Smart Cities: Luxury or Necessity?

Daniel Merege, Feb 28 2018

Much has been said about smart cities around the world. But reading articles, news and documents related to this subject, I realized that we are still treating urban technologies as a luxury topic, instead of treating them as a real solution to the real needs of cities and of people who will inhabit them in the future .

Recently, on a trip through Southeast Asia to speak at the 4th World Forum on Internet of Things and Smart Cities, I had the opportunity to visit two cities of immense contrast: Singapore and Jakarta, capital of Indonesia. And to answer the question of this article’s title, I will use these two cities as an example, comparing them from a Mobility point of view.

Singapore is extremely developed. Independent of Malaysia since 1965, the city-state has developed to the point of becoming a reference in several urban dimensions, such as Health, Housing and Mobility. In fact, things work there. Commuting is fast, safe and not late. It is possible, with the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), to reach pretty much every point of the city at an affordable cost to the local reality.

Buses also complement the route and have high quality comfort and waiting time. Since car ownership is controlled by the government (a license to buy a car is needed there), the traffic is perceptibly balanced. Walking has also become a good experience, as the local government is implementing walkways covered by sidewalks, making the walk more pleasant in a very hot city.

Jakarta is on the other end. From the standpoint of Mobility, things do not go very well. Moving around the city on foot is difficult due to the lack of a basic item: sidewalk. The city is extremely oriented to cars and motorcycles, which fill from the wide avenues of the city, to the alleys by which drivers cut their way. Even so, it is not uncommon to take hours to reach the destination within the city itself. MRT? Under construction for at least 4 years. The system is expected to be delivered by 2019.

These two visits have made me reflect the following: we talk so much about sustainable city technologies and models to improve people's quality of life and make the urban experience more attractive and healthy, but why do we still treat it as luxury? I say luxury because apparently governments hesitate to invest money in these new technologies because they often think that it is a thing of rich, developed countries, and that there are "more" priority things than that. But why, then, they continue to spend the same (or even more) amount of money fed back a system and an infrastructure that no longer meets the current population’s needs, and will collapse when the number of people increase?

It is very easy to see, looking at the case of Singapore, how much the concern for the modernization of urban systems actually brings quality of life. Only from a mobility point of view, the impacts on people's lives are tremendous: reducing stress, levels of noise pollution and air, for example, which certainly raise people's health and improve urban well-being. No wonder Singapore ranks fifth in the Human Development Index, while Indonesia ranks 113th.

That is why it must be made clear to public managers and citizens all over the world that investing in solutions within this great topic called "Smart Cities" is necessary before being luxury. Investments in solutions that truly meet people's needs are crucial to not reach the chaos point in cities that do not put that topic on their agenda as soon as possible.

Moreover, city references in the subject must be seen only as references. It is not enough to copy a ready-made solution from another place, without considering the context and local reality of the cities that wish to become intelligent. It is necessary, in a sincere way, to put the citizen at the center of this transformation, and to understand what actually brings him the most quality of life. Therefore, using existing technologies to listen to what a particular community needs for its well-being is the starting point of this transformation.

My main conclusion of this dive in Singapore and Jakarta: contrasts of urban reality, as between these two cities, exist and will exist eternally. And this is positive because it maintains the diversity of cultures and social dynamics in an increasingly diverse world. The importance of the contrast in this discussion of smart cities is, in fact, on how to apply this wide range of urban technologies to effectively improve what makes the most sense in the changing city. The needs of the citizens of Singapore are certainly different from the needs of the citizens of Jakarta.

From speech to practice: listen to citizens in a systematic way and invest in technologies that will solve local issues first. That, in the end, is the great transformation that this great idea of "smart cities" can bring to the reality of cities around the world.

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