Global Centre for Technology, Innovation
and Sustainable Development

Smart Cities & Digitalisation

Building and shaping inclusive, liveable, and sustainable urban areas is an essential development priority - reflected by the Global Centre's creation of a dedicated smart cities and digitalisation programme. Smart cities use technology and innovation to improve the urban environment - leading to improved quality of life, greater prosperity and sustainability, and engaged and empowered citizens.  Singapore, home to the Global Centre, has been consistently recognised as a leading smart city. More broadly, digitalisation is a key driver in improving lives and livelihoods.


The problem we are solving

Urbanisation is a defining trend of the 21st Century. By 2050, nearly 70% of the world's population - an additional 2.5 billion people - will live in urban areas. Much of this increase in urbanisation will occur in Africa and Asia. These regions will experience an increase in both 'megacities' and smaller urban settlements - with particular urban concentration in a small number of countries: China, India, and Nigeria.

Accompanying the pace and extent of urbanisation are a number of positive and negative trends - from increased economic opportunities, improvements in lives and livelihoods, through to the potential for greater urban-rural disparity, lower quality-of-life, and conflict. 

Building and shaping inclusive, liveable, and sustainable urban areas which are called Smart Cities, is an essential development priority - reflected by the Global Centre's creation of a dedicated smart cities and digitalisation programme.

For the Global Centre, smart cities are about using innovation at its broadest - whether technology, different ways of working, or even nature-based solutions - to improve the urban environment. Technology has significant potential to make a difference, but improvements can also come from good city management, skilled public workers and well-planned public realms, and citizen engagement and inclusion. Smart cities are about people, and not just about technology.

Beyond the urban environment, but also relevant to cities, digitalisation has played a key role in COVID-19 response and is also likely to play a crucial role in COVID-19 recovery. Digitalisation will both support existing efforts of governments, societies, and cities, as well as driving the shift to a ‘new normal’. Recognising this, the Global Centre has highlighted seven digital foundations that are likely to be important in how countries recover from COVID-19. These foundations are set out below.

Digitalisation Infographic_For Internal Use Only_Fil v2

Our key initiatives

The smart cities and digitalisation programme is split into two broad aspects: thematic 'city challenge' areas, and foundational smart city 'drivers'. These two aspects are underpinned by our guiding principles of taking a systems approach, prioritising inclusivity and sustainability, focusing on being practical and outcomes-focused; and building on the multi-decade partnership between UNDP and the government, and people, of Singapore. This includes drawing on the unique accomplishments of Singapore in becoming a globally-recognised smart city. 

What we’re doing

The underlying technology and innovation that underpins any smart cities or digitalisation initiative – although sometimes complex – is often the simplest aspect. The failures of digitalisation projects, or digital transformation more broadly, are often due to organisational culture, difficulties in achieving behaviour change, lack of technical expertise and leadership, and a singular focus on technology – as opposed to the needs and realities of users, and intended outcomes. Experienced digitalisation and smart city experts can minimise or remove these risks.

The Global Centre is working with UNDP Country Offices, and their partners, to ensure the success and sustainability of smart city and digitalisation projects through providing the below support. Click on the titles for more.

Overview: Smart city and digital projects often concentrate on the underlying technology, and this sometimes results in a reduced focus on key foundational elements. This includes the non-technical components or actions needed for success – including capacity and capability, policies and regulations, change management, and hidden costs.
Services: • Strategic roadmap assessment: in one country, the Global Centre provided assistance on how to approach a National Digital Strategy, with a focus on cybersecurity. This included advice on shaping an Emergency Response Team, and guidance regarding capacity building and international technical assistance ahead of setting-up a National Cybersecurity Agency.
• Terms of Reference drafting and review: in another country, the Global Centre provided extensive review of a major Terms of Reference to contract a private sector partner to develop a smart city plan for the country’s capital. This included reviewing objectives, deliverables, budget, and flagging key risks.
• Programme advice: the Global Centre team is providing broader support to programmes, including advising startups in a number of countries, guiding others on allocating funding to digitalisation and smart city projects, and supporting local digitalisation recruitment efforts.

Overview: During the implementation of projects, the Global Centre team can identify potential risks and mitigation approaches, broker relationships with solution providers, vendors, and other partners; define and scope specific deliverables, review final outcomes and outputs of projects and procurements, and provide broader technical project management.
Services: • Technical management: validate and monitor the correct deployment of digital tools, identify risks and mitigation strategies; facilitate the successful implementation of digitalisation projects.
• Define and scope deliverables: in one country, the Global Centre – as part of a UNDP consortium - is defining a methodology to inform the development of the country’s National Digitalisation Strategy.
• Broker partnerships: with an extensive network of public, private, and research partners, the Global Centre is able to identify relevant solutions for specific assignments, facilitate collaborations with experts, and provide neutral technical advice. Through our COVID-19 Digital Toolkit, we facilitated a partnership that saved one national government over US$1m in procuring a COVID-19 digital solution.
• Implementation and transfer: the Global Centre COVID-19 ‘Detect and Protect Challenge’ crowdsources open-source hardware solutions in partnership with major tech organisations. As part of this work, the Global Centre is building local supply chains – and catalysing local innovation ecosystems – to assist with COVID-19 response and recovery.

Overview: Leveraging its in-house expertise, the Global Centre digitalisation ‘technical helpdesk’ is designed to support UNDP Country Offices as they explore smart city and digitalisation initiatives
Services: • Technical input: in one country, the Global Centre provided key technical advice as part of a government review into digital ID solutions – informing policy and programme design. Elsewhere, the Global Centre provided further guidance regarding the shaping of a ‘smart cities hub’ – a component of a larger programme of work
• Technical consultancy: the Global Centre is also providing longer-term technical guidance to a number of Country Offices across Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia-Pacific to shape digitalisation and innovation initiatives – from design and setup, to user research, monitoring and evaluation, and implementation.
• Mentorship and Community of Practice: the Global Centre is facilitating connections between Country Offices, national governments, experts - and more widely; shaping internal mentoring and a digitalisation Community of Practice. This includes delivering training to develop expertise across UNDP – and the wider development community.

Thematic areas

Drawing on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and the six UNDP 'signature solution' areas, the Global Centre's smart city and digitalisation programme centres around three thematic areas:

  • Inclusive Cities: Cities are the closest administration to citizens and have real potential to create inclusive societies. Innovation can facilitate equal access to public services, empower citizens, and increase security and safety.
  • Sustainable Cities: Cities need to use their limited resources in the most efficient way - ensuring that they are smartly distributed and avoiding waste.   
  • Adaptable Cities: Cities need to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, including air pollution, implementing  sustainable mobility systems, and increasing their resilience  to face these and other challenges.

Smart city 'drivers'

Creating the urban settlements of the future demands a fundamental and wholesale shift in the role of technology and innovation in an urban context, as well as the need to engage with the new ways of thinking, working, and governing that these developments will require. These drivers are: digital infrastructure, data management and analysis, smart city governance, and financing and innovative partnerships.

These two aspects are underpinned by our guiding principles of taking a systems approach, prioritising inclusivity and sustainability, focusing on being practical and outcomes-focused; and building on the multi-decade partnership between UNDP and the government, and people, of Singapore. This includes drawing on the unique accomplishments of Singapore in becoming a globally-recognised smart city.

Smart City Diagrams_Thematic Areas

How you can partner

The Global Centre's smart city programme is founded on collaboration with UNDP Country Offices in order to provide their city and national partners with the technical expertise, knowledge, and partnerships needed to drive sustainable smart city and digitalisation projects and initiatives.

The programme is split into five areas: smart city delivery, shaping a community of practice, developing a smart city insights platform, sharing knowledge, and building expertise.

Each of these services are offered remotely, and in-country, and through working with partners around the world.

Smart City Diagrams_Smart Citry Programme



The latest from Smart Cities and Digitalisation


Want to start a conversation?

If you have enquiries, comments and feedback on our focus areas or would like to partner with the Global Centre please get in touch.