Utilising Space Applications to Build Sustainable Cities and Communities -SDG 11

About 50% of the world population lives in cities and urban areas. Urbanisation has come to be one of the telltale signs of an industrialised economy, it’s the aftereffect of industrialisation in most parts of the world due to increased job opportunities and higher demands for labour. Thus, there is increased economic growth, improved education, mass migration and rising population, which lead to the creation of megacities. There is always a demand for new technologies, which in turn requires an educated workforce, attracting skilled workers to an area. 

However, this also means that the rapid growth of cities leads to the rapid growth of slums, especially in developing countries. As a result, many people are living in overpopulated areas, squalid conditions and poorly-planned areas. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), there are about 33 megacities globally, and more than 828 million people live in slums. Thus, SDG 11 aims to create sustainable cities by developing business opportunities, building strong economies, investing in public safety in terms of safe and affordable housing, transportation and improved urban infrastructure.

SDG 11 Targets and Indicators

There are 10 targets and 15 indicators to measure the success of this SDG and determine where the world is at every point in time.

  • Safe and affordable housing;
  • Affordable and sustainable transportation;
  • Inclusive and sustainable urban development;
  • Protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage;
  • Reduce the adverse effects of natural disasters;
  • Reduce the environmental impacts of cities
  • Provide access to safe and inclusive public and green spaces;
  • Strong national and regional development planning;
  • Implement policies for inclusion, resource efficiency and disaster risk management; and
  • Support least developed countries in sustainable and resilience building. 
  • Urban population living in slums or inadequate housing;
  • Public transport access;
  • Sustainable urbanisation rates;
  • Urban planning management;
  • Protecting cultural heritage;
  • Deaths and injuries from natural disasters;
  • Economic losses from natural disasters;
  • Solid waste management;
  • Urban air pollution;
  • Open spaces in cities;
  • Safe spaces in cities;
  • Urban and regional planning;
  • Integrated disaster risk management;
  • Local disaster risk management; and
  • Financial aid to support least developed countries in sustainable and resilience building.

Role of space technology in building sustainable cities and communities

Going by the targets and indicators, there should be the infrastructure to build sustainable cities and communities to increase resilience to disasters, risk reduction, land mapping to manage diseases, public health emergencies, and make better urban development blueprints to improve living conditions.  All of these can be easily achieved using space-related data. Thus, space technologies and data are fundamental for achieving the SDGs. Real-time data from any location on earth, including remote areas, go a long way in risk assessment and disaster management in instances of natural disasters or public health emergencies. They can help nudge favourable policy-making decisions and contribute to proactive measures to save lives and reduce economic losses. Furthermore, they are essential for tracking the progress of the SDGs. 

Urban planning, to pinpoint structures and reference points for cadastral and urban planning purposes, smart cities through the application of Global Navigation Satellite Systems, EO and satellite telecommunications, air quality monitoring, disaster management, search and rescue operations, improvement of public services like waste management, public transportation, and climate change monitoring are only a few of the ways that space activities support SDG 11.

Achieving SDG 11 in Africa


Electricity Access: Electricity access is one of the many needs in a progressive and thriving society. Many cities in developing Africa have a recurrent problem of inadequate electricity. In the slums, this means that a large population of people could go several months or years without any electricity.  A team of researchers analysed the precision with which satellite images showing night-time lights could be converted into spatially detailed maps of electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, using satellite data, the team was able to determine areas with proper electricity access and areas without. It could also measure light intensity, which could provide an accurate proxy for the amount of residential electricity consumption in a particular area. One of the significant issues associated with the energy problems in Africa is inadequate or inaccurate data concerning the energy situation, thereby making it difficult to track progress and make plans for expanding electricity infrastructure. Satellite data can help to identify regions that lack access to electricity to aid energy reforms in urban and remote areas. 

Public Health: The Covid-19 pandemic shook the world. Many countries are still recovering from its effects, learning to adjust to and mitigate the crisis. Like any rapid-spreading disease, there was a need to employ space applications for land mapping to map out affected areas, track the spread of the virus, and determine hotbeds that need immediate and fast attention. For instance, using drones, GIS and artificial intelligence, OEA Consults, a Nigerian geospatial service and drone mapping company, was able to map, collect, analyse and visualise the spatial spread of the virus, track cases and integrate a live prediction model to predict the rate of transmission and case confirmation with an 8% accuracy. 

Global positioning systems (GPS) were also used to track and monitor infected patients and transport medical supplies to remote areas. Africa has one of the lowest doctor-patient ratios in the world; thus, to cater to more affected people and mitigate the spread of the virus, Zipline, an American medical product delivery company, utilised drones to support deliveries to doctors in local clinics in Rwanda and Ghana. 

Urban Planning: Satellite data helps to support, plan and monitor migration and mobility of people, either in the case of human migration between different areas of the world or mobility within urban centres and assist disaster planning and emergency response. Through satellite imagery data, mapping is one of the essential space applications for building sustainable cities. To aid any policymaking to rebuild or manage an urban area, there needs to be adequate data on how much area needs to be covered, accessibility of such regions and how to plan and execute the development of such areas for social, economic and environmental benefits. In the work towards urban management of African regions, Map Action, a Mali-based startup that specialises in geolocation, monitoring and data assessment for the environment, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and sustainable development using earth observation and drone monitoring, leveraging Airbus‘s OneAtlas platform to scale its technology solution.

Map Action has a mobile application that allows users to document and report environmental issues like water pollution and lousy waste management by taking photographs of the issues. This helps the appropriate bodies to get more data on areas that need work and improvement. More than this, the company also conducts an extensive analysis on the source and impact of documented environmental issues and avails the data for the appropriate public works agencies. Additionally, following the building of the sewage water treatment plant, in June 2020, the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, advocated for the use of satellite data to detect illegal structures and demolish them to create more arable land for agriculture. 

Likewise, to help put unmapped African regions on the map to help with urban development and disaster risk management, Ecopia Tech is using artificial intelligence and satellite imagery to map buildings, roads, forests and infrastructure in Tanzania, Gabon, Benin, Nigeria and Angola, amongst others to provide adequate data for policy-making. Furthermore, Africapolis contributes to the New Urban Agenda in Africa to make cities and human settlement inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by providing policy-makers and researchers with a unique insight into the African urban landscape and a strong basis for the analyses and strategies needed to support sustainable and coordinated urban development.

Risk Response and Disaster Management: Centre for Space Science and Technology Education (CSSTE), one of the twelve consortia under the GMES and Africa program is creating a data repository that will be used to develop a flood monitoring and forecasting system for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) using earth observation data. The database can aid the identification of hotspots and the implementation of targeted interventions across affected countries. It can also assist in developing flood vulnerability maps using spatial layers of factors that may contribute to the occurrence of floods. Space technology applications have become an important element of local, regional and national disaster risk reduction strategies including the provision of emergency communications and tracking and tracing efforts during and after natural disasters and in complex humanitarian emergencies. 

The sustainable development goals are collective global challenges. However, many nations and regions of the world are collectively working towards achieving all or most of these goals, and as previously established, employing space technology will get us there faster. Luckily, space technology and innovation have come a long way since humanity first ventured into that unknown frontier. Now, bodies like United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) and United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) are putting all their resources into utilising space technology for the SDGs. 

Using the parameters listed above to track Africa’s progress, we can deduce that the continent still has a long way to go in utilising space for the SDGs. There are still a good number of non-space faring countries in the region, and space technology is still primarily underutilised in Africa. Moreover, it’s less than ten years to the end of the timeline allotted to the SDGs. So will Africa come close to meeting up?