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Creating a better human experience at work starts with trust



Creating a better human experience at work starts with trust

What if managers and leaders at companies focused on a new goal: to elevate the human experience?

This paradigm shift is something Amelia Dunlop, chief experience officer at Deloitte Digital, advocates for. She and her team have worked hard to measure the amount of humanity in the workplace—a measurement that often depends on how much trust exists between workers and leaders.

Dunlop’s team focused on four signals of trust that leaders can track: capability, reliability, humanity, and transparency. Using these four measurements, which make up Deloitte’s HX TrustID solution, the team was able to predict future behaviors with high accuracy.

It can appear far-fetched to measure seemingly intangible concepts with hard data, and Dunlop acknowledges that many remain skeptical about her use of the word “love” when it comes to work.

There was part of me that wanted to be deliberately provocative, to say that there is, in fact, a role for love in the workplace. And the way it connects is that worth can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. So, there’s an extrinsic measures of worth, such as titles and promotions, how much someone is paid, or who has the awesome corner office. Intrinsic worth is much more about how you feel before you give a presentation, or before you get a job promotion. And do you feel like you are ‘enough’ in a workplace that’s constantly evaluating you?”

Especially post-pandemic, Dunlop argues that workers and leaders need to embrace this kind of love and worth so that companies can move into the future successfully.

“There’s something about humanizing leadership that I’ve been thinking a lot about.  When we, as leaders, are willing to make ourselves vulnerable, to show up authentically, drop the professional masks we all wear, be transparent, demonstrate that we care—these are all signals that foster trust.”

Show notes and links:

·      Elevating the human experience: The imperative of forging deep human connections, Deloitte Perspectives

·      Elevating the Human Experience: Three Paths to Love and Worth at Work, Amelia Dunlop, Wiley, October 2021

·      Navigating Uncertainty: The Protector, the Pragmatist, and the Prevailer, Deloitte Digital, June 30, 2020

·      HX™ in times of uncertainty, Deloitte Digital

·      A new measure of trust, Deloitte Digital

Full transcript

From MIT Technology Review, I’m Laurel Ruma, and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace.

Our topic today is trust. The pandemic has taught us many hard lessons, but it also brought us back to talking about humanity in the workplace. How can we best establish trust in the workplace for customers and employees? How much does it cost companies in reputation and market cap when they don’t?

Two words for you: human experience.

My guest is Amelia Dunlop. She’s the chief experience officer at Deloitte Digital and leader of the US customer strategy and applied design practice for Deloitte Consulting LLP. Her upcoming book, Elevating the Human Experience: Three Paths to Love and Worth at Work, is available now for pre-order; it launches in October. Amelia regularly writes and speaks about human experience, creativity, customer strategy, and trust. This episode of Business Lab is produced in association with Deloitte Digital.

Laurel Ruma: Welcome Amelia.

Amelia Dunlop: Thank you for having me.

Laurel: I really like this perspective of yours, and I’ll quote you right here: “We begin and end our days as humans. Amidst uncertainty, organizations need to take steps to become more human themselves.” That certainly has been at the forefront of work during the pandemic.

Amelia: Absolutely. We set this aspiration to elevate the human experience here at Deloitte Digital about three years ago. Since then, we’ve been trying to make it come to life and mean something for our employees and for our customers. We realized when the pandemic struck that the whole human experience was shifting in a time of uncertainty. So, we led some research—at the time, about 28,000 people across the US. We realized that what businesses most needed to get right was trust, safety, and human connection.

I found that was fascinating, Laurel, because even as we found ourselves to be more digitally connected than ever, we were still in need of that human connection, which was grounded in the need for empathy, the need for psychological safety, the need for authenticity—these fundamental drivers of what it means to elevate the human experience.

Laurel: Yeah. It’s funny how all the time online we have spent, how amazing it is to actually be able to be in public with someone else and at work even; having that relationship in person is really something I think folks missed. It’s one thing to work from home, and it’s a whole different thing to not be able to see other people.

Amelia: Oh, totally. I’m definitely one of those people who are the extroverts, who are languishing spending my day—I sometimes joke, Laurel, that I’m now a call center operator, because we all have the earbuds in and the mouthpieces in, and we’re learning with a great deal of empathy what it’s like to talk to a computer for 10 to 12 hours a day.

Laurel: Yeah. Not an easy job. As you mentioned, part of being human is how much trust we have in each other. We have connections at work, etc., but also with companies. This is another aspect that’s been challenged, not just with the pandemic this year, but with other issues like societal disruption and even ethical AI. How important is trust to all of this?

Amelia: Oh, my goodness. You cannot elevate anyone’s human experience if they don’t trust you. Trust is absolutely foundational. When we conducted our research, we found some things that were startling, which is perhaps not surprising. We found that 60% of Americans don’t trust each other to social distance. We also found that only 4% of us trust businesses when they tell us it’s safe to reenter, it’s safe to get back on the airplane, or it’s safe to return to the hotel.

Many of us are navigating requirements for our own business, for our schooling, healthcare, and banking. Every time you walk into a store, you need to ask yourself the question: what are the protocols for this particular store? Are we doing the right thing to maintain safety?

Laurel: How do you define human experience? Is it an evolution of customer experience?

Amelia: I’ll take the second part of that first, because we do get that question a lot. The field of customer experience and even employee experience has been around for decades now. What we wanted to do was take more of a human-centered design perspective. We don’t wake up in the morning as a customer of a particularly awesome cup of coffee. I didn’t wake up this morning as an employee, and I’m sure you didn’t either. We wake up as humans. We show up with all of our messy humanness when we come to work. What we’re trying to do is acknowledge that more human focus really is important in the business world. The definition of elevating the human experience really is about investing in humans and their growth, recognizing their potential through love and worth.

Laurel: How do you actually measure trust? At some point, you have to be able to quantify this idea, right?

Amelia: Trust is one of those interesting topics. What is it? I think the expression is: ‘trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets.’ I’m not sure who to attribute that to, but trust is really easy to lose and really hard to gain. There are measures of trust, barometers of trust, which are very rear-view-mirror looking. What we wanted to do is ask, is there a way in which we can predict trust? Then tie that to organizational performance. My colleagues and I set out to do just that with something we call the HX TrustID— human experience, obviously.

We came up with four signals of trust that are pretty universal across organizations. The first is capability. Can I actually do the thing I said I would do in exchange for your money or time? Reliability: can I do it consistently when I say that I’m going to? Humanity: how do I make you feel when you interact with me? Then, transparency: how cleanly and clearly do I communicate with you about whether it’s going well or not well? Together, these four signals of trust are predictive of future behaviors. We found that it’s actually 74%, accurate, which in the field of social sciences, is significant.

Laurel: That you can actually predict to that extent of accuracy is amazing, right?

Amelia: Well, the reason we can do it, Laurel, is that it’s based on customers’ and employees’ actual behavior. It’s not based on what I tell you I’m going to do, but on what I’ve already done, and that’s a predictor of what your future behavior will be.

Laurel: Which is important when we’re talking about businesses getting back to business.

Amelia: Totally. One of the things we realized is that employees who believe their company is humane, or has a high humanity score, are two and a half times more likely to be motivated to work. That’s huge, right? Particularly now, as we’re facing what’s I think is lovingly called ‘the great resignation,’ that humanity in the workplace is so tied to motivation.

Laurel: A humane workplace is not pool tables and endless snacks necessarily, right?

Amelia: Totally agree.

Laurel: There’s actually a work-life balance, right? Not just in words, but leadership actually following it. I also imagine generous—or just any kind of—family leave when there are sicknesses or pregnancies, etc. There actually are other measurable, tangible ideas here.

Amelia: Some of the things we measure in humanity are things like, to what extent do you believe your boss actually cares about you? To what extent do you actually care about your boss? To what extent do you believe that your peers in your organization care about you, and vice versa? We’re always looking for that reciprocal relationship and that reciprocal measure of trust with employees.

Laurel: Of those four integrated signals—capability, reliability, humanity, and transparency—which are the most difficult for companies to embrace? Does it vary by industry?

Amelia: I will start by telling you that all four matter. When you have all four, and a high composite score, that’s when you’re most likely to drive employee behavior, customer behavior, and long-term loyalty. We have noticed across industries that capability can be the highest predictor of loyalty, and that’s intuitive, right? If I’m going to give you my money or my time, I want you to have the ability to capably deliver on the thing that you said you were going to do. I wanted to buy a car, and you sold me a car, right?

Next up is reliability, that you did it at the time and place that you said you would. Again, those two make sense across industries. Then we notice that humanity and, in some cases, transparency can be the most difficult to get right. They are particularly important in the fields of healthcare with patients, obviously, but also in travel and hospitality—the humanity we expect when we show up at a hotel, when we show up at a restaurant, or any of the service industries, is an important predictor of loyalty.

Laurel: It’s an interesting time to think about that now, because a lot of that trust, which should be reciprocal, perhaps it’s not being found because the travel and hospitality industries are also relying on their customers to have this kind of humanity.

Amelia: Absolutely. Like you said before, I feel like we’re all in a period of renegotiating what it means to build human connection. What does it mean to trust? What does it mean to feel safe? It is a great period of uncertainty when we’re renegotiating those things on a daily basis.

Laurel: Were there other industries that were particularly high scoring with one of the four capabilities?

Amelia: I would say the service industries, which have a longer track record of focusing on things like customer experience, do tend to score higher. Some of the industries which are more product centric, more technology centric, or more engineering centric tend to have lower scores.

Laurel: How can bringing back trust affect the profitability of a company?

Amelia: That’s the ultimate question. We can intuitively state that trust matters and trust builds long-term loyalty. One of the things we noticed in our research was that those companies and organizations that had the highest trust scores were twice as likely to be resilient in the face of downturn relative to their competitors. We also know that the companies in a sector that tends to have the highest composite HX TrustID also tend to have the highest total shareholder return. That’s correlation. We can’t prove causality, but there is definitely an interesting correlation that the most trusted companies are also the most profitable ones.

Laurel: I would imagine people would sit up and take great interest at that.

Amelia: We all have to, because we all are in the business of trying to foster trust with our employees and with the customers we serve. Trust is our reputation.

Laurel: Do you have advice or best practices for companies trying to turn that boat around, to become one of those highly trusted companies?

Amelia: One of the things we do first is identify an individual organization’s actual trust score, broken down by the four signals and then relative to their peer set, to understand the table stakes versus what would actually need to be differentiated. Then we dig in a little bit deeper.

For example, if your relative humanity score is low, are there specific things you need to be doing to show up authentically with your employees? This connects back to the conversation we were having earlier about social unrest, a focus on purpose, a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. A lot of organizations are being taken to task right now to demonstrate their humanity in meaningful ways across those topics.

Laurel: Absolutely. The other aspect of trust here is how it affects employee satisfaction and motivation. There must be a number of companies actually behaving differently in the light of the pandemic.

Amelia: Some of the things we look at are, on the employee side, that 48% of employees who highly trust their employer almost never seek outside opportunities. I feel like it’s worth repeating. Again, as we think about the mobility in the employee workforce these days, if you establish high levels of trust with your employees, they’re much more likely to stick with you, versus the 66% who don’t trust you–they’re going to be looking for their next job.

Laurel: As you’ve brought your work together, tell me more about the research that led to your book, Elevating the Human Experience: Three Paths to Love and Worth at Work.

Amelia: I guess I should start by saying, Laurel, I wrote this book because I needed it. I needed a book that was equal parts head and heart, equal parts 20+ year veteran as a management consultant, and mother of three. I was really curious about what it meant to show up as fully human in the workplace with my authentic self. So, I led a study of 6,000 people in the US on the topic of love and worth. We asked questions like, to what extent do you feel worthy? To what extent does it matter to you to feel worthy? To what extent do you feel like you love yourself? To what extent do you feel like you speak to yourself with kindness? To what extent do you feel like you are spoken over in the workplace? We asked these types of questions to understand people’s experience of love and worth.

Obviously, we geeked out across sectors and age and different demographic indicators. The thing we found most startling was the fact that nine out of 10 people said it matters to them to feel worthy, but about half say they struggle, sometimes often or always to feel worthy, particularly when they show up at work. That gap between how much it matters to us to feel worthy and how much we struggle to do so is what I call the worthiness gap. I wrote about that in the book.

Laurel: Why is it, in general, that important to find worth at work?

Amelia: My research for the book showed that we [in the US] now spend more time working than any other culture and any other time in history. Some of the data from the independent labor organizations verifies that the workday is longer. What is the expression? We no longer work from home; we live at work.

Laurel: Yes.

Amelia: But the days are even longer, so the amount of social capital we’re getting from our colleagues matters even more.

Laurel: How do you differentiate between love and worth?

Amelia: The way I think about defining love is important because I think we have immediate thought bubbles that are going to pop up when we hear the word love, particularly in the context of work. My definition of love is adapted from Erich Fromm’s book The Art of Loving, from the 1950s. It’s the will to extend ourselves, to care for ourselves, or one another, to foster growth. It’s a growth mindset—to say that I care enough about you to invest in your growth, or I care enough about myself to invest in my growth. That definition of love is related to the Greek eudaimonia, which is much more akin to ‘flourishing’ as we think about the definition of love.

Laurel: Which is interesting, because if you had tried to take a shortcut and instead said growth and worth in the workplace, I think people would have thought you were talking about shares and how to get the most out of a startup experience.

Amelia: I realize I could have not used the word ‘love.’ Sometimes people said, well, why don’t you just use the word care? Or is there another word that might be less provocative? There was part of me that wanted it to be deliberately provocative, to say that there is, in fact, a role for love in the workplace. The way it connects to worth is that worth can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. There are extrinsic measures of worth, which includes titles, promotions, how much someone is paid, or who has the awesome corner office. Intrinsic worth is more about how you feel before you give a presentation, or before you get a job promotion. Do you feel like you are ‘enough’ in a workplace that’s constantly evaluating you?

Laurel: I like that tension because I find that the word “love” did challenge me. What does “love” mean, especially in our highly charged litigious society. Then I came to that same realization, that not only do you have to love yourself and love your coworkers in that broad sense, but you need to love the work you do, which I know is not simple for everyone

Amelia: Sometimes I get asked for examples to illustrate what it means to love yourself, or love your colleagues in the workplace. Is there a time you have stayed late or spent that extra two hours to teach a more junior colleague how to do something they didn’t know how to do, or you gave your time to listen to somebody who was facing a challenge in the office? In those examples, you didn’t have to give your time to either of those people, but you did because in some way you cared enough about them and their growth to give of your own time and energy.

Laurel: Could you talk a bit more about those three paths to love and worth in the workplace?

Amelia: As I was wrestling with the question of how we go on this journey to understanding love and worth in the workplace, I realized that first and foremost, it’s a journey of the self. That for me, is a very personal one, to understand what it means to love myself and see myself as worthy before I say or do anything. The second path is what I then do to recognize that worth and love another as a colleague, as a mentor, a sponsor, or even a benefactor, and to serve as an ally to help them in their career. The third path is what you and I can do to help change the systems that we all participate in, to change those systems to recognize people’s fundamental worth.

Laurel: That’s interesting to think about as a manager, as you participate in your team’s growth. As a leader of a division, you encounter many people. It interesting to think about keeping each of their value in mind when you speak to them and bringing your whole self to these conversations, and also to expecting that kind of response from them. When you do have those moments you can spend with someone to talk about their future, talk about their worth, talk about the growth for the company, it’s important for you both to have a back and forth to help define what that path is.

Amelia: I love the way you characterize that, Laurel. I’ve been thinking a lot about what happens when we as leaders are willing to make ourselves vulnerable, to show up authentically, drop the professional masks that we all wear, to be transparent, demonstrate that we care—exhibit all these signals that foster trust. I’ve noticed there’s a reciprocal equation: when we humanize ourselves as leaders, our employees are much more likely to humanize themselves. That’s what creates a more positive human experience in the workplace.

Laurel: It certainly has ongoing effects that you can feel in your team and across your department. It’s not just one drop in the pond; it’s definitely a ripple.

Amelia: I think about the fact that you know when you feel loved—you don’t have to explain it or describe it; it very much is a feeling when you feel supported at the workplace, when you feel loved and cared for. It’s just something that you know.

Laurel: We may have covered this already, but when you do hold in mind these principles from your book, how have they made a difference with your team and with a client? I’m assuming everyone’s expecting you to walk the walk.

Amelia: Yes. One of the things I’ve found is, as soon as you declare the aspiration to elevate the human experience, you will get comments like, “this pricing review did not elevate my human experience.” It does put a high bar out there, and I’m okay with that because, again, part of humanizing ourselves is acknowledging we’re not perfect. We have to recognize that not everything is going to elevate your experience, such as a pricing approval call or a call to review the quarterly results. That being said, it does allow for an intentionality where we ask ourselves, what can we do to elevate the experience of this particular call, of this town hall, of this particular meeting? I would definitely encourage folks to understand that there is no one way to elevate the human experience authentically; it’s important to experiment. This is where the innovator in me comes out, in trying different things.

One of my favorite examples occurred in the midst of the pandemic, around January of last year, when we’d all been at it for about 10 months of quarantine. I live in Boston, with particularly gray and snowy days. I found Wednesdays to be the hardest to summon myself to go through yet another day of Zoom. So, I started something called “joy days.”  Wednesdays are now joy days on our team. Every Wednesday I send a note out to my entire practice with the things that brought me joy that week. Then I encourage the team to write in with what brings them joy.

It has been such an awesome way to both connect with our team as humans, but also to remind ourselves that we can cultivate joy. Even if the notes were about cultivating joy because I bought my kids a packet of M&M’s and gave it to them while they were in their own respective Zoom schooling. It was these small ways of connecting, and these small ways of reminding ourselves that we can bring joy, that we can make a big difference for our employees. On the client side—as you can probably tell, I believe clients are humans, too—any way in which we can treat our customers or clients as humans matters. I’ve definitely had the experience where in competitive bids or competitive situations, clients have told us that we show up with equal parts EQ an IQ, and that’s what made the difference for them.

Laurel: That’s a huge compliment and a practice that has to be carried out throughout the entire team, and that really does make a difference.

Amelia: I like to say that this is the kind of world I want to live in, or the type of organization I want to be a part of, I want to be a leader of, so why not try to be a positive influence for what better might look like?

Laurel: Why, other than the pandemic, are these topics so important right now?

Amelia: I believe these topics are important right now because we’re seeing what I would describe as related topics: social unrest, and the focus on Me Too, diversity, and equity inclusion. We’re seeing the conversations around wellbeing and the topics of burnout. We’re seeing the focus on purpose and social justice almost as though they’re unrelated topics, but from my perspective, they all add up to the fact that we are demanding organizations to see us as fully human, whether we are an employee or a customer. The pandemic has just accelerated our desire for greater humanity from the organizations that we give our time and our money to.

Laurel: I’m behind that a hundred percent. Today’s conversation has been a highlight of joy in my week, so thank you very much, Amelia.

Amelia: Awesome. I will add it to my joy list for the week.

Laurel: Thank you, Amelia, for such a fantastic, joyful conversation with me today. That was Amelia Dunlop, chief experience officer at Deloitte Digital, who I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT, and MIT Technology Review, overlooking the Charles River.

Laurel: That’s it for this episode of Business Lab—I’m your host, Laurel Ruma. I’m the director of Insights, the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can find us in print, on the web, and at events each year around the world. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at The show is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, I hope you’ll take a moment to rate and review us. Business Lab is a production of MIT Technology Review. This episode was produced by Collective Next. Thanks for listening.


A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry



A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry

China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.

The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.

The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals. 

In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma. 

Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas. 

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The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.



The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.

The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.

Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.

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We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”



We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”

The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.

A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs. 

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there. 

This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.

Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor,  and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes. 

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”

However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.

In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.

We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. 

The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.

Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity. 

Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.

Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.

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