A city is 'smart' when investments in human and social capital and traditional and modern communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth, due to the wise management of natural resources through participated governance. The UN forecasts that Asia-Pacific’s impending population expansion to 5 billion people by 2050 will mainly occur in cities resulting in rapid urbanisation. Asian city planners will need to consider whether their locale should adopt a smart city strategy at the policy design stage, as the vast majority of people still live in rural areas.
The benefits cited of the smart city concept include its ability to draw new greenfield technology to empower businesses, and its potential to transform cities into greener and richer places to live in. However, as with any new concept, there are other issues to consider.
First, not all long-term effects can be identified or quantified through a cost-benefit analysis. The impact of developing new technological and networked infrastructures may also be adverse to the majority of city dwellers.
Second, in training smart citizens, the shifting of core educational skills to reflect more smart components will only benefit a minority of Asian citizens in the information and communications technology (ICT) space. In Singapore, the ICT sector constituted only 4.2% of its 2 million workforce in June 2012. Thus, from a job enhancement view, Singapore being promoted as going 'smart' hardly promotes economic efficiency or job creation.
Third, other promising development alternatives may be overlooked if Asian cities narrowly focus on trying to be smart. Land use for greater industrial development may be better utilised if it benefits the majority of city dwellers, rather than just a narrow smart niche segment.
Finally, in the collection of institutional arrangements and resources that constitute a programme of managing smart land use, housing, and education, Asian city planners have to address the regulatory and financial aspects before seeking a smart city agenda.
There are only a few Asian cities that can currently be considered as truly smart, and perhaps that is a competitive advantage. Yet it is important to avoid excessive modernist planning. It is key to remember the end goal of enhancing the majority’s welfare, rather than just adopting the latest academic or business concept for the benefit of just a few people.
Lawrence Yeo is CEO of AsiaBIZ Strategy, a Singapore-based consultancy that provides Asia market research and investment/trade promotion services. E-mail: Lawrence@asiabizstrategy.com