Information and communication technologies (ICTs) hold an enormous potential for developing countries. By bringing patients in touch with their doctors, farmers in touch with their markets, and governments in touch with their people, ICTs remove inefficiencies from economies and allow businesses to grow uninhibited by information lags.
United Nations Ambassadors and agency heads met in Hong Kong on Monday to discuss the potential for social and economic growth in cities through the development of ICTs. The high-level meeting, sponsored by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), UN Habitat and South-South News, was an opportunity for experts and representatives of developing countries to discuss best practices, and share ideas for more sustainable urbanization.
“We are living in an exciting time,” said Gulelat Kebede, the Head of the Urban Economy and Finance Branch of UN-Habitat. “There are lots of applications of ICT that can come as the world is urbanized... And urbanization goes hand in hand with economic development.”
Speakers at Monday's meeting acknowledged the fact that the city hosting them was just the sort of place where sustainable urbanization was a major priority.
“Being both a technological center and densely populated urban center, it is no accident that Hong Kong was chosen as the site for this meeting,” said South-South News President Francis Lorenzo. "[Hong Kong] shows how ICTs and sustainable urbanization might merge and be mutually reinforcing.”
ITU Secretary-General Hamdoun Touré stressed the importance of exploiting the opportunities presented by ICTs, especially broadband access. He also pointed out that the issues discussed at this meeting should be reflected in the UN's biggest event of the year; the upcoming Conference on Sustainable Development.
“Rio+20 is a once in a generation opportunity to shape our future, and also...to work together to start defining the post-2015 agenda,” he said. “It is very clear to me...that the Rio+20 outcome document should recognize ICT and ICT networks as an essential condition for all three pillars of sustainable development.”
Nicholas Pron, the secretary of UNICEF's Executive Board described the urgent need for urban sustainability for the world's children, one quarter of whom are poor and live in slum conditions. He made the case that ICT solutions that looked beyond the averages and aggregates accumulated by UN agencies could help these children, and clean up the world's growing slums
Mohamed Al-Qaed, who serves as CEO of the e government authority in the Kingdom of Bahrain, made the case that the malleable nature of ICTs made them perfect tools to address the unique and varied challenges faced by each individual nation, and that wider access could only help states to overcome their issues.
One of the most engaging presentations of the morning meeting came from Yiping Zhou, the Director of UNDP's Special Unit for South-South Cooperation. He called for greater information sharing across developing economies on successes and positive news on ICTs, so that every nation can learn from its neighbors. “What innovations are available next door?” he asked. “What are the solutions they have discovered? What kinds of opportunities are there to learn?”
Keeping in the theme of sustainable urbanization, speakers discussed the best ways to motivate one of the key sectors in the world's cities; business. John Tintori, the Chair of the Graduate Film Division of the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at New York University, proposed the creation of a film institute designed to highlight the UN's Millennium Development Goals, and get private businesses in the world of film production involved in efforts to promote sustainable development. Bruce Niswander, the Director of the South-South News Global Business Incubator, embraced the idea, and explained the merits of business investment in low-income countries, for businesses ranging from multinational behemoths, to small start-ups.
Following presentations, those present at the meeting were given the chance to participate in an interactive panel discussion, where they could describe the particulars of ICT and sustainable urbanization in their own nations.
Throughout Monday's meeting, ambassadors and UN officials made the case that ICTs are not a luxury, but a basic human need, and that mobilizing them in the name of sustainable urbanization was an important aspiration, and one that should be regarded as necessary and urgent. While this issue will be tackled in more depth at the Sustainable Development Conference this June, these discussions in Hong Kong provided an important precursor to those talks, and will factor into decisions made in Rio.