Throughout history, most humans have lived in rural communities. But the rapid growth in population—from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7.2 billion today—has dramatically increased the number of city dwellers. In 2008, the urban population overtook the rural population for the first time and by 2050, almost 70 per cent of us will live in cities. The future for humankind is metropolitan.
This urban shift creates huge challenges. The UN has specifically targeted them in its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 11, which calls for all cities to be made “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.
Achieving this will require action on many issues, from air pollution and waste management to education and ethical financing. So in December, a diverse mix of thinkers, innovators and policy-makers met in Cambridge, UK, to promote collaboration and to generate ideas. This “Transformers Summit” was hosted by the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) with the aim of stimulating progress towards the UN goals. Government ministers mixed with academics, city mayors with UN officials, epidemiologists with innovation experts.
Nobody doubted the size of the task. Bandar Hajjar, president of the IsDB, called for “a paradigm shift in development to keep our promise of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals”. The old model of stimulating growth by exporting raw materials was no longer working, he said. Future development should be based on science and innovation, agreed Claire Perry, the UK’s minister for energy and clean growth.
Changing the world is a daunting prospect but it is also an opportunity. Sam Parker, director of the Shell Foundation, spoke for many when he said, “Now is a great time to be an entrepreneur and a great time to be thinking about cities. New technologies are offering opportunities that weren’t really feasible before.”
Having the right technology is part of the solution, but it’s important to know how and where to apply it – and when not to, said David Sengeh, chief innovation officer for Sierra Leone’s Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation. He warned that in some areas, such as education, hi-tech solutions are not always helpful. A technological fix will not make it easier for science students to become working scientists, for example. In this case, it is more important to fix the system so that it encourages students to make that transition.
Another consideration is that different cities face very different challenges. “There’s no single smart city model that fits all,” said Hajjar. Many of the fastest growing cities, such as those in Burundi, Uganda and Niger, are highly vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change. Many of them are also in areas that are not agriculturally productive.
In these places, environmental resilience and food security are greater priorities than for cities in the global north.
Transport issues differ too. Ulrika Modeer, from the UN Development Programme, pointed out that authorities in the developed world are focused on persuading people to use buses and rail. But many cities in the developing world don’t have that luxury because they lack the transport infrastructure that would allow residents to ditch their cars.
Some of the most compelling contributions at the event came from the innovators and entrepreneurs who have won funding from the IsDB’s $500 million Transform Fund, which launched in April. The fund provides seed money and business advice to start-ups and small enterprises in areas such as food security, water management, sanitation, clean energy, health and education. Hayat Sindi, chief scientific advisor to the IsDB and the architect of the fund, said the bank had received 4300 applicants from 100 countries, which had to be whittled down to 32 eventual winners. “It was very tough to make that choice,” she said.
But the winning ‘Transformers’ showed how innovative thinking and enthusiasm can infect everyone. Maulen Akhmetov described his indoor vertical farming company called Farmily in Kazakhstan. It grows herbs and vegetables in moist, nutrient-rich air – no need for pesticides or herbicides, and it produces significantly fewer carbon emissions than traditional farming.
Zor Hussain’s company, Kijani Energy, aims to reduce food waste in remote areas where food often rots before it can be transported to market. Kijani Energy builds solar-powered refrigerated units carried by vans for off-grid farmers. Hussain recently piloted the technology in Mozambique, where it helped farmers preserve their produce and increase their income by more than 80 per cent.
That’s a good example of a recurring theme at the Summit: to make things happen, you have to make things. In an on-stage interview, the filmmaker Richard Curtis reminded us that science alone is not enough, and that the arts have much to contribute in spreading the message behind the Sustainable Development Goals. Curtis has played an important part in helping to persuade everyone they have a role to play in the search for a sustainable future.
That role will continue next year. Following an invitation from the President of Senegal, the 2019 Transformers Summit will take place in the capital city of Dakar.
Crowdfunding the future
Funding innovation is a difficult challenge. The Islamic Development Bank’s Transform Fund, for example, is backing 32 innovative projects that promote inclusive and sustainable development in various parts of the world. But there are numerous other important projects that the Fund is unable to support in the same way.
So the bank is pioneering a different approach. At the Transformers Summit, it launched a crowdfunding website called ISDB Innovate, that allows anybody to contribute towards these kinds of projects.
Anyone interested in supporting innovators using science and technology to solve critical problems at a community level can donate at www.IsDB-innovate.org.
Live projects include a low-cost glucose monitoring unit, an interactive museum in Karachi designed to inspire interest in science, and an incubator to prevent neonatal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. And would-be entrepreneurs with world-changing projects of their own can submit their proposals on the site.
Find out more at: www.ISDB-innovate.org