Smart city technologies not only improve the convenience, comfort of daily lives, they also help people develop their potential.
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By Poon King Wang and Lim Wee Kiat
August 4, 2015
The phenomenal pace of technological advances in the last two decades and the many benefits they have brought about give cities
tremendous hope that technology can make cities more productive, efficient, and liveable.
Hence, much of the focus on smart cities so far has been about developing “smart” technologies and infrastructure to enhance the business environment, improve municipal services, and raise citizen participation and engagement. The initiatives often focus on nurturing innovation eco-systems, developing breakthrough technological solutions, and training the population, especially the young, in programming and STEM skills.
Other typical initiatives focus on reducing barriers to doing business for companies large and small, and making life more convenient for people. These include cutting commute time (eg harnessing urban data for “live” bus schedules), reducing regulatory hassles (eg easy electronic filing of taxes over mobile devices), and improving supervision (eg remote monitoring the elderly at home). All these initiatives hold great promise, creating many opportunities to transform cities, and to better people’s lives.
Developing human potential in smart cities
One thing is often missing in the discussion on smart cities: the enormous opportunity to develop human potential. Smart city technologies
and infrastructure are not only capable of improving the convenience and comfort of daily lives, they can also help people develop their potential. Indeed, people flock to cities for multiple reasons, but seldom because of snazzier technologies. They do so because these places hold the promise of a better life. Not having a strategy to help people towards fulfilling their potential is thus a missed opportunity. That would be a pity because such a strategy could very well be the greatest opportunity of all for a smart city.
“What is a city but the people?”
Firstly, anyone can now access other cities worldwide for expertise, advice, training, and support at a fraction of the cost and speed of even five years ago. The tools, platforms, and processes that make this possible have become more sophisticated, more user-friendly, and more affordable (even free) for anyone who is driven to use them. It does not matter whether one is six or 60, everyone can now “raise their game” faster and to higher standards, potentially even to global benchmarks.
Secondly, the ability to reach out to the world means that it matters even less whether one’s interest and aptitude belong to a niche. You name it, the world likely has it. From the fine arts to the physical sciences, sports to cyber-gaming, and hard skills to soft, everyone now can choose where and who can help them the most and how.
The limit is no longer the size of one’s niche, but the scale of one’s drive, discipline and determination.
“The passion of the people of Singapore is an under-utilised resource.”
—Peter Schwartz, Futurist and cofounder of Global Business Network
In fact, cultivating skills and interests is only the beginning. Thanks to many of the technologies and infrastructure that are now core to smart city initiatives, the possibilities now extend into markets, talent and production. The constraints of the past – technical skills, cost of technology, expertise, data, services, communication channels, and marketing networks – have shrunk tremendously.
The world of opportunities expands rapidly. Just imagine what it could mean for people at different points in their lives.
Imagine the possibilities that are available for someone like Adithya Rajesh, a six-year-old boy who lives in Choa Chu Kang. Adithya recently qualified for the Singapore Chess Federation National Junior Squad by using the Internet to spar with chess players worldwide to improve his skills. In the future, Adithya could:
♦ Discover more about oneself. As Adithya grows up into a teenager, the sensors in the city combined with the sensors on him (through wearable technology) would give him environment, cognitive and biological data.
He could analyse this data in the cloud using an online service that simplifies data analytics and presents it visually for easy interpretation. He could compare the results with available open-data sets, discuss them with like-minded teenagers here, and consult the opinions of experts in other cities.
He could then make decisions about how to become healthier, eat better, and to perform optimally at play and in school.
♦ Help others better. As a young adult, Adithya and his friends decide to start a regional community service project. They want to help the sizeable elderly group who have difficulty walking due to injuries and weakened joints.
They develop empathy for what this elderly group is experiencing in different cities by using virtual reality and simulation technologies to “walk in their shoes”, augmented with updated video footage from consumer drones-on-demand. They team up with volunteers from the elderly group. Together, they pick up skills and ideas from nano-Massive Open Online Courses and open source design databases.
Equipped with empathy, skills, and ideas, they co-design flexible low-cost 3D-printed leg braces that can be worn like a piece of clothing, that also have embedded sensors that detect problems early. With the help of this innovation, the elderly group are no longer hindered from leading active lives.
♦ Become Citizen-x. After working for several years, Adithya finally feels that he can afford to set aside more time for himself.
Should he continue learning disappearing traditional hawker food recipes, like he has been doing for the last three months while commuting on the autonomous public bus?
Or should he develop one of the business ideas he has been exploring? Or should he do more for society, as he relished doing so with his elderly community project when he was younger?
He decides to marry all three. After all, citizen-journalists, -photographers, -fashionistas, -artists, and -designers have become the norm, and some have been able to make a living from them. He chooses to be a citizen-hawker food scientist. With advanced food analytics, science and equipment increasingly accessible and affordable, he could uncover more of the scientific secrets of hawker food. He is hopeful this could be a new hobby, a new career, and a new way to preserve a tradition and culture that is loved by so many in the city.
Several of these possibilities already exist in their early forms, and are accessible to people to build on them. However, many are not tapping into them yet because of a gap in awareness, knowledge, and capacity.
They will need to if they want to seize the potential opportunities. They will have to be imaginative and “mix and match” different technologies, infrastructure, and resources to pursue the outcomes they desire.
This in turn suggests that cities need to consider how people can be “smart city ready” and what is basic “smart city literacy”.
These may be crucial to prepare and enable people to develop, or even realise, their potential.
Four areas need to be addressed:
♦ Skills: What skills must every smart city resident, of any age, be equipped with?
♦ Knowledge: How can cities ensure people have the knowledge and capacity to fully participate in and benefit from smart city technologies and infrastructure?
♦ Process: How should people be part of the decision-making process in selecting and deploying technology? How can this process take into account minority views and identify likely challenges along the way?
♦ Accessibility: How can the technologies, infrastructure, and services be designed to be accessible and affordable, so that segments of the city are not inadvertently disadvantaged and excluded?
Finding the answers to these questions might very well present the greatest opportunity in smart city initiatives. Now that everyone has levels of access to a broader range of resources and powerful technologies that were unimaginable even just five years ago, cities have the opportunity to consider how these can be integrated thoughtfully into their smart cities initiatives. If cities do this, they can move people closer to realising their potential.
That way, cities would not only create the environment for people to live well in a smart city, they would also enable them to flourish in one.
A smart city of little red dots
Singapore has embarked on its own smart city initiative to build a Smart Nation. It has articulated a bold vision to make Singapore an even better city in its next 50 years.
Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative builds on its success of using technology. It successfully plugged into global markets, production and networks, and became the little red dot that could.
The strides made by technology since then have been staggering. The powerful technologies both cities and people have access to now multiply what cities can do, and individuals can plug themselves into global markets, production, and networks too.
We are all individually little red dots now.
The test for Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative 50 years from today will be if the smart technologies and infrastructure it invested in has helped its people realise their potential, making the leap into little red dots that could.
Mr Poon and Dr Lim are respectively Director and Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKY CIC), Singapore
University of Technology and Design (SUTD); additional contributions from Dr Mohan Rajesh Elara, Dr Hyowon Lee, Gayathri Balasubramanian and Akshay Rao (all from SUTD)