There are 4 challenges that smart cities and Smart Nation have to overcome

By Alvin Soon - on 09 Nov 2016, 11:11am

Image credit: Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.

People have been trying to fuse technology and urban design to create better cities for ages. The earliest cities grew organically, but cities in the third millennium BC already showed signs of intentional planning.

So the idea of a smart city isn’t something new as much as it’s something upgraded — a city that isn’t just planned, but better planned as a result of using modern information and communication technology.

You could say that the smart city idea is now ripe for its time, with the prevalence of smartphones, Internet connectivity, cheap sensors and the technology to manage big data. The idea has certainly spread, with various countries around the world like Singapore, South Korea and the Netherlands driving their own smart city initiatives.

Even major tech companies are also getting into urban design. Y Combinator, the startup incubator behind companies like Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit, recently revealed a new research project for building better cities. Amazon, IBM and AT&T are participating in smart city challenges in the United States.

But there are four major challenges facing cities as we rush towards this dream of intelligence.

1. Access to utilize tech infrastructure

The first is how the benefits of technology can only be reaped if you have access to it and know how to use it.

The smart city reality will soon be one whereby harvesting you as a data point will be by default, for example, if you’re part of the long queue that’s waiting for a bus. But benefitting from this collection will be by opt-in, for example, if you have or don’t have access to the app that tells you where you can catch an alternative bus.

2. Technology doesn't necessarily improve lives

The second is how a more technologically advanced city is not automatically a better city to live in. The United Nations’ World Happiness Report for 2016 ranked Denmark as the happiest country in the world. In contrast, some of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, like Japan, South Korea and the United States, didn’t even make it into the top ten.

3. Understanding the complexity of metrics

The third is to understand the complexity of metrics. Installing broadband wireless throughout a city with masses of sensors is actually the easier part; how to understand the data and create a higher quality of life from it is the tougher follow-up. If we discover that a certain section of a bus route is especially busy during rush hour (as Singaporeans already can on the website), we can conclude that one solution is to increase the numbers of buses during this section to ease busloads. So who’s incentivized to do that, and more importantly, who pays for it?

4. Privacy and security

While collecting data on overall road traffic might not be a real privacy issue, it might be if cities start tracking cars individually, as Singapore as plans to do with its satellite-based road pricing system. Should this data be collected in the first place, and if it is, how will it be guarded so that it’s not readily hacked?

Nobody would argue that less information is better than more, and that a less connected city is better than a well-connected one. The devil however, is in the details, and it behooves us to develop a smart city, smartly.

In the past, urban planners argued whether the best cities were designed or organic, and history has provided successful as well as failed examples of both. In the future, we might have a third alternative — a planned city that’s grown out of the organic collection of data. If this future city can solve problems of inclusive, quality of life, comprehensive and security, then perhaps we can call it a smarter city.

This post originally appeared in the August issue of HWM.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Former Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.

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