helpful in identifying the needs of different user groups within the public; nor does it take into consideration the needs and capacities of marginalised communities. Developing detailed user personas combined with stakeholder analysis are useful approaches for narrowing down who the secondary users are.
  3. Be more open but consider the rights of others: Being more open can reduce unnecessary replication, ensure sustainability and create more constructive linkages between projects. In the case of digital solutions, adopting open standards can increase the interoperability of smaller pilot projects to create richer and more integrated datasets for planners, researchers and decision-makers. At the same time, projects need to be more aware of how their digital solutions may be infringing on the rights of others.
  4. Don’t underestimate the interest of others in your digital solution: The developed solutions and documentation are of interest to the broader development community. At times, projects appeared to underestimate the value of their own efforts and/or the value of the supporting documentation produced by the project.

We hope that the approach developed will be used, discussed, and improved by other initiatives! Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you have questions, comments, recommendations or critical reflections.

*Learn more about the Community of Practice on Transformation – Urban Opportunities – Climate Change (TUrbOCliC) here.

Luciana Maia
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    François van Schalkwyk
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