Cities of the future

  • TECH
  • Sunday, 12 Feb 2017

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither would a smart city. There are many key players involved in making this a reality. —

It takes an entire nation to create a smart city.

CITIES have major impact on the economic and social developments of nations. According to the World Urbanisation Prospect 2014 by the United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs, over 66% of the international population will be living in cities by 2050.

Closer to home, more than 74.7% of Malaysians – as stated by the CIA Factbook – live in cities and the number is expected to increase to 90% in the future.

Cities consume a lot of energy, generate staggering amounts of greenhouse gases and account for the majority consumption of the world’s natural resources.

“In just 33 years, our cities need to be able to cope with the influx of citizens. In the past decade alone, the rate of residential waste and residential electricity consumptions had increased by 90% and 204% respectively. According to the World Bank Economic Monitor 2015 – Transforming Urban Transport report, congestion costs in Kuala Lumpur alone was RM5.5bil in ­productivity loss, not including the fuel wastage and the environmental impact,” says Knowledge Group of Companies ­general manager Vincent Fong.

A smart city needs smart and involved citizens. Most developed cities have citizen participation in every aspect. —
A smart city needs smart and involved citizens. Most developed cities have citizen participation in every aspect. —

The Knowledge Group is the organiser of Smart Cities Asia ­conferences and Fong is part of the Malaysia Technical Standards Forum tasked to produce the Smart Sustainable Cities Standardisation Framework In Relations To ICT Aspects (Technical Code) for our Communications and Multimedia Ministry.

With the growing demand for efficiency and resources, smart urban environment is necessary. How we build, sustain and ­manage cities is key to a smooth operation of urban areas, and to do this, the use of ­information and communication technologies is essential. Judging by the projections on urban population in the future, it is clear that we need ways to approach it in a ­sustainable manner. This is where smart ­cities come into play.

An intelligent approach

While there are no dumb cities around the world, there can definitely be smart and ­sustainable ones.

Technical Code states that a smart sustainable city is “an innovative city that uses information and communications technology and other means to improve quality of life”.

It also refers to the efficiency of urban operations and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects.

Knowledge Group of Companies general manager Vincent Fong says how we build, sustain and manage cities is key to smooth operation of urban areas, — VINCENT FONG
Knowledge Group of Companies general manager Vincent Fong says how we build, sustain and manage cities is key to smooth operation of urban areas, — VINCENT FONG

“The definition of smart cities can be a ­little tricky and varies depending on who you speak to. Some will argue that it is ­technology centric, while others will argue for a public policy and urban design focused approach.

“Our view is that a smart city is one that tackles modern urban challenges while future-proofing itself. The core components of a smart city are based on Technology, Urban Design, Public Policy and Citizens with the end goals of sustainability, livability and efficiency,” says Fong.

The classic argument for the need of smart cities is rapid urbanisation, with many cities around the world facing increasing pressure on their infrastructure and environment. The only way to adapt is to turn to technology to optimise our finite resources for housing, transportation, public services and utility.

“Society has always tried to use technology to solve problems – even in the pyramid age. It is part of our evolution. South Korea was one of the first countries to talk about ­applying technology to cities in the early 80s. Unfortunately, they had the concept, but not the technology to make it happen back then.

“But now, South Korea is doing very well. Their Songdo IBD smart city is one of the good representatives of greenfield smart ­cities. It started happening in the 90s, but the South Koreans had the idea even before that,” says World e-Governments Organisa-tion of Cities and Local Governments in Seoul, South Korea advisor Dr Renato De Castro, who is also an advisor for Leading Cities in Boston, United States and the Advisory Board Member of Smart Cities Asia.

De Castro says that initially, smart cities only focused on environmental and ­sustainability issues but now, more ­governments are focusing on the ­economical and social aspects of a city.

Getting on track

There are three categories of smart cities, namely Brownfield (existing cities), Greenfield (new purpose-built cities) and Smart Plans

“Examples of Brownfield cities in Malaysia are Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca. These cities need to contend with the inherited issues of previous ­administrations and policies. It is a typically more challenging retrofit while performing the daily functions of your typical city ­services,” says Fong.

Greenfield cities on the other hand have the inherent advantage of not having to contend with legacy infrastructure but has the challenge of attracting the general population to migrate to these new cities. One such example is Iskandar Malaysia in Johor. Smart Plants refer to pockets of activities within a city with some smart elements such as Cyberjaya Smart Traffic Lights, Smart Selangor’s iClean Initiative and more.

“From our observations, several states are taking the lead in terms of implementing some smart initiatives, namely Malacca, Selangor and Johor,” says Fong.

According to De Castro, Kuala Lumpur is already on its way to becoming a smart city, although he says that no city would become a 100% smart city as there is always ­something to upgrade.

“You must solve one problem at a time and keep it as simple as possible, focusing on making lives better. You can focus on ­several spot projects but not lose the big ­picture,” he says.

And benchmarking against another smart city doesn’t work well in this field either. A smart city has to be customised based on its citizens, location and culture.

“One of the top projects that is working well around the world is mobility – managing the flow of people and goods. Secondly is public safety. We are going to see many ­projects on these two main areas.”

De Castro believes that there already are many solutions available for cheap or even free that could be optimised here.

“Why spend millions on creating an app to communicate with the citizens when you can utilise WhatsApp for free? When it comes to education or health, use what you already have and make it smarter. You ­probably already have the records of the students or patient digitally. What is missing now is the open data to connect all these information. Once you have all these ­connected, you have a mountain of ­information and analytics that can change the whole reality of education or health in your country. And that’s just one example there,” he shares.

The challenges

Smart cities, more often than not, are a moving goal post, says Fong.

“By the time you have achieved the goals you have set for your city, or even before that, the needs for the city would have evolved so drastically that the very ­definition of a smart city would have been redefined,” he adds.

Fong believes that city leaders need to constantly have a finger on the pulse of a city’s evolving needs and adapt accordingly despite the challenges.

One of the biggest challenges of developing a smart city is unsurprisingly funding.

“City leaders often lack the funding to finance these projects; they often find ­themselves in a position where they ­recognise the importance of these smart ­initiatives but are unable to take any actions as their budget is mostly utilised for the ­operating expenses of vital day to day city services,” explains Fong.

Another problem is bureaucracy. With ­several layers of government and needed co-ordination between various agencies, many city leaders are often caught in a web of bureaucracy instead of creating an ­impactful change.

This isn’t a problem in our neighbouring country however, says Fong.

“Singapore is a city-state. They announced their ambition to become a Smart Nation in 2014 and we’ve already seen many meaningful initiatives from them launched last year.”

Fong adds that some initiatives that are good in the long run are not necessarily ­popular with the voter base. For example congestion taxes and increased parking rates that are popular measures in European ­countries to reduce traffic.

“When it was announced that Kuala Lumpur is planning the same, it was met with backlash from the public, granted that there are valid arguments on our current state of public transportations.”

But ­sometimes, the unpopular choice is necessary to move forward.

It takes a nation

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither would a smart city. There are many key ­players involved, as identified by Fong. First are the Federal and State level governments, which need to co-ordinate efforts and ­strategies on a higher level. Then municipal councils need to be attuned to their ­respective cities and identify suitable ­solutions based on its city’s unique needs.

“We need civil societies and industry ­associations as pressure groups to implement policies and sounding board for standards. Private sectors need to provide relevant solution and consultancy services,” adds Fong.

The group also includes academia and research to provide scientific data and innovations to commercialise as well as venture capitalists to provide funding to startups to introduce innovation to the market.

But most importantly, a smart city needs smart and involved citizens. Most developed cities has its citizens participating in every aspects of running the cities. This in turn increases citizen satisfaction.

By getting the citizens to participate, it reduces the conflict of opinions which makes implementation easier. Smart citizens should be fully inclusive and innovative.

“Do the re-engineering top down, that is the best way to build and focus on the DNA of your smart city,” says De Castro. “People don’t want new cities, they just want better cities.”

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