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Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone February 24, 2023

Claim twists U.N. resolution, smart city concept and the Ohio train derailment into baseless plot

If Your Time is short

  • A United Nations resolution titled "2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development" laid out 17 development goals to help countries tackle things such as poverty, inequality and climate change.

  • It did not create laws to enable governments to remove citizens from polluted land and force them to live in a smart city. The resolution mentions neither thing.

  • Smart cities is a term describing an urban-planning concept in which cities use internet technology for things such as improving traffic flow or measuring air quality.

A U.N. resolution passed in 2015 and an urban-planning concept embraced by the World Economic Forum are being twisted on social media into a baseless dystopian plot by the government to track citizens.

If that weren’t enough conspiracy theories, this plot insinuates that the Feb. 3 train derailment and toxic chemical burn in East Palestine, Ohio, may be the start of it all.

"The laws governing Agenda 2030 land development allows the government to seize polluted lands and move their residents to … smart cities," a woman said in a Feb. 20 video shared on Instagram. "If you’re living somewhere where your land and water is poisoned, you don’t get an option to opt out. Hmmm, where has land and water been poisoned recently?"

The woman described smart cities as places where the government will track citizens’ personal habits and limit their movements in real time, using a digital ID.

We found multiple posts on Instagram and Twitter making the claim following the Ohio incident. 

National Transportation Safety Board investigators, although not reaching a formal conclusion in a preliminary report released Feb. 23, cited an overheated wheel bearing discovered just before the derailment. An NTSB spokesperson told PolitiFact there was no sign of foul play or sabotage in the derailment.

There are no laws established in the U.N. resolution, only a series of goals member states pledged to try to achieve by 2030. Meanwhile, smart cities are simply an urban planning concept in which technology is used to help the city, and residents’ lives, run more efficiently.

What is U.N. Agenda 2030?

In December 2015, all U.N. member states adopted a resolution called the "2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development." The U.N. described the plan as a "shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet." It  laid out 17 development goals around poverty, inequality and climate change to achieve by 2030.

Nothing in the resolution or the stated goals talks about the government seizing polluted land and forcing displaced residents to live in a "smart city."

The development goals are not legally binding, and countries are responsible for administering their own policies, using the U.N. goals as a guide, according to a U.N. website.

Florencia Soto Niño, a U.N. spokesperson, told The Associated Press that although Agenda 2030 talks about improving waste management and air quality, "at no point does it talk about removing people from their land, even if this is polluted."

"The claim that the U.N., which has no power anyway, wants to force victims of environmental disasters to live in panopticon societies is absurd on its face," said Robert Olshansky, professor emeritus in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

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Olshansky said it’s possible for governments to prevent people from living somewhere if it’s not safe, such as in parts of Fukushima, Japan, after the 2011 nuclear plant failure, and give them help to live elsewhere, but not to force them to stay somewhere. 

"The only equivalent I can think of would be the reeducation camps in Xinjiang," he said, referring to detention facilities in China the Council on Foreign Relations said house 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslims. 

What are smart cities?

The term "smart cities" is also not mentioned in U.N. Agenda 2030, though it has been mentioned in other U.N. initiatives.

The speaker in the Instagram video said that the "smart" in smart cities is an acronym for "surveillance monitoring analysis reporting technology," but fact-checkers at Agence France-Presse reported this month that is not the case.

The "smart cities" concept generally refers to cities that use technology to collect information to help make cities run more efficiently. That can happen in a number of ways, such as by improving traffic flow, tracking gunshots to help fight crime or tracking air quality.

Karen Lightman, the executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said there is no universal definition of a smart city, and a wide variety of interpretations.

"Some think it’s all about the tech, some think it’s about the people," Lightman said. "I like to look at it more holistically — it's about the community and people and addressing their challenges and problems through collaborative applications of technology, while ensuring that there are policies in place to protect privacy and security — with the overall goal of improving quality of life, equitably and inclusively."

Lightman said there’s no truth to the claim that governments of smart cities could track or restrict the travel of residents, as the Instagram post claims. "It seems impossible given current technologies and policies in the U.S.," she said.

In addition to the smart-city concept, some cities in recent years have embraced the idea of creating neighborhoods in which residents can find everything they need within a 15- or 20-minute trip, thus reducing carbon emissions. Lightman said the posts appear to be confusing the two concepts.

The World Economic Forum, as referred to in the Instagram video, said on its website that 36 cities worldwide were chosen to "pioneer a new global policy roadmap for smart cities developed by the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance."

The World Economic Forum said the road map will help cities adopt policies to ensure privacy protection for residents, among other things. Among that initial group in the U.S. are San Jose, California, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dallas and Pittsburgh have since joined the cities partnering with the alliance.

Our ruling

An Instagram post claimed that laws governing the U.N. Agenda 2030 land development allows the government to seize polluted lands and forcibly move residents to smart cities, where their habits and movements will be tracked and limited.

The U.N.’s Agenda 2030 is a 2015 resolution containing goals for member states to strive to achieve by 2030, ranging from reducing poverty and hunger to protecting the climate. The U.N. has no power to set laws in countries, which would try to achieve those goals by setting their own policies. There is no mention in the U.N. document or list of goals about seizing polluted land or moving people to smart cities. 

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, Feb. 20, 2023

Instagram post, Feb. 17, 2023

World Economic Forum, "Our Alliance is creating smart city governance

World Economic Forum, "About the alliance

World Economic Forum, "Global Policy Roadmap for Successful, Ethical, Smart Cities

World Economic Forum, "In the Face of Extraordinary Challenges, 36 Pioneer Cities Chart a Course Towards a More Ethical and Responsible Future," Nov. 17, 2020

World Economic Forum, "3 ways to get consumers to trust internet-connected devices," Dec. 10, 2021

Express VPN, "What is a smart city?," Dec. 9, 2022

Email interview, Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, Feb. 23, 2023

Email interview, Robert Olshansky, professor emeritus in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Feb. 22, 2023

The 15-minute City 

Tech Brew, "How a smart city platform created for Pittsburgh became a nationwide business," May 20, 2022

Tech Brew, "These 5 charts show what US city residents think about smart city tech," Nov. 1, 2022

The Wall Street Journal, "‘Smart City’ Chattanooga Names a New CIO," Jan. 14, 2022

United Nations, "Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development"

United Nations, "Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 23 December 2016," Jan. 25, 2017

United Nations, "THE 17 GOALS"

United Nations, "The Sustainable Development Agenda: Frequently Asked Questions"  

United Nations, "The New Urban Agenda

United Nations, "Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 23 December 2016

AFP, "Posts misleadingly link smart city concept to 'surveillance and reporting technology' acronym," Feb. 14, 2023

USA Today, "Fact check: False claim ‘15-minute cities’ are actually ‘climate lockdowns’," Feb. 6, 2023

Full Fact, "No plans to restrict the use of cars by creating 20-minute neighbourhoods in Ealing," Feb. 8, 2023

Big Issue, "Scotland aims to cut car use by creating ’20-minute neighbourhoods’ in net zero push," Jan. 13, 2023

BBC, "How '15-minute cities' will change the way we socialise," Jan. 4, 2021

National Transportation Safety Board, "Norfolk Southern Railway Train Derailment with Subsequent Hazardous Material Release and Fires: Preliminary Report," Feb. 23, 2023

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Claim twists U.N. resolution, smart city concept and the Ohio train derailment into baseless plot

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