As global cities respond to the COVID-19 pandemic’s profound impact, many are recognizing that amid the disruption and emerging trends stands a remarkable opportunity to harness today’s momentum and accelerate progress toward a sustainable future – ultimately rebuilding to transform urban living for an exciting new era. The journey to success calls for new forms of collaboration and innovative partnerships that will serve as the lifeblood of healthier cities that are positioned for growth and prosperity.

The global pandemic has revealed how quickly the power of technology in the increasingly connected world can play a transformational role by enabling people, businesses and their local governments to replace traditional processes with modern approaches.

The pandemic-induced population trend in Australia, for example, reveals that population growth in the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne plunged amid factors that include less international migration to Australia during lockdowns but also the relocation of many people from cities to more-affordable regions while taking advantage of the remote-working trend. In fact in 2019-20, Sydney and Melbourne experienced their lowest population growth in a decade.1

At the same time, people are increasingly demanding that cities and their leaders sharpen their focus on the common good in ways that will – without further delay – help to ensure a sustainable future for all. And as global experts continue to warn, there is clearly no time to lose in putting sustainable cities on the map.

The clock is indeed ticking and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a call to action for a safer, healthier, more-sustainable future – a blueprint to address pressing global challenges that include climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, inequality and unemployment. And while progress is being made in many places, overall action to meet the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is failing to advance at the speed or scale required.

“The time for half-measures, incrementalism and siloed actors is over,” the Secretary General of United Cities, Kari Aina Eik, has warned. United Cities is a Vienna-based not-for-profit organization that is implementing new programs aimed at enabling international organizations, global businesses and the public at large to collaborate in supporting global cities and communities to achieve the UN’s SDGs.

Leaders should act with a new sense of urgency

The time-sensitive message to cities and their leaders could not be clearer: the planet’s future demands strategic action today. Cities will no doubt need to demonstrate a new sense of urgency to drive faster progress toward a more-sustainable future. Cities will no doubt need to demonstrate a new sense of urgency to drive faster progress toward a more-sustainable future.

At the same time, the formidable challenge of accelerating action among cities, businesses and citizens is accompanied today by the critical need for funding to develop and implement modern, cost-saving sustainability initiatives at the local level. The good news is that cities seeking solutions to create sustainable urban environments – and the means to pay for them – are benefitting from innovative partnerships and collaboration with the private sector, as well as tapping into significant new resources like the SDG Impact Fund.

The fund’s goal is to provide the financial resources needed today to support projects that align across the full spectrum of the UN SDGs as agreed upon by 193 countries. It’s important to keep in mind that sustainability is not necessarily more expensive and often more cost effective when creatively applied.

Breaking down barriers to accelerate progress

Also noteworthy is a global alliance between KPMG in Norway and United Cities that is currently helping cities and municipalities become more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable – as defined in SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities – in order to meet the UN’s 2030 agenda.

The KPMG in Norway and United Cities alliance is gathering critical research and data that measures progress among various peer cities, and sharing the timely insights and key learnings it gains to drive advancements among all global cities pursuing the UN’s goals. This includes strategic efforts to identify gaps in current sustainability programs, capabilities and funding requirements. Investments in innovation hubs and digital twins are also being used to provide important insights on future requirements and potential challenges.

As part of the alliance, KPMG professionals and United Cities leaders have been providing instructive workshops with various city leaders to help them identify pressing local issues and implement targeted local solutions that include crucial new capabilities and financing strategies.

The innovative methodology of the program is breaking down traditional institutional boundaries and barriers in order to gather timely data and insights that deliver a broader view of existing ecosystems across specific regions, including government agencies, businesses and all relevant stakeholders. This unique approach to data and information sharing, combined with green-financing strategies and initiatives, is generating significant progress in the race to create more sustainable global cities.

In Norway, for example, recent efforts by the KPMG in Norway and United Cities alliance include a local sustainability program that is being supported with much-needed financing by a local bank to bring the program to life. Other cities in Norway are also developing and implementing significant new green-financing programs with local businesses that see the unmistakable value of enabling and accelerating progress toward local sustainability goals.

Harnessing technology for radical change

“Digital transformation and exponential technology growth are expected to radically change the way cities are organized and built helping to overcome challenges that include carbon emissions and pollution, urban density, affordability and fiscal restraints."

The focus for today’s cities should not be on technology itself – as is too often the case in response to fast-emerging changes – but on how the power of digital capabilities can truly benefit cities and their stakeholders. “Unfocused digitalization dedicates resources to technologies that are not future flexible and do not address specific needs. Today’s smart decisions are those aligned with a city’s vision for tomorrow.”

Therefore, in our view, success demands a strategic, outcome-oriented approach that balances technology’s game-changing capabilities with a goal-oriented vision for the future, while maintaining appropriate awareness and tolerance toward risk, while respecting cultural norms and traditions. Also important will be the need for leadership and modern organizational cultures that foster increasingly collaborative and diverse environments, respond faster to change, and attract the required talent and modern skills to drive progress.

Key takeaways

  • As the world’s cities dedicate unprecedented resources and investments to improving sustainability and meeting global UN objectives, they should to underpin the journey into the future with an appropriate outcome-based vision that is supported by timely data and insights.
  • In our view, collaboration among global cities and their leaders to work in partnership with each other and with private industry will be crucial to future progress, while enabling more rapid progress in the short term. 
  • Dare to share – as collaboration and partnerships emerge, the sharing of timely data and insights among various government agencies and businesses will be needed to support strategy development and smart visions for a new future.