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Science, technology, and innovation for sustainable urban development in a post-pandemic world

By Giovanni Zanoni

The urbanization process is considered one of the main ongoing demographic trends. With populations continuing to expand, two-thirds of the worldwide population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050.

However, the global scale and the pace of urbanization bring unprecedented challenges. Firstly, urban energy systems are often inefficient and polluting and as such necessarily require directing the concentration of public financial flows for renewable energy towards a more significant number of countries. Further, the urban production of the global material footprint has significantly increased over the past two decades, also exacerbated by the plastic waste in urban environments. In addition, with the rising trend of urban water scarcity, the control and movement of water resources require several core activities, like replenishment of water reserves and safe treatment of wastewater, whose implementation involves a combination of technologies without which sustainable and stable supply of clean and fresh water is put at risk for the exponentially growing urban populations. Another issue related to urbanization is the limited access to decent urban employment opportunities and the consequential growing inequalities. The global decline of job opportunities in urban areas indicates a fragile economic system mainly due to informal working conditions.

Such unprecedented challenges require innovative solutions, and STI solutions could prove useful to tackle them. For instance, in the energy field, it is fundamental to transition to low-carbon and sustainable renewable sources such as solar photovoltaic systems, hydropower energy systems, and wind energy systems. Concerning production and consumption patterns, which have become critical priorities for many urban regions, solutions like food-sharing networks, and pay-as-you-throw pricing models can be employed to adopt a circular economy approach in the urban environment. Concerning limited urban water scarcity, many technologies and innovative practices are currently available to help tackle this issue. Solutions such as smart metering infrastructures, nanotechnological applications for desalination processes, and sensor-based water protection systems are already used in several cities. Regarding urban mobility, STI has developed several solutions: the electrification of the urban system, the increasing number of low-emission vehicles, and the invention of intelligent fast charging can incentivize more sustainable mobility.

Under the influence of COVID-19, STI solutions have become imperatives for the recovery of urban economies. It is fundamental for cities’ local governments to benefit from these technologies and implement a more sustainable and advanced urban environment for all urban citizens.

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