Thinking Aloud

People, not technology, make cities smart

It makes sense to start with residents, how they live and what they have to say, when drawing up a smart-city vision

On a recent visit to New York City, I lost my way on two separate occasions while walking through Central Park. There was a time when that would have been a far from pleasant experience; in the 1980s, for sure, which was when I first visited the city as a child with my parents and younger brother and wondered why our Chan Brothers Travel package tour included a stop at a park that struck me as dirty, dusty, pockmarked by graffiti and reportedly riddled with crime.

In the decades since then, America's most famous urban park has undergone a remarkable transformation. To get lost in it today is to meander through a 341ha green oasis - more than four times the size of Singapore's Botanic Gardens - that stretches through the heart of northern Manhattan, a place of lush foliage and flowers, running streams, sculptures and playgrounds, full of joggers, sunbathers, picnicking families and city residents walking their dogs and babies.

Just how did the change come about? It was the result of citizens working in partnership with the private sector and city authorities to raise money and mobilise resources to clean up the park and restore it to health, safety and beauty.

Today, the Central Park Conservancy - a private, not-for-profit organisation formed in 1980 by a group of concerned citizens - manages the park under a contract with the City of New York. Thanks to donations from individuals, corporations and foundations, as well as funds from the city authorities, the Conservancy has invested more than US$950 million (S$1.3 billion) in the park, making it a model for urban parks worldwide. It also takes charge of all aspects of park maintenance, capital improvements and restorations.

It is an inspiring example of how energised citizens can rescue and revitalise a part of their city, if empowered to do so by enlightened authorities or, at least, not prevented from doing so by those in charge.

There are many such efforts taking place around the world. Two interesting ones which have been in the news lately are Wecyclers in Lagos, a social enterprise that tackles the Nigerian capital's waste crisis and empowers low-income communities to turn trash into cash, which won this year's Le Monde Smart Cities Global Innovation Grand Prize; and the city of Malang in Indonesia, shortlisted for the 2016 Guangzhou Urban Innovation Awards for the creative way it responded to floods in a slum area by planting trees and organic vegetables to act as sponges, thereby also providing an additional source of income to its poor residents who were able to sell the vegetables.

What is worth emphasising in these technocentric times, when smart cities are all the rage, is that successful urban innovation springs from citizen participation and enterprise, and does not always require large investments or new technology.


ST ILLUSTRATION : ADAM LEE

Even when information technology is involved, it may not be the sophistication of the technology that matters but the sophistication with which a city's residents tap their networks and know-how to solve specific problems they encounter on a daily basis, using whatever technology is available. This is not to discount the important role of technology in helping to bring about change for the better, but to clarify that the proper role of technology is to enable the change that people have imagined and conceived.

That distinction matters because, in the push to develop smart cities, governments can either choose to put technology at the centre of their plans, or people.

That was an insight I gleaned from last month's Smart Cities conference jointly organised by French newspaper Le Monde, The Straits Times and Business France.

I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion entitled Which Models In Asia?, during which Dr Sameer Sharma of India's Ministry of Urban Development shared his experience of steering the Smart Cities Challenge, the first time India used an open national competition to allocate funds for urban transformation.

What is worth emphasising in these technocentric times, when smart cities are all the rage, is that successful urban innovation springs from citizen participation and enterprise and does not always require large investments or new technology.

The organisers of the challenge took as their starting position that "there is no universally accepted definition of a smart city", as the term means different things to different people. "The conceptualisation of Smart City, therefore, varies from city to city and country to country, depending on the level of development, willingness to change and reform, resources and aspirations of the city's residents. A smart city would have a different connotation in India than, say, Europe. Even in India, there is no one way of defining a smart city," they wrote.

Embedded in this statement is the recognition that a city's residents should be free to define a smart city on their own terms, based on their aspirations and other factors such as the pace of change they are comfortable with.

What is equally remarkable is that the winner of the competition's first round, the ancient city of Bhubaneswar in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, has gone on to win this year's Pierre L'Enfant award, a prestigious prize given out by the American Planning Association (APA).

The Bhubaneswar Smart City Plan, the APA said in its citation, "redefines the concept of 'smart cities' and outlines a citizen-driven vision for the future by using technology to help residents gain better access to city services, and improve the overall quality of life". The goal of the Bhubaneswar plan was "to engage residents in discussions to identify which groups had access to technology and city services and which groups did not, and how to close that gap", it added.

As Dr Sharma said during the Le Monde conference held here last month: "Don't start with a vision and work your way down to people. Start with people, and get them to draw up a vision."

I must admit that, as a Singaporean, I had not expected to learn much about smart cities from India, where basic infrastructure in terms of clean water and uninterrupted power can be in short supply, even in big cities. But in this case, I was happy to be proven wrong.

I think the approach advocated by Dr Sharma is all the more relevant when one considers that the true measure of a smart city is not how technologically advanced it is, but how inclusive and sustainable it is in its practices. A good way to ensure inclusion and sustainability is to involve a city's residents from the start, since they are the ones who will be living in the smart city and using its services. It is therefore necessary not just to engage a city's residents in the drawing up of a vision, but also to understand how they actually live, as well as what they need and consider important.

Indeed, Professor Saskia Sassen of Columbia University, who was the keynote speaker at the conference, warned against an over-reliance on technology. A sociologist who coined the term "global city", her insight relates to a city's heritage. She observed that many buildings in a city are built to last. However, if, in a bid to ride the smart-city wave, owners kit old buildings out in the latest technology, that might just shorten these buildings' lifespan by rendering them obsolete once the technology needs updating.

These insights are worth reflecting on as Singapore pushes ahead with efforts to make this city both smarter and more liveable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 16, 2017, with the headline 'People, not technology, make cities smart'. Print Edition | Subscribe