Statement by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs to the 7th Annual Forum on City Informatization in the Asia-Pacific Region on the Smart Use of ICT for Better Cities
Shanghai, 26-27 May 2008

Mr. Yang Xiaong, Vice Mayor of Shanghai,
His Excellency Ambassador Léo Mérorès, President of ECOSOC
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to welcome you to the 7th Forum on City Informatization in the Asia-Pacific Region, organized by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Shanghai Municipal Government, to facilitate discussion and the exchange of visions, experiences and lessons learned.

Before addressing the focused theme of this Forum, I would like, on behalf of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to express my deepest and heartfelt condolence and sympathy to the Chinese people of Sichuan and other quake-affected areas in China.

The day before yesterday, the Secretary-General paid a personal visit to Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province. The main purpose was to show solidarity and support from the international community to the Chinese people. During the visit, he reiterated the willingness of the United Nations to continue its utmost efforts in helping the Chinese people overcome these current difficulties, minimize their losses and rebuild their homes in the best possible way. The past14 days of relief work that the whole world has witnessed has demonstrated that the Chinese people, under the effective and citizen-centric leadership of the Government, have the will, determination and ability to win this battle.

Let me turn now to the Forum, which will focus this year on promising approaches and key issues towards the “smart” use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) by local communities for better cities. I find particularly it befitting to have such an event held in Shanghai, as it is one of the world’s most advanced cities in ICT development.

We live in a world dominated by ICTs. The cost of voice transmission circuits has dropped dramatically over the last three decades. Computing power per dollar invested has risen dramatically during the same period. But the ICT revolution is far from complete, as electronic commerce continues to grow exponentially.

One of the most significant recent developments in Asia has been the revolution in electronic communications. New cellular phone networks are leap-frogging over under-developed copper-wire networks. And Internet services are expanding at a rapid rate.

Improved information infrastructure provides opportunities in areas well beyond the ICT sector itself, with a potential productivity impact on businesses, large and small. Many studies, from the micro to the macro, have found that telecommunications infrastructure is closely related to firm productivity and economic growth. This effect can be particularly large in poorer countries.

The telecommunications revolution can have a significant impact on a city’s competitiveness. With cities as international gateways for goods and services, an advanced telecommunications infrastructure is one of the most important factors in determining where a transnational corporation will set up its regional headquarters. Without an advanced information infrastructure, cities are at a great disadvantage in attracting international investment and competing globally.

When it comes to establishing such an infrastructure, Asia’s heavily populated cities are well poised to take advantage of the lower fixed costs of entry, which are implied by a high density of users.

These days, becoming a competitive city involves multiple factors: technology infrastructure, knowledge workers, appropriate e-government policies, e-commerce and e-communities. It also requires public policy that shapes an environment that is conducive to competitiveness.

Public policy must be re-engineered to reflect the new demands placed on local governments. Citizens need information from local governments about local service provision, from education, healthcare, water and sanitation to provision of permits, licenses and applications. Moreover, the demand for local digital infrastructure will drive a profound shift towards online provision of services, enabling a remarkable improvement in quality of life with a reduction in cost and effort. Citizens and private businesses also need to be able to conduct business with governments online.

In addition, governments need to commit higher education resources to new technologies and to producing a workforce of knowledge workers, including through retraining.

E-government solutions are often described in terms of the relationship between governmental institutions and citizens – the ‘front office’ interface. However, a large part of investment in e-government relates to the integration of ‘back office’ functions, such as human resources, finance and ICT. Such integration can take place either vertically, between the tiers of public administration, or horizontally, across the agencies engaged in the delivery of services to citizens.

In this year’s United Nations E-Government Survey, which my department, UN-DESA, publishes biennially, the majority of the leading countries in e-government have implemented this ‘back office’ integration throughout their national and ministerial websites. European countries make up 70 per cent of the top 35 countries, and Asian countries make up 20 per cent. The North American and Oceania regions account for 5 per cent. The European countries, as a group, have invested heavily in deploying broadband infrastructure, coupled with an increase in the implementation of e-government applications for the benefit of their citizens.

The key variables involved in the delivery of ‘back office’ integration are the people, process and technology required. Yet, the record suggests that success or failure is less a technological issue than a people issue. What is particularly important is the ability to change public service cultures and motivate public sector workers to engage energetically in new ways of working, while providing adequately skilled and competent management and leadership.

In their journey to e-government, governments need to address two critical issues: supporting agility within their ‘back office’ processes; and facilitating the development of self-adaptive ‘front office’ processes.

To reduce ‘time-to-market’ with regard to new decisions, regulations and law, it is necessary to equip public administration with tools that support an agile response to change. A change in one activity in a process, or in one part of an e-government system, may cause many problems in other parts of the same process or system.

E-government, in particular, confronts a big challenge to achieving inter-operability and integration, taking into account differences in law, regulations, services, administrative process and different languages, within any one country and across regions and countries.

At the same time, there is a growing need for e-government services to be adaptive to the needs of citizens and businesses. For e-government initiatives to succeed, public services should be organized so as to serve every citizen individually. In order to increase the pay-off of using an e-government system, the delivery of services has to be very efficient, which means, for example, that an (experienced) individual user can perform a service without being bombarded with irrelevant information.

Experience shows that web users tend to be reluctant to provide feedback about their satisfaction and expectations by completing questionnaires or forms. In order to avoid asking users explicitly, means for understanding their preferences implicitly are required. Such information will also be very important for converting and customizing off-line services for on-line use.

E-government places high demands on security, trust and privacy, and has to deal with many different stakeholders in the same process, such as citizens and municipalities, county councils and federal government. Governments must also commit resources to removing communication and information access barriers that restrict business and social interactions between citizens with and without disabilities.

UN-DESA has been working hard to address these various challenges that governments face through platforms such as the United Nations Public Administration Network (UNPAN), which provides a 24/7 knowledge-sharing platform.

One of UNPAN’s major purposes is to assist in building knowledge on how central and local governments can use ICT tools to improve their governmental operations, customized to their citizens’ needs. One of our strongest partners in this network, the Regional Center on City Informatization, based in Shanghai, has been firmly supported by the Shanghai Municipal Government, our partners in organizing this Forum.

UN-DESA has also built partnerships with the other international agencies, such as UNU, ITU, UNDP, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Public Administration and Security of the Republic of Korea. And we are gathering partnerships within this Forum to discuss the Knowledge Repository for e/m-Government in Asia and the Pacific, which will become part of the Global Knowledge Repository for e/m Government.

Let me close by encouraging you to further explore this proposition, that the ability of today’s cities to leverage the Internet will determine their competitive advantage in a global digital economy, while improving the quality of life of local communities.

I wish you a most fruitful and productive discussion.

Thank you.

Now, it is my pleasure to invite Mr. Leo Merores, President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council to make welcoming address.

Now, I have the honour to invite Mr. Yang Xiong, Executive Vice Mayor of Shanghai Municipal Government of the People's Republic of China to make welcoming remarks.