Smart cities rising but some becoming stupid, say experts

(From left) Panel moderator and ST associate opinion editor Lydia Lim with Singapore's Centre for Liveable Cities director for research Limin Hee, Seoul's National Information Society Agency senior researcher Jong Sung Hwang, India's Smart Cities Mis
(From left) Panel moderator and ST associate opinion editor Lydia Lim with Singapore's Centre for Liveable Cities director for research Limin Hee, Seoul's National Information Society Agency senior researcher Jong Sung Hwang, India's Smart Cities Mission director Sameer Sharma and Guangzhou Institute for Urban Innovation director Nicholas You at the conference on smart cities and innovation yesterday.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Working in isolation and resisting innovations impede progress: Panellists

As cities around the world strive to be smart, some have become stupid instead.

By working in isolation and resisting innovations, they are taking a step back from the vision of becoming a smart city, Asian experts said yesterday at a conference here on smart cities and innovation.

So, what is a "stupid city"?

It is a city that gives in to urban sprawl, with people moving from central areas to low-density communities, said Mr Nicholas You, a director of the Guangzhou Institute for Urban Innovation in China.

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Such communities are heavily reliant on cars - an increasingly unsustainable situation.

Another feature Mr You highlighted is that public administration bodies in "stupid cities'' tend to work in silos, refusing to share data that could help develop solutions for urban problems.

He made the point during a panel discussion on urban transformation in Asia, saying: "A real smart city is one that looks at everything holistically - you can't look at water issues without looking at energy."

The one-day conference, attended by about 120 people, was organised by French newspaper Le Monde, The Straits Times and Business France.

 
 
 

A South Korean panel member, Mr Jong Sung Hwang, suggested that some of the biggest obstacles to creating a smart city are cultural.

South Korean society is less forgiving of mistakes, noted Mr Jong, a senior researcher at the National Information Society Agency in Seoul.

For instance, some in Seoul tried to push for an intelligent traffic system but were met with resistance from the police, he said, adding: "We have ideas, data and even money, but we could not make it happen."

India, however, is not adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to create smart cities for its 1.3 billion people, said a panellist from India.

Rather, cities compete for government funding to become more citizen-friendly and sustainable, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 2015 Smart Cities Mission.

Its director Sameer Sharma said that to build smart cities, a bottom- up approach is needed.

"Don't start with a vision, then bring in the citizens. Always start with the citizens," he said.

In Singapore, which launched its Smart Nation initiative in 2014, the authorities are mindful that technology can worsen the divide between the haves and the have-nots, said Dr Limin Hee, director for research at the Centre for Liveable Cities here.

Thankfully, "many cities have been able to harness technology for the good of citizenry", she added.

The panel discussion was moderated by The Straits Times' associate opinion editor Lydia Lim.

Other panel discussions were on such issues as how best to use data and technology to create smart cities, and creating a smart city that is resilient to security challenges like terrorism.

At the conference, seven out of 200 entries were given Le Monde's Smart Cities Innovation Awards for showing how technology has been used to improve urban living.

A Nigerian company, WeCyclers, bagged the top prize for improving waste management.

It hires youth from low-income communities who pedal collection vehicles to collect recyclable waste, like plastic bottles, from families.

Each family has an account, and is given points for the various types of recyclable waste collected. The points can then be used to redeem items such as food and cellphone minutes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'Smart cities rising but some becoming stupid, say experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe