5 February 2020

Smart cities: How ‘smartly’ prepared are we?

By Dr Jibril Adewale Bamgbade

For most ‘Generation Xers’ like myself, growing up in the suburbs in the early 80s was fun. You are assured of greeneries and cell-improving phytochemicals that are devoid of pollution. Crime is reduced to minimal levels; you get better psychological health plus a relatively cheaper cost of living. City centres were not as tremendously attractive then as they are today.

However, the recent unbroken upward trend of population concentration in our cities has created situations for governments and urbanists who must constantly scramble to preserve, optimise and manage resources. If the United Nations’ projection is anything to go by, the urban population will expand to nearly 6.5 billion by 2050 and rise astronomically to 8 billion by 2100.

With this persistent urbanisation trend, cities are now faced with the significant challenges of providing more infrastructure, improved health services and ‘smart’ management of energy resources for more efficient living, thus achieving ultimately ‘efficient’ societies.  This led to a proliferation of discourse on the idea of smart cities as the future of the global urban landscape. But how smartly can our cities solve these difficulties using new technologies? How smart are the priorities?

Tech giants have posited that smart cities are novel revolutions to address the unintended consequences of the ‘dumb’ city designs of the previous decades. Issues such as global warming, overpopulation and health-related crises can now be simulated pronto within the model. They believe that efficiency will easily replace waste, and accurate predictions and early warnings will supplant hazards and disasters.

The assumption is that the smart city model will revolutionise city governance of hundreds of millions of people. With the preponderance of virtual assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and other smart home security applications, the ideas of smart cities have come to stay as the future of urbanism.

Smart city experiences around the world abound and are fascinating. Denmark recently lunched ‘Copenhagen Connecting’, among other numerous smart city initiatives, to track connected devices and generate information for traffic optimisation, congestion reduction and ultimately reducing air pollution.

Barcelona developed an open-source platform, called ‘Sentilo’, to integrate data from sensors and make it available to information systems across the city for a greener and more energy-efficient city. The process was able to save up to 5,729 MWh/year of primary energy, while the CO2 emissions reduced to 1,610 tonnes every year since Sentilo was launched.

In Songdo, a smart city in Seoul, South Korea, an Online Electric Vehicle Technology (OLEV) transportation system which makes use of magnetic fields for public buses’ electricity generation was initiated. The city was equipped with an IoT Cube’s lab where real-time data from the citizens were obtained by the tech firms to proffer smart solutions and innovations.

Other countries in the global South have also made tremendous progress in recent times. The Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA) has set lofty objectives (in such diverse areas as physical infrastructure and utilities; housing and urban development; and transport, logistics and supply chain) for the evolution of the smart city in their major cities. While the goals are impressive, preparedness and rightly set priorities are key.

Several of these models are springing up in different parts of the world, and it is becoming a part of governments’ electoral promises. However, keen observers have noted that proponents should, at the same time, address the more pressing needs of the people. Otherwise, smart city models could end up being socially ‘dumb’. There are already concerns about data privacy and security, since data will mostly be managed by the government agencies and the private companies (smart city initiatives are notably piloted as public-private partnership arrangements, if not exclusively launched by private companies).

Commercial gentrification is also a huge concern as small businesses, start-ups and landowners may be evicted from their lands and livelihoods to pave way for big corporations. But cities are expected to accommodate the varying interests of diverse dwellers – corporations or individuals, rather than the economic interests of companies and ambitious politicians who wish to score cheap political wins. The argument here is that while a city may become smart by deploying modern technologies, it would be foolhardy to disregard the people’s basic needs and environmental protection.

In my opinion, if the important T’s are not crossed and I’s dotted, the concept of smart cities could be a mythical embodiment of digital ubiquity where the smart city transition is equated to smartphones apps that assumedly solve all problems. I strongly feel that the proponents of smart cities should be apolitical, and the promises of efficiency and convenience should not be illusory.

I say this because if priorities are not appropriately set, smart city concepts could be a utopia – an idealistic and unachievable scheme of transformation – which could fail to recognise the inherent human nature.

We can smarten the very fabrics of the urban infrastructure, but our cities may, at the same time, remain rife with inequalities and injustices where community engagement is restricted to a smart app, and where city administrators depend on public surveillance apps for behavioural control. The civic authorities need to appreciate the fact that cities are already the locus of socio-political and monetary differentiation. The concept should do more of addressing inequities rather than a further aggravation of an already tense atmosphere towards increased criminality.

Smart city postulations are better redirected towards creating liveable cities which are predicated on biodiversity and steady consumption of renewable energies. Achieving this will require deliberate civic engagement and the provision of unique opportunities for the public to learn about the rudiments of smart cities. The ‘energy literacy’ concept of Golaszewski is a case in point. Smart cities models should concentrate on cleanliness, improved air and water quality, and reduced sundry pollutions.

Dr Jibril Adewale Bamgbade is lecturer from the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at jbamgbade@swinburne.edu.my.