Creating globalised smart cities requires a local approach

The scale and speed of urbanisation across the world is a source of challenge to cities.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050, two-thirds of the world's population will live in urban areas, and by 2030, 41 cities will have a population of at least 10 million.

This rapid pace of urbanisation is placing extraordinary demands on cities' provision of housing, infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, energy and employment.

What is crucial is that these challenges are addressed locally - there is no one-size-fits-all approach to solving the infrastructural dilemmas of city planners the world over.

In developed countries, particularly those in the West, adapting existing but ageing infrastructure to the needs of tomorrow's citizens is the top priority. Local governments are integrating advanced technology to make established cities smarter, and improving connectivity to spur innovation, economic growth and social progress.

It is estimated that more than 26 global cities are expected to be "smart cities" by 2025.

Meanwhile, in some countries, where rapid urban development has been more recent, entirely new smart cities are being constructed from scratch.

Songdu in South Korea runs entirely on solar and wind power, along with energy generated from human waste that is processed in a co-generation plant. Its buildings have automatic climate control and computerised access, and its roads, and water, waste and electricity systems are dense with electronic sensors to enable the city's "brain" to track and respond to the movement of residents.

China and India are also creating smart cities from the ground up to keep pace with mass urbanisation.

In Singapore, the Government is turning the country into the world's first truly Smart Nation, powered by big data and analytics technology, as well as next-generation connected and wireless sensor networks. As a first step, the city state rolled out about 1,000 sensors in 2015, to track everything from air quality and water levels to public safety.

As technology progresses, there is no shortage of solutions that can be adapted to fit local needs. What is vital to success, though, is a local vision, a clear plan and the means to communicate both - to bring together the public and private sectors, academia and communities.

Infrastructure development and the incorporation of the latest technology can sometimes bring about disruption or require public education. That is why leaders must capture people's imagination by setting clear goals for the solving of known social issues.

The vision, policy and investment prioritisation for each city must reflect the specific context, culture, and economics of the locality.

There are many instances where smart technology adoption, without considerable analysis and forethought, has resulted in wastage of resources and project failures. In India,The Indian Express daily reported that the local government was criticised by environmental activists for the Lutyens Delhi project. The activists argued that the authorities' failure to effectively communicate their plans led to a belief that the smart city project was being implemented in a developed area, thereby increasing inequality.

The challenge in any smart city project is to align all stakeholders involved so that they move towards the same goal. Smart city development is complex, and requires diverse ideas, experience and insights to be successful.

This often means changing and adapting many established ways of working. It could mean government organisations and departments working together on larger projects or more collaboration between businesses and government. It could also mean adapting key performance indicators to monitor not just a city's economic growth, pollution levels or train delays but also the general quality of life for residents.

Harnessing the skills and insights of innovators from local universities and research centres is also key to achieving local adaptation that improves citizens' lives. The Renewable Energy Integration Demonstrator-Singapore initiative, for instance, is the first microgrid in South-east Asia, and the largest hybrid microgrid in the tropics.

Led by Nanyang Technological Universityand supported by Schneider Electric and Singapore government agencies, including the Economic Development Board and National Environment Agency, this collaborative project rallies industries, research institutions, and the Government to co-create innovative solutions.

In the future - and it has already begun in some Asian cities - we will see innovations that will transform the energy value chain, from generation to transmission to distribution to consumption and demand.

Companies, including Schneider Electric, are working with cities and electrical utilities around the world to make everything in a city - from the electricity and water grids, to the sewer pipes, buildings and road vehicles - get connected to vast information and electrical networks.

Such platforms that deliver on the promise of the Internet of Things will pave the way for cities to shape their energy infrastructure in ways that suit their own sustainable development.

By enabling unification across facilities, applications and systems, and supporting predictive analysis and communication, these platforms allow rapid decision-making and investment optimisation for the long term.

This can bring about a reduction in the total cost of ownership, cost savings from energy efficiency, a reduction in staff costs, and improvements in resilience and sustainability.

Successful smart city initiatives in Asia provide powerful and innovative ideas to address urbanisation challenges across the region. Additionally, having a knowledgeable smart city solution partner that understands both local city dynamics, as well as domestic and international best practices, is essential in smart city development.

These partners have a commercial presence in the city, and offer private and public sector players the experience in many different deployment models, which helps mitigate risks.

While challenges still remain, there are vast opportunities for collaboration and integration to accelerate smart city projects that enrich people's lives, drive economic growth and create sustainable communities.

• The writer is president for East Asia and Japan at Schneider Electric.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline Creating globalised smart cities requires a local approach. Subscribe