Building Safer, Resilient and Sustainable Cities: IIHA at the United Nations

New York — As natural disasters and man-made crises increasingly disrupt populations and instigate crises in urban areas globally, humanitarians are proactively tapping into various technologies to find innovative solutions applicable to various stages of a disaster cycle.

A growing interest on the effects and response to urban crises by the humanitarian and broader international community has brought this issue to the center of recent debates at the United Nations.

IIHA Side Event at the United Nations 2018 Integration Segment of ECOSOC: “Innovative communities: leveraging technology and innovation to build sustainable and resilient societies

The United Nations 2018 Integration Segment of ECOSOC addressed the theme “Innovative communities: leveraging technology and innovation to build sustainable and resilient societies” from May 1st to 3rd at the UN Headquarters.

The Segment provided a platform for key stakeholders to review policies and programs with a view to develop action-oriented follow-up and guidance on implementing the 2030 Agenda. The outcome serves as an input in the upcoming High-level Political Forum (HLPF) that will take place from July 9 to 18.

In line with this theme and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs as well as the NGO Committee on Human Settlements and UN-Habitat organized a side event on May 1. The event focused on growing private sector engagement and the rapid technological innovations that help address and manage disaster risks.

Panelists called for a more nuanced humanitarian engagement and response; one that is centered on the unique characteristics of urban populations and challenges they face. To better address urban-specific crises, technologies, tools and approaches are being developed and adapted in emergency and humanitarian settings for more efficient and effective response in the face of increasingly frequent and powerful hazards.

Alexandra Olteanu, Ph.D., IBM Social Good Fellow, noted that the use of social media to communicate timely information during crisis situations has become common practice. Social media also creates an opportunity for stakeholders to disseminate crisis-relevant messages, and to access vast amounts of information they may not otherwise have. Moreover, disaster-affected populations often rely on social media and online information during emergencies, which can allow them to access information and make decisions in a more efficient manner.

Two-way radios are often a fundamental communications lifeline that enable responders to speak with one another, even when other communication networks are down, added Motorola Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Paul Steinberg. That coordination can mean the difference between life and death during an emergency.

As broadband, Artificial Intelligence and other new technologies continue to advance, solutions are being explored that can work alongside two-way radios to help first responders work more effectively in critical and dangerous situations.

IIHA Research Fellow on Urbanization and Displaced Persons, Rene Desiderio, Ph.D., underscored that enormous scale and impact of rapid urbanization and the “urbanization of disasters and risks” is and will continue to be a significant challenge to the international community and humanitarian sector.

He affirmed that there is no doubt that technological innovation is already and irreversibly part of the humanitarian system, driven by rapid technological change, a demand for new tools and the growing private sector engagement.

However, Dr. Desiderio cautioned that “we would be remiss if we are oblivious that while humanitarians benefit in impelling innovations at technology’s cutting edge, the use of tools and approaches employed also presents practical and ethical challenges that include respect for humanitarian principles and the responsible use of data; the role of local capabilities and expertise; the need to overcome knowledge gaps; and the increasing technological divide between impoverished and affluent communities.”

“If the overarching goal of humanitarian response and risk reduction is to save lives, collective and sustained efforts among humanitarians, academic researchers, engineers, technology experts, the private sector and the international community is key to ensure that urban emergencies, disasters and vulnerabilities are addressed and managed in a sustainable manner.”