What is a smart city?

A smart city uses digital technology or information and communication technology (ICT) to enhance the quality and performance of urban services, to reduce cost and resource consumption, and to engage citizens more actively and effectively.

A truly smart city is one where the authorities know everything. Now at the same time, having information does not necessarily mean having knowledge unless the information is understood and relatable to citizens. Not having such knowledge means there will be no learning and we face the danger of getting locked into systems that we don’t need or want.

The citizen factor raises these questions: What happens when smart systems are implemented? Which groups are affected and what can we learn to improve from what we are today?

Songdo, Korea is a good example of a purpose-built “smart city” with 40 percent green space, universal broadband, integrated sensor networks, green buildings, and an underground system of tubes for transporting kitchen waste from buildings for waste to energy. Songdo has however been criticized due to the lack of people engagement and an ‘organically evolved’ culture.

Taking some cues from the Korean example above, let’s explore a few factors that hopefully will make smart cities a little more people-friendly and sustainable.

Cities are entities that are abuzz with life and character and for smart systems to work, they must be molded to suit this idea. People must have a sense of place that the city belongs to them. This encourages civic behaviour, drops in vandalism and crime and creates safer streets. Smart systems should carry information that is easily accessible and useful like public bus times, e-government licensing, public health notices, and access to leisure as well as work-related information. The latter is important for work-life balance and reduction of urban life stresses.

Smart systems should provide a platform for public safety and freedom from fear. CCTV and surveillance systems have played a major role in reducing crime and terrorism risks but security authorities must continue to work hand in hand with citizens on the right priorities. For instance it is important to invest in sophisticated security systems in terrorist attack-prone areas like airports but what about in the streets where purse snatching is a danger or where bad road behaviour can lead to recklessness and accidents?

Get smart

Education plays a key part in creating sustainable and livable cities. But it is often the case that people don’t know what they don’t know. On a planet with finite resources and facing impending threats from climate change, what should people – both old and young – know in order to offset these challenges?

This is where smart systems should be applied to inculcate the right behaviors early for the young while presenting the mature with the opportunity to change wasteful and damaging habits.

The average person will believe in a smart city if the benefits are evident at an individual level. Improved healthcare and well-being are a start. The cost of treatment can be reduced by telemedicine and astute health monitoring. Early detection of cancer and diabetes, for example can save the public as well as the individual’s purses through timely treatment. For ageing populations, smart assistive technology is one of the tools for comfortable and quality living in their silver years.

Making connections

Connecting communities is another important factor. In a city with hard and sometimes cold infrastructure, communities can become isolated and preyed on to foster discontent and sedition. Use of social networks help but for the less-tech savvy, simple means such as linking communities with cycle paths, walkways and open spaces will ultimately bring the human element to the fore. Even driverless cars, the vison of the not so distant future, may become relevant in connecting people. Although technology cannot solve all these problems, it can nonetheless support softer measures through informing citizens and granting accessibility for everyone.

This is a test

In an interesting case reported by CNN recently, the US authorities are conducting an experiment in the New Mexico desert with a full-scale model of an ordinary American town with specialized zones for developing new forms of agriculture, energy, and water treatment. An underground data collection network will provide detailed, real-time feedback. The aim of this experiment is to test new products, services and technologies without a human population to worry about. Driverless vehicles can be used on responsive roads, monitored from above by traffic drones. Homes are being designed to survive natural disasters, and fitted with robotic features. Alternative energy sources are being tested at scale. The concept has been welcomed by leading urban planning experts as it enables future designers to test a new city rather than just the underlying infrastructure. But still there is a flaw: the lack of people. As pointed out by one expert, “inhabitants of cities are not just interchangeable individuals that can be dropped into experimental settings; they are diverse communities with varied cultures, expectations and behavioral patterns which grow up over time.”

Smart cities are fine and allow us a glimpse of the future. Smart cities, incidentally, also need to be affordable to live in to get the ultimate buy-in. But smartness alone will not make a great and sustainable city – wisdom will, and this can only come from the hearts and minds of the citizens.

Dr Thomas S.K. Tang