[SCMP Column] Liveable smart cities

April 23, 2018

So, what is a “smart city”? We hear the phrase all the time. In Tokyo meetings last week, I sat through four separate presentations on the subject of smart cities. Everyone wants them. Everyone tells you they are building them. But with no agreed definition of what constitutes a “smart city”, heaven knows whether everyone is talking about the same thing.

Getting the definition right is not just a matter of semantics or academic curiosity. Much is at stake. China alone is in the process of developing over 500 smart cities, with investments in the trillions. Japan’s “Society 5.0” initiative is about retrofitting existing, but ageing, communities with a combination of e-Government, e-Health and e-Education. So too with “Digital Canada”, and Singapore’s “Smart Nation 2050”.

What they build now will define future communities for decades – if not centuries. Get it wrong, and the lives of hundreds of millions in countries across the world will be affected for the worse.

For many, the idea of large cities and urban living sits uncomfortably. Over centuries, poets, novelists and painters have depicted the countryside as the “moral core” of their society. In contrast, cities have, from Dickens down, been seen as dangerous, squalid and polluted, congested, isolating and anonymous, harbouring crime and inequality. They are homes for Teresa May’s infamous “citizens of nowhere”.

And yet, despite all that bad press, people have over recent centuries, voted with their feet, not just for the diverse employment opportunities and opportunity for affluence, but for the convenience, the service efficiencies, the improved education and health services, the cultural diversity, the gregarious anonymity.

Nowhere has this been more powerful than in China, which has over the past decade added 330m to its urban population. But China is far from alone. London accounts for 30 per cent of Britain’s economy, as does Tokyo of Japan’s. So too Bangkok in Thailand, Lima in Peru and Manila in the Philippines. Seoul accounts for half of Korea’s GDP. As Janan Ganesh at the Financial Times recently noted: “We have surprised ourselves with our own willingness to muck in with each other in congested places.”

The unifying ingredient behind a “smart” city is the digital revolution, and the potential to integrate and improve services using artificial intelligence, “big data” and the “internet of things”. So when the Beijing government designated the Hui minority city of Yinchuan in Ningxia at the western end of the Great Wall as a “smart city”, it turned to the technology group ZTE to act as the city’s partner. ZTE provided the digital infrastructure to integrate transport, government services, city-wide telecoms and data-sharing. This enabled everything from online health care services to grocery deliveries, waste disposal and expedited business licencing.

But Nick Brooke, former head of the Science Park and now heading Hong Kong’s Harbourfront Commission, is right to dislike the “smart city” phrase. He prefers “liveable cities”, since liveability is what our ultimate aim should be, with “smart” simply being the most intelligent means to that end – whether digital or not.

So it is that Huawei, which like ZTE is at the heart of “smart” city planning in China and beyond, defines its integrative role, leveraging city-wide data for the coordination of resources, as providing “Better living, better business, better governance and better sustainability”. Smart technology is taken as a given, but their aims are carefully focused on liveability.

Intrinsic to Huawei’s approach is a need for integrated, top-down system design, capturing private sector funding and expertise, and ensuring government is committed to providing long term, dedicated funding for connected, intelligent planning. The need to prioritise has led them to focus on six service areas – Government services, transport management, energy and environmental services, education, health services, and buildings management.

If you look at how the Tokyo government is applying a “smart city” approach to the Marunouchi business district at the heart of the city, you see strong common ground with Huawei’s approach. Coordinated top-down planning comes from collaboration between the Tokyo government, the Chiyoda district council, Japan’s Regional Council for Development, and the East Japan Railway company. You see integrated transport, energy and environmental planning, with emphasis on safety standards focused on earthquake protection for good measure.

Hong Kong’s approach to developing Nick Brooke’s “liveable city” has by comparison been sloppy. Look, for example, at LOHAS Park which for those of you who never paused to ask stands for “Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability”. In fact it is just another high-rise property development given a “smart” badge – a ghost town without the kind of intelligent investment in civic infrastructure that would justify it being thought of as “liveable”.

Or take Hong Kong’s multi-billion dollar plans to develop the Hong Kong harbour waterfront, and in particular the iconic Central waterfront area being developed as “Site 3”. This must be just as important to Hong Kong as Marunouchi is to Tokyo, but where is the integrated planning needed to ensure “smart city” development? Where is our squabbling Legco when it comes to cracking the whip on ensuring the sort of joined-up thinking that smart city planning requires?

In many ways, Hong Kong is the perfect template for liveable city planning, with its world-beating Mass Transit System, the integrative potential of a compact high-rise city dominated by just a small number of developers, just two vertically-integrated power suppliers, one of the world’s best and digitally integrated healthcare systems, and one of the world’s best-endowed digital infrastructures.

By comparison with most other cities, we have just a small number of significant players who need to collaborate to ensure the smartest-of-smart urban infrastructures, to provide a liveable city second to none. And if we can get it right, there must surely be potential to extend these benefits to the Great Bay Area into which we are now being integrated.

By now, there is a wealth of case experience out there. Let’s first agree on a common definition of a liveable city, and use integrators like ZTE and Huawei to provide the prioritised checklist of measures needed to get there as smartly as possible. If we are going to “muck in” with each other in congested places, then let us “citizens of nowhere” capture the best we can from urban living.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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