Every city has the potential to be a smart city

As an increasing number of people move to metropolitan centres, the drive for urban sustainability will increase – and it's worth remembering that new isn't always best

B8AC47 Long tail passenger boats travelling along Khlong Mon river canal Thonburi district in Bangkok Thailand
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The experience of Singapore – arguably the most successful city-state of modern times – holds many lessons for the Middle East, North Africa and other territories seeking to build bigger and better urban spaces. Most important of all is the idea that newer does not always mean better.

Governments and urban developers across the Indo-Pacific region are planning for the “smart cities” of tomorrow.  Yet, public, private and not-for-profit leaders should not lose sight of changes that can be made in the cities of today to make them more liveable and sustainable.

That is evident in ever-evolving, modern Singapore – a nation one sixth the size of Dubai, which is home to six million people and the Asia Centre of the Milken Institute – a non-partisan, economic think tank, that is holding its second Middle East and North Africa Summit in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

Two hundred years ago, the British landed on a tropical island named Singapura, laying the foundation for what is now by some measures the wealthiest, least corrupt and best place to do business in south-east Asia. In the decades since the end of colonial rule and separation from what is now Malaysia, which occurred in the 1960s, the country’s leaders have embraced both the old and the new, in terms of architecture and heritage.

Some urban planners espouse the benefits of building cities from scratch. Starting afresh allows governments and developers to avoid repeating previous infrastructural missteps. Building a city, however, is not simply a matter of implementing a master plan. Circumstances, technologies and human behaviour will evolve and interact, requiring flexibility and adaptability.

One example from East Asia is New Songdo City in South Korea. First conceived in 2001, Songdo was touted as an urban utopia that would be free from the scourges of modern city life. It would be a new kind of urban area, featuring all the amenities and technologies one would expect in a 21st-century smart city. Almost two decades later, it remains sparsely populated, home to only a third of its original goal of 300,000 residents.

In the Middle East, however, the outlook is somewhat brighter. Saudi Arabia is moving forward with Neom – described by some as a $500 billion megacity.  It has also been billed as a post-oil, solar and wind-powered hub for manufacturing, renewable energy, biotechnology, media, and entertainment, filled with skyscrapers, five-star hotels, and robots performing functions such as security, logistics, home delivery and caregiving.

In Kuwait, the brand new city of Madinat Al Hareer is expected to be completed in 25 years. This urban development is intended to address the increased demands that a growing population places on existing infrastructure, featuring numerous bridges, an expansive sports complex, convention centres and a 1,001-metre skyscraper.

However, if the goal is to build more sustainable and resilient urban communities, one must also consider the changes we can make today, in places where people already live. With Asia’s urban communities projected to comprise 64 per cent of the continent’s total population by 2050 (rising from 48 per cent in 2014, according to the United Nations), the need for more and better-planned spaces will only grow.

Nevertheless, resting our hopes for a better, “smarter” future on mega-projects whose success is not guaranteed, and will take years to materialise, would be less than wise.

Governments and businesses should come together to invest in both the hard and soft infrastructure of a city. Priorities of any urban sustainability platform could range from the improvement of energy efficiency, waste management or water supply, to the softer side of urban development, such as extending education and training programmes, increasing financial literacy and access to capital, and encouraging entrepreneurship and job creation.

The good news is that changes need not be dramatic. The concept of a "smart city" may conjure images of gleaming, futuristic skylines, but in developing cities in Asia, the enforcement of effective policies and the adoption of simple technologies can go a long way towards delivering a better quality of life. Waste-to-energy plants, for instance, can help address both the energy and waste treatment needs of many Asian urban areas.

On a technological front, a variety of high-value, cost-effective smart city applications are available for deployment. For example, in Vietnam's coastal city of Da Nang and Thailand's capital Bangkok, flood risk mapping technology is in the works as part of the broader strategies of both cities. Importantly, these maps will be available to low-income households, which are typically the most vulnerable to climate hazards.

Cities, rich or poor can take modest, practical approaches, to enhance liveability for their communities. With the advent of collaborative platforms, such as the Asean Smart Cities Network in south-east Asia, it will hopefully be easier for a variety of metropolitan locations to share lessons and best practices with others facing comparable challenges or looking to address similar priorities.

At the end of the day – whether in Abu Dhabi or Singapore, or places with fewer available resources – it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that there is a single approach that every city needs to follow, or that the adoption of technology is an end in itself.  Solutions should focus on the unique problems that urban inhabitants face, and they should be implemented in the cities of today.

Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group and the inaugural Asia Fellow of the Milken Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin