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Mapping the way to climate resilience

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Mapping the way to climate resilience


“We just know it’s the right thing to do for our customers and—I say this from years of doing risk management— it’s good, basic risk management,” says Shannon Carroll, director of global environmental sustainability at AT&T. “If all indications are that something is going to happen in the future, it’s our responsibility to be prepared for that.” 

Globally, leaders from government, business, and academia see the urgency. The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021 names extreme weather due to climate change and human-driven environmental damage among the most pressing risks of the next decade. When citing risks with the highest impact, those surveyed listed climate action failure and other environmental risks second only to infectious diseases. 

AT&T is taking action with its Climate Resilience Project, using spatial data analysis and location information to tackle the complex problem of how increasingly powerful storms could affect infrastructure such as cell towers and the telecom’s ability to deliver service to its customers. “Spatial analysis is this way of going beyond what we visually see,” explains Lauren Bennett, head of spatial analysis and data science at Esri, a geographic information systems (GIS) company. “It’s going beyond a data-driven approach and much more into a knowledge-driven approach.” 

To better understand its vulnerability, AT&T collaborated with the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. Their joint mission was to identify risks to the company’s infrastructure and real estate based on historical weather events and predictive modeling. They fed company asset data and climate data from the lab into a GIS, which can layer volumes of disparate information in the context of location for visualization and analysis. The output of all this multifaceted information is referred to as location intelligence. 

“When we talk about GIS,” says Jay Theodore, chief technology officer at Esri, “we are able to expand to the scale of the world for solving global problems but also shrink down and bring a magnifying glass to something in the immediate vicinity and study that, too.” 

AT&T plans for the future today 

“Everybody needs a plan for climate change,” says Carroll. AT&T’s plan centers on advanced spatial analytics to see how destructive storms and other climate-change-driven phenomena across the United States will affect nearby infrastructure. Ultimately, businesses will be able to forecast where, and to what degree, climate events might affect customers. AT&T understands that without a resilient network, the broadband connectivity required to close the digital divide is also at risk. “Our number one priority is making sure we have a network that’s going to service our customers 20, 30 years from now,” Carroll says. 

The foundation of AT&T’s GIS is a map identifying the locations of the company’s offices and stores, cell towers and servers, storage facilities, underground and above-ground wires and conduits, and other infrastructure. Layered on top of the map is the climate change data analyses that AT&T commissioned from Argonne. Together, Argonne and AT&T created the Climate Change Analysis Tool, which can predict the frequency, extent, and location of flooding, high-speed winds, wildfires, and drought about 30 years into the future. 

Location intelligence visualizes climate-related risks to AT&T’s infrastructure, based on contextual information and science-actuated knowledge. Without the GIS’s spatial correlation of Argonne’s climate analyses to the corporate map, AT&T would have a jumble of difficult-to-interpret data, arrayed in separate spreadsheets and databases—in all, more than 500 billion pages of text. As Theodore explains, “If you want the complete picture, if you want to make the right decisions, you have to bring in location.” 

For example, as a pilot, the AT&T and Argonne team used their Climate Change Analysis Tool to look at regions in the US Southeast susceptible to floods and high winds. “Getting some of the best available climate data from Argonne National Lab and then overlaying that into a GIS so you can visualize it—that in and of itself is very exciting,” Carroll says. With an exceptional degree of detail, executives could determine how infrastructure in four states—Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida—could be affected by, for example, a 50-year storm event in the coming decades. “Not every [asset] is at the same risk, even if they’re close together,” Carroll points out. This assessment can prove helpful for more precise planning—for example, the allocation of resources to potentially relocate, remodel, or reinforce infrastructure against potential damage. 

One key tenet of the telecom’s sustainability effort involves a tactic many companies avoid—sharing data. AT&T teams working on climate risk analysis decided to make their data available to everyone. They publicized access through press releases and social media channels, encouraging people and groups to download it. “When it comes to building climate resilience, you don’t compete. This is where you collaborate,” Carroll says. “We encourage everybody to use this data because it doesn’t do us any good if we’re resilient but the rest of our value chain is not.” 

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

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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.

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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”

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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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