Dato’ Seri Maimunah Sharif, Executive Director, UN-Habitat

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech Special Report 2019.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

As the Executive Director of UN-Habitat, the UN agency for sustainable cities, I am committed to finding new ways to use technologies to improve people’s lives. As we look around the world for best practices, we see opportunities for technology and innovation to make a positive contribution in cities, but many technologies that are currently being talked about – for example blockchain, digital twins and artificial intelligence – are not yet developed far enough to solve the great sustainability challenges that many of our cities are facing.

It is crucial that those developing new technologies put effort into matching innovations with real use cases that improve the way that cities are planned and managed, and contribute to an improved quality of life. At the same time, local governments need to undergo digital transition, build digital skills and improve the digital literacy of their citizens in order to be able to make full use of these opportunities.

There are still huge digital divides within and between countries and we need to ensure that new technologies do not increase inequality and negatively impact human rights. UN-Habitat is increasingly playing a role facilitating conversations between technology companies and local governments to ensure that technology is used as a force for good.

We have programmes involving waste management as well as land management, both reinvigorated recently through the application of digital technology. In Afghanistan, for example, we were able to provide technical assistance to the government to register some 1 million families so that they can have temporary occupation licenses to land.

One UN-Habitat project I really like is Block by Block – a collaboration with Mojang Studios and Microsoft in which we use Minecraft, the world’s most popular video game, as a public participation and co-creation tool in urban design. Over the last few years we have used this tool for participation in more than 100 projects in 35 countries  and co-created public spaces with tens of thousands of people, including slum dwellers, youth and marginalised women.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2019?

This year, UN-Habitat got our Strategic Plan endorsed by the UN-Habitat Assembly in May. The Strategic Plan charts the direction for the organisation and helps us focus on strategic programmes that will support global efforts to achieve sustainable urbanisation. It also brings to life the organisation’s vision of ensuring “a better quality of life for all in an urbanising world”.

One global programme of the Strategic Plan focuses on people-centred smart cities. I will launch this exciting new programme at the World Urban Forum in February 2020, and look forward to working with many different partners all over the world to show how we can make smart cities inclusive and contribute to sustainable development.

What is the best thing you have experienced in your career?

As you may know, I am an urban planner by training and rose up the ranks as a civil servant before becoming Mayor in Seberang Perai and Penang Island. As a planner, the best experience is to be able to include communities in the development of state and city development plans. What is even more rewarding is translating plans into reality.

I have two projects that are close to my heart. One is the including of heritage and culture in the Penang State Local Plan, which laid the foundation for the listing of George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The second is the planned approach to developing Batu Kawan Eco-City, which attracted several Fortune 500 Companies to locate themselves in Seberang Perai, creating jobs and improving livelihoods.

Since coming to UN-Habitat, two important milestones have been achieved. In my first year, my team and I were able to get the General Assembly to endorse our new governance structure, which has been 14 years in the making. This year, we successfully operationalised this new governance infrastructure with the conclusion of the first UN-Habitat Assembly in May and the first Executive Board meeting in November. We can now look forward to a year of impact in 2020.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2019, what would it be?

I keep telling my colleagues that people form the basis for our work. To be more specific, the need to improve lives and ensure no one and no place is left behind. I have learned a lot in 2019 but if asked to point out one key lesson: it will have be the involvement of all stakeholders and innovative ways thinking about development that underpins how we face urban challenges. As you know, SMART Cities need smart people to make the technology work for humankind.

What tool or technique interests you for 2020?

There are several exciting new technologies and approaches that we are experimenting with at UN-Habitat, including mixed reality, distributed sensors and challenge prizes. I am particularly interested to see that the recent strong interest in smart cities among governments is maturing into a realisation. For that to be effective, they need to take a strategic and localised approach to digital transition.

No single model of the smart city exists. Individual countries and cities need to consider how they can best make use of the opportunities provided by the new digital economy and smart technologies to deliver effectively to their residents. This will look very different depending on where we are in the world. Through our new smart cities programme, UN-Habitat is looking forward to working with Member States and local governments to support their digital transition journey.

What are your priorities for 2020?

One of our priorities for 2020 is to roll out a challenge-driven innovation platform that can match local urban challenges with appropriate and inclusive innovative solutions. This platform is currently under development in collaboration with several innovation agencies, cities and companies. We see it as a great opportunity to mobilise resources to improve the sustainability of small and medium sized cities and cities experiencing rapid urban growth.

We are also working with technology partners in the field of waste management and experimental projects associated with ‘floating cities’. These are initiatives related to the wider challenges of the Climate Emergency, for which UN-Habitat, with support from several member states, has launched the Building the Resilience of the Urban Poor programme as we want to ensure that no one and no place is left behind in our rapidly urbanising world.

What has been your fondest memory from the last year?

For me, the fondest memory from 2019 has been winning the trust of my team, member states, stakeholders and communities. Without their trust in my leadership and their support for my ideas, we could not have rebalanced the organisation. UN-Habitat is back because we have regained the trust of these people. I intend to keep it and make them proud.